The previous Captain America movie, The First Avenger, was quite enjoyable until the very end, which left the whole experience ultimately underwhelming, so would Marvel’s growing experience of expanding their ‘universe’ give them more confidence and daring in this follow-up?
This starts with Captain America, the genetically enhanced World War II ‘Super Soldier’ Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), first seen fighting the uber-Nazi organisation, Hydra, on a plane, about to embark on a mission. Revived after 65 years of accidental cryogenic storage (at the end of the first film), he is now established as a regular agent for Shield, with some seniority from his experience in The Avengers. Shield is the world-wide agency set up to defend the world from existential threats, whether originating in criminal conspiracies, super-powered individuals, or alien visitation. Shield has been instrumental in organising reaction to threats in several Marvel films to date, and in the TV series, Agents of Shield. Nonetheless, Rogers still has serious reservations about the organisation for whom he works; growing up in a simpler age when he knew who his enemies were and for what he was fighting, he regards the modern surveillance society with huge suspicion.
His mission being to rescue hostages from a ship that has been boarded by pirates, Rogers is furious to learn that the mission, which he ostensably commanded, was actually only a small part of a larger mission, in which Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) was directed to retrieve information on the “Insight” programme, an intensive intelligence/monitoring system about to come on line. When the director of Shield, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) is shot, Captain America and Black Widow set out to uncover a conspiracy that has links to Rogers’ past, but with the whole apparatus of Shield devoted to stopping them, directed by Fury’s friend and World Council bureaucrat Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).
There are quite a few things to like in this film. For a start, the issues that so disappointed me about the first one – the lack of any investigation by Rogers of his past, or reflection on what he had lost (surely the strongest dramatic element of the entire story) is addressed at last, on one occasion heartbreakingly. For another, there is a serious philosophical/political discussion about the modern obsession about security, the post-Snowden issues of privacy, and what this may mean for freedom. In a ‘popcorn movie’, that’s quite an important statement. Even if the solution is a little simplistic, the fact that the question is asked at all matters. The ambition of a studio willing to mess up the world they’ve created is pretty impressive too.
What stops the film from being really satisfying, then? This probably sounds silly, given that I’m considering a costumed superhero movie, but it’s that the scope of the threat is unbelievable. Even in a fantastical setting, the world created has to be coherent and believable, and I simply baulked at the scale of the villainy, which was so huge that I found myself shaking my head and saying to myself “no chance”. It also suffers a little from Marvel’s perennial obsession – the sacrifice of dramatic integrity of the film being made in order to set up or tease another film to come. Many people left the cinema as soon as the credits began to roll, and most left after the mid-credits teaser but, of course, there was another teaser at the end – and it was only the second that added anything to the film we’d just watched. Given the title of the film we’d seen, this last teaser-trailer seemed almost insulting, as “The Winter Soldier” barely featured in the this film but seems more important for some future offering.
Like the first, then, it is flawed. Unlike the first, however, it doesn’t save up all its flaws until the very last scene, so I didn’t come out of the cinema angry at the letdown but, instead, felt that I’d been pretty well entertained but that an opportunity to make a film as solid as The Avengers had been sadly thrown away.