Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Cobie Smulders and Antony Mackie
This review contains spoilers for Captain America 2, Iron Man 3 and Agents of SHIELD as well as the MARVEL phase 2 movies.
After a Captain America origin flick, two movies concerning Thor, three about Iron Man and the utterly brilliant Avengers movie, we're no longer worrying whether or not Marvel Studios will strike the right balance in the films they bring out. We know they will. As we gain more experience of the world that Jack Kirby and his cohorts created under the tutelage of Stan Lee, things are very definitely coming together and it's time to start connecting the dots. For sure, any reader of the comics over the last fifty or so years will realise that there are holes in the world that Marvel are currently playing in; thanks to pesky lawyers, the X-Men only appear when Fox Studios have control of the budget, Spiderman can only appear in movies when Sony Studios are pulling the strings (or should that be webs?) and just in case you forgot about him, The Sub-Mariner will only appear in movies shot by Universal Pictures. It's... complicated. Worse still, Fox's lawyers even nailed down the rights to describe characters as "mutants" and that will prove an interesting point, as we shall see.
So, we arrive at the start of The Winter Soldier. The good Captain (Chris Evans) is less of a fish out of water this time round. He's out in the world, immersing himself in popular culture, with the help of friends like Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). He's built up a working partnership with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and even picking up on her references to films...
Black Widow (to herself, in a monotone):
"Do you want to play a game?"
(she reverts to her normal voice)
It's a movie...
Yeah, I got that. Seen it.
Ms Romanoff is doggedly trying to set Cap up with a suitable date even in the midst of perilous missions. But when it's revealed that Cap was not briefed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) on Black Widow's objectives for the first mission we see them carry out together, it becomes clear that Cap still doesn't trust anybody. And this is the core of the story: who can Cap trust? By extension, who can we trust? Here in the UK the TV show "Agents of SHIELD" is lagging a little behind the US. At the time of writing I've only seen up to the episode "Yes Men". The events of The Winter Soldier have yet to take place for Agent Coulson and the gang. But even here the issue of which characters are on which side has been clearly forgrounded. Not everyone is who they seem.
For Nick Fury, this issue is paramount, as he is about to launch Project Insight, a technological system which would not only snoop on every person on the planet, but leave them open to instant assassination. Fury is having Second Thoughts about this (rather late in the day, considering the fact that the launch of the three helicarriers forming the backbone of the system is imminent). The MacGuffin he's been given by Black Widow enables him to postpone the launch, but he doesn't entirely trust Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, giving a great performance with plenty of nods to Three Days of the Condor) whose idea the project is. Fury's trust issues are violently brought home when he is subsequently attacked in his SUV as he drives back from SHIELD's headquarters. The car chase is one of the most brutal, pounding sequences I have ever seen in a film and the stunt driving (filmed in Cleveland) is extraordinary. There are still gags while this is going on. Fury tries one voice-activated system after another in an attempt to thwart his pursuers, only to be told it's not working. The systems mentioned get sillier and siller, including "flight mode". Eventually, Jackson delivers the following line in his trademark exasperated manner:
Just what *is* working?
Air-conditioning is fully operational.
Just when it seems he's evaded his attackers, Fury is confronted by a mysterious masked figure who stops the SUV by blowing it several dozen feet into the air with an RPG. Fury manages to escape to Cap's apartment with a magic wand (it might as well be, for the amount that it's explained) and delivers the film's MacGuffin to Captain America together with an obligatory "trust no one" message before apparently being fatally shot by the same mysterious figure. Cap gives chase and discovers that the assassin has a metal arm and is capable of matching his physical prowess. He even catches Cap's shield and throws it back at him. Whoever the masked man is, he manages to evade Cap by jumping off a building. Then things go from bad to worse. Cap's paranoia has hardly had time to build up before the good guys really do try to kill him. Being the superhero that he is, Cap successfully escapes and runs for the hills - well, New Jersey - with Black Widow in tow, as she was the one who gave Fury the MacGuffin in the first place.
And that brings us to the most interesting sequence in the film, where Evans and Johansson find themselves in Cap's old training camp. Below it, they find a cavern filled with 1960s computer gear complete with row upon row of cabinet-sized data tape recorders. As this discovery is made, Cap and Black Widow discuss how the chief bad guy must be someone high up in SHIELD, someone capable of reading all of SHIELD's computer files. Whoever this mysterious entity is, they are capable of establishing where anyone is, at any time, because they have access to all the data that there is.
It's not said, but is clearly implied that this same person can extrapolate data and predict where someone will be in the future. I realised at this point that it's not a person in SHIELD who is reading the computer files, it's the computer itself. When this sank in, I actually said "Oh, bloody hell" in the theatre. Because I'd realised that the computer is The Clairvoyant that agent Coulson and his gang have been chasing. And then we meet it, or rather him: Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) has transferred his consciousness into the computer. Zola talks to Cap and Black Widow via old-style green screen computer terminals.
Zola created the Winter Soldier; it's Cap's old pal Bucky. But the main threat of the film is also revealed. Zola has infiltrated SHIELD, turning it into a modern incarnation of HYDRA. This is the film's painfully relevant, post-Snowden message: all those computer systems that the government operates aren't there for your protection, they're there to help decide whether or not you're a threat. "This isn't freedom," Cap has already told Fury, "It's fear." In the MARVEL universe, those systems are indeed there to help usher in a New World Order. Project Insight will be Zola's Final Solution, allowing him to wipe out HYDRA's enemies and take over the world. He delivers a fine "I have already won" speech and then calls in an apparently suicidal airstrike on his bunker in an attempt to kill Cap and Black Widow.
And at this point there are striking parallels with Iron Man 3. We think we know who the bad guy is, but at a stroke he is taken out of the equation - Trevor Slattery, the man "whose Lear was the talk of Croydon" is no megalomaniac threat. Here, the evil computer Zola is apparently toast. The thing is, any savvy computer team are going to have backups. I am quite convinced that Zola will return, possibly in his body suit, for future scraps with the good guys. The titular threat, Cap's old friend Bucky, is not the Big Bad either. Instead it's Robert Redford and HYDRA. As in Iron Man 1 and 3, the significance of the initial threat is undermined, which I guess is to stop us wondering why in Iron Man 3, Iron Man didn't call in the Hulk and his pals, or why Cap hasn't called in Tony Stark and Thor to help out here. A plot initiated by an evil computer is something that Black Widow and Captain America are expected to deal with on their own.
From this point on, the film follows a more predictable course, as Cap and Black Widow call on Sam Wilson for help. Wilson conveniently turns out to be another superhero called The Falcon. The three of them are apprehended, only to escape with that same magic wand that Fury used. From then on it's more or less plain sailing. With the help of a few more bits of magic they team up with a resurrected Nick Fury and Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) to take down the bad guys and stop Project Insight from killing everybody, just as we always knew they would. The final scrap takes place on board all three helicarriers and SHIELD headquarters, and it's expertly directed. At no point do you lose track of who is where, and the size of the stakes that everyone is playing for is brought home with little vignettes where minor characters have to make their decisions as to which side they're on. Some of those minor characters die. Others are likely to become major characters later on - this is MARVEL we're talking about here, after all. But the fight is far more realistic than most superhero movies. We know these folks are getting hurt. They don't come out of this with their hair perfect and their complexions pristine. This is a brutal battle, and we know it. It's worthy of the stakes they are playing for.
More than anything I'm left feeling sorry for Sebastian Stan. Despite the fact that the film's subtitle is "The Winter Soldier" his eponymous character feels curiously incidental to the plot. We all know that Bucky will eventually recognise the friendship of his old pal, it's just a matter of how that happens. His character arc is just a sideline to that of Zola's. And in that respect a lot of the final act of the movie just feels like a set-up for the next one. There's a little too much "things are afoot" going on for my tastes, and I would have preferred a plot that could stand more comfortably on its own. But we're well into Stan Lee's Grand Scheme of Things at this point, so that was never going to happen. Batroc the Leaper and Crossbones are still out there, and I'm sure they'll return too.
And then there's those scenes in the credits. We see Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch, but for legal reasons their HYDRA minder refers to them as "miracles" rather than "mutants". Now these two characters are most definitely part of the X-Men universe. Yes, they're MARVEL characters, but without Wolverine or Cyclops or Professor X on the scene, their presence feels terribly out of context. I appreciate that this is all about setting up the bigger picture. Maybe MARVEL are planning some massive legal deal to bring everything together, I don't know. I do know that when you tell me a story, I expect to be satisfied, satiated. Here I just felt that things were just getting started. In a good way, to be sure, but most definitely lacking any sense of conclusion or resolution. I felt that I was being played, like a rube in a shell game. And for that reason I'm going to knock off a star for this review.
Chris's rating: Four Stars