The Cap continues to prove the most interesting of the Avengers in his second solo effort, which combines a politically charged espionage plot with the regular big canvas superhero exploits to largely winning effect. What’s most interesting about this latest chapter in the Marvel universe is how much time is spent extending and developing the “long game” rather than putting all its efforts into a self-contained story, as one feels the Thor films have been forced to do. In Winter Soldier we get to see a lot more of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and the potential for a romance with Steve Rogers is fanned considerably. Beyond that, however, she proves herself to be a notable asset in SHIELD’s arsenal rather than one of the trophy girls our big male heroes keep by their side.
SHIELD itself is a large part of the film, as we walk its corridors, meet a host of new and familiar faces that makeup the bureaucratic mechanics of this military/political institution, but by the end of the film its very existence is up in the air – a wise move on Marvel’s part, just as the formula was getting rote and tired. There’s time given to explore how Rogers is adjusting to life in the 21st Century, something The Avengers never really had the space for, while also introducing another potential side-kick in the form of Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. In fact with all these new characters, which also include Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce, and ensuring the likes of Cobie Smulders’ Agent Hill and Samuel Jackson’s biggest outing to-date for Nick Fury get their time to shine, there isn’t much left over for the titular Winter Soldier.
It’s difficult to keep getting breathlessly excited about these films, despite their consistently high quality and efforts to create an ongoing, engrossing narrative, but I must concede that as someone who will go see this kind of big budget product regardless of how good or bad it is, I am thankful that it does retain a modicum of intelligence. The problems within such coherent world-building is that they will always face smug criticisms such as “Why not just call Iron Man?” or slightly more seriously “Where’s Hawkeye and Bruce Banner in all of this?” – agents you suspect are normally based at SHIELD on a daily basis.
But we must accept that there is a grand plan, and directors Joe & Anthony Russo prove to be an incredibly assured choice to helm this high-stakes, high-octane action thriller that delivers thrills, laughs and a healthy dose of intrigue and dire consequence that should keep both committed fans and casual viewers engaged throughout. Just how they plan to link this with the upcoming space-set Guardians of the Galaxy, however, looks to be a far more difficult prospect altogether.