Captain America and Black Widow must outrun the daggers tearing at the cloaks of super spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Russo brothers’ exhilarating throwback to the action blockbusters of the nineties.
Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo / Written by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely / Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson / Cinematography by Trent Opaloch / Music by Henry Jackman / Production by Marvel Studios
Despite being a long-time comic book fan, I’m not particularly invested in Marvel’s comic book universe, the sheer vastness of which is a little off-putting to me as a comic reader whose introduction to the medium was almost exclusively through creator-owned titles. As such, my investment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is based less on the successful translation of beloved characters from page to screen and more on the excitement of seeing an improbably strong series of films bring the comic book crossover concept to fruition in the cinema. Before seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, I was by no means a pin-wearing Marvel zombie but with these two films, which establish the current state of both the Earthbound and cosmic MCU plot lines, I should now add myself to the baying, shambling hordes wringing their hands in anticipation of The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Ant Man (2015) and the nine films that Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige recently announced will take us through Phase Three: the Infinity War.
After leading the fight to save New York City from extraterrestrial invasion and banish Loki back to Asgard, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is working with super spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. to take down threats to world security and to S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. The first of many action sequences is a pacey, stripped-down set piece, in which Steve Rogers and fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) must stop a crew of international terrorists that have hijacked a S.H.I.E.L.D. missile carrier in the Indian Ocean. From the word go it is clear that there is something amiss with this mission (and the mission within this mission) but just as quickly as the seeds of doubt are sown they are skilfully covered over by some good old-fashioned ass-kicking.
Veterans of numerous Arrested Development episodes and off-beat black comedy Welcome to Collinwood (2002), directors Anthony and Joe Russo choose a distinctly nineties style for filming their set pieces. Though the fight choreography is rich with martial arts influences, the brothers’ use of fluid, sustained helicopter shots, focusing on actors in motion and deliberately paced mid-shots glued to a single point, maintain a sense of each fighter within the space, even as they move through a ship full of adversaries. This opening sequence not only sets the tone for how the brothers Russo intend to deliver the action over the next two hours but also how Steve Rogers remains a man trying to fight honorably in an increasingly fractured environment. In contrast to the agents around him, Rogers has not become another gadget, along with the black suits and guns that are the hallmarks of elite secret soldiers. Despite his slick costume update, he remains his own force, separate from S.H.I.E.L.D.
Returning to Washington D.C. it becomes even more evident that Rogers is an outsider at S.H.I.E.L.D. Within the broad, grey halls of S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ Avengers svengali Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is engaged in a battle of wits with S.H.I.E.L.D. executive Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). As the conflict between Pierce and Fury escalates and Rogers and Black Widow go on the run, Rogers’ old adversary once again raises its many heads and unleashes the brutal, terminator-like killing machine, The Winter Soldier, yet another curve ball from Steve Rogers’ past.
As Rogers, Chris Evans has never been bland or unconvincing as the world’s most humble and gentle giant beefcake. Here, for the first time in the MCU, his kind, unthreatening persona (the sort that jots down to-do list suggestions like ‘Thai Food’ and ‘Pisco’) is contrasted with moments of genuine menace. As S.H.I.E.L.D. collapses and spies are turning on each other left and right, the Russos stage a gorgeous, hyper tense hand to hand battle in an elevator. As the elevator fills up with increasingly massive and mean-looking black-shirted heavies, Rogers notes the sweat running down the backs of their necks and with equal parts charity and intimidation, he asks, “Before we do this, would anyone like to get out?”
The other face of the coin to Steve Rogers is Natasha Romanov, a.k.a. Black Widow – a quippy, unpredictable badass with no limit on the number of hidden agendas she can stuff into her catsuit. Since Scarlett Johansson first appeared in Iron Man 2 (2010), Agent Romanov has grown into an enduring fan favourite because of the powerful flashes of humanity that counterbalance Romanov’s acrobatic super-spy shenanigans. Fear, sexual desire and deep regret characterise Romanov in each film. She’s like a 21st-century iteration of Sean Connery’s James Bond, as comfortable dropping quips as she is dodging bullets but not so super that she loses her humanity or fallibility. Chills run up and down the spine when Johansson is given time to breathe with this character. When Steve Rogers confronts Agent Romanov at close quarters and to know what the hell is going on, Romanov, framed in close up opposite Rogers, allows herself one second for an undisguised glimpse down at the Captain’s trembling lips, and once she’s enjoyed that pleasant sight, she’s back in the game, calm and unhurried; when Black Widow is in control of a situation, we are all mere flies caught in her web.
The cloak-and-dagger culture of distrust and espionage at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s operations (and those of its enemies) could not be more at odds with Steve Rogers’ ethos. As such, it is the perfect setting in which to test the character’s resolve, reconfigure the status quo of the earthbound MCU, and reinforce a character defined by his superhuman ability to remain true to himself. This hyper-paranoid spy thriller format courts comparison with the cynical thrillers of the 1970s that inspired screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and the original writer of the Winter Soldier comic book arc, Ed Brubaker. Even the end credit sequence (the most graphical in the series so far) directly refers to Sydney Lumet’s The Parallax View (1974). But what the Russo brothers bring to the table is an overall flavour that is so like the action thrillers of the 1990s that it sets The Winter Soldier apart from the MCU visually.
The chilly blue-and-grey colour palette, the muted, functional lighting, low contrast colours and general lack of glowing objects bring to mind the likes of The Fugitive (1993) and Speed (1994) more readily than the bright colours and deep blacks of the Iron Man films and The Avengers or Joe Johnston’s sepia-toned fantasy from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The look is so outstanding from the MCU and almost any other modern blockbuster that the mid-credits stinger at the end of the film (shot by Joss Whedon’s crew and inserted to tease the supporting villains of The Avengers: Age of Ultron) is quite jarring and invites unfavourable comparisons between Marvel Studio’s established aesthetic and this film’s deliberate call back to a different time, when action was about soldiers with guns, not boys with toys.
There is also an old-fashioned touch to the Russos’ placement of subtle but on-the-nose symbolism within the production design to deepen the plot and add texture to the world our heroes and villains have made for themselves. Floor-to-ceiling panes of glass suggest transparency, whilst confining and separating characters. Multiplicity of objects is rife within the lairs of our villains, and vilainous tentacles reach far and wide with many agents. The most arresting lair of all is the vault of safety deposit boxes, where the Winter Soldier himself is kept to be tinkered with by nefarious scientists. The walls are composed of nothing but shiny, uneven boxes in which lurk thousands of secrets, surrounding and oppressing the greatest of their number, Sgt. ■■■■■ ■■■■■■, inferred to be the man who shot JFK.
Even during the obligatory preposterous final set-piece, Markus, McFeely and the Russos maintain a steady hand and don’t allow the emotional conflict within Rogers’ mission to become engulfed in flames and debris. I am salivating at the prospect of this creative team returning for Captain America: Civil War (2016), where they will most likely have Tony Stark’s arsenal to throw into the mix. Allowed even greater resources, well-established characters and another meaty enemy-within storyline to play with, it seems more than likely that they can raise the bar for the MCU even higher.