The Captain America story was always the relatively grim one. At least in the Marvel cinematic universe. Iron Man had the playboy and billionaire jokes, Thor had the god from another world jokes and Hulk had the green monster and temper jokes. But Captain America cut a tragic figure albeit in low key. The first film had him transform from a man unfit for the army to a super soldier. It came with responsibilities and the curse of being forever young, almost immortal bound itself to him. His story ended in tragedy – losing his best friend in war, his relationship with Peggy Carter and then crashing his plane in order to save a lot of lives. Of course later we were told that he lost close to 70 years to sleep and woke up to Nick Fury’s grand scheme of the Avengers.
The first film gave the origins story and soon enough placed Captain America right in the middle of Avengers initiative. Then we got The Avengers and Steve Rogers simply couldn’t catch a break (possibly because he had a long 70 year break). There was never an attempt at a lighter note with this story until now. Steve Rogers, in an early scene here, makes a list of things he missed over all the years. Some pop culture like Star Wars and Star Trek (the question mark that follows Rocky 2 was a nice touch), some history like Berlin Wall (this one is a jagged edge; imagine a World War II veteran reading up on Berlin Wall in the 21st century) and some things as rudimentary as Thai food. But this is all just mutual acclimatization and from here the mood of the film is anything but light.
A lot of things about this film is deliciously old school. It is an old school suspense film with revelation after revelation – that has bearing on the Avengers universe – which makes it tough to talk about it without spoilers (nothing ahead). It is also an old school action film in the sense that it is a joy to see hand to hand combat so well choreographed in this world of missiles and launchers at fingertips. In this old school system, directors Anthony and Joe Russo manage to root the film firmly in the present. The threat of terrorism, the hunger for power within those who wield the means to contain it and the political rhetoric that shapes them are all thematically integral to the film. It even comments on the post-Snowden era with the knowledge of NSA’s mass global surveillance and data mining algorithms that sweep the web. Rogers’ line from an early scene in the film comes to mind, “This is not freedom. This is fear.“
With Captain America and Agent Romanoff on the run the film takes a great turn. The exquisite curlicue of this film’s screenplay keeps us glued even in the talky portions. In one of the film’s best scenes both of them find themselves in S.H.I.E.L.D’s secret underground base with primitive computers projecting the mind of a character from the first film. The exchange is chilling with a tinge of dark humor and Romanoff even gets to make a WarGames reference. The banter between Romanoff and Rogers is a great take away from this one and a lot of Johansson’s lines do not fall flat like they did in The Avengers. No character here is underwritten and that includes the antagonist the Winter Soldier and even Rogers’ neighbour nurse Kate. There is a reference to Pulp Fiction, Dr. Strange and there is Abed from Community playing a small role (Anthony and Joe Russo direct Community episodes) along with Marvel cinematic staples of name dropping Iron Man, Hulk and the customary Stan Lee cameo.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier has to be one of the best films in the Marvel cinematic universe. It’s a little darker than the mood Joss Whedon’s The Avengers went for but this is a welcome addition to the franchise. Even the end credits art is a beauty.
(An edited version of this was first published in The New Indian Express)