Sometimes I can't decide if the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe "thing" is one of the most audaciously ambitious projects in movie history, or one of the safest. On the one hand, they're attempt to stitch together a coherent, multi-picture grand narrative out of blockbuster movies, holding faith in an audience to keep up with who is who and how it all hangs together. They're doing this by taking all sorts of risks with directors and actors, whilst missing many of the biggest names of the Marvel Universe. On the other hand, they're producing a succession of unchallenging tentpole movies geared towards the largest "four quadrant" audiences headlining with a bunch of white dudes doing the sort of actioneering we've all seen before. I mean, Captain America, right? He's a safe white dude who wears the American Flag, how safe can you get? Well, you get The Winter Solider, a movie that really does want to have it both ways.
Of course, Captain America comes with his own "problematic" payload. You only have to watch Man of Steel to see what happens when the creative team behind a property get the jitters about the associations an iconic character brings to the table. Like Superman, Steve Rogers is a relic of an earlier age, and whilst Captain America worked very well as a rousing period piece, and he fitted into the Avengers Assemble ensemble really neatly, how do you play that good old fashioned honour and duty stuff in the 21st Century. In Man of Steel they run away from it, washing everything out and gritting everything down, giving us a Superman who won't use the name and complains about his Dad. But The Winter Solider is having none of that, instead choosing to take the old-timey nature of its hero and make that the heart of the whole damn film.
We catch up with Captain Rogers a couple of years after the Battle of New York running missions for SHIELD and bantering with Black Widow over why he doesn't have a girlfriend. Of course, working for a spy agency is quite different from fighting the Nazi's, and working for a spy agency that his heading smartly for a whole bunch of lines you really shouldn't cross is the main plot, so soon Cap is on the run with a few allies, whilst things back in Washington escalate from bad to worse. The stakes steadily escalate, as to the set pieces, and the whole things in a fairly thunderous blaze of explosions that (shockingly) manage to appear in the damn trailer. Hmmm.
The big touchstone that has been mentioned in the publicity for this film is the 1970s heyday of the political thriller, and the presence of Robert Redford in the main cast only highlights that. The shots of Washington DC, the conspiracy based plot, the discussions of liberty and security, they're all their but crucially they remain window dressing rather than a substantive statement. This isn't a political thriller, not really, nor is it undertaking a serious discussion on role of the state surveillance apparatus. In fact, its big reveals largely undercut any conclusions anyway - of course what SHIELD is up is wrong, because in the end their goals are blatantly evil - but it all gives it a contemporaneous air to pit its heroes against.
I say "heroes" because this is an ensemble movie built around Cap, which works really well for it. He and Black Widow have a great sparring "buddy" relationship, further establishing her as a huge asset to the largely female-light pantheon of Movie Superheros. I'm not going to go into it here, but Marvel are already doing the best job of getting comic female heroes up on the big screen (and they're still a long way from perfect) and Widows near co-lead status here is welcome. Slotting in around them is a fun role for Nick Fury, who finally gets his own big action moment, and the arrival of Falcon, smartly appearing in a movie who's climax occurs mostly in the air.
Getting shorter shrift is the titular Winter Solider himself. Feeling oddly like an extended cameo, he's clearly there to be a credible threat - and he is - and to set up a third film. Similarly it was nice to see Agent 13 turn up and kick some ass but again, she felt like she was being introduced for the future rather than being an agent on the story here. And speaking of the future, where next for the Marvel Cinematic Universe? After all, they've just taken a lot of how their universe works, how everyone connects, piled it neatly in one place, and blew it all to hell.
As I get to the end of this review I realise that I've not really mentioned if the film is any good. Well, it is. Its really good. Its finely balanced between moving it's story forward and watching things explode, but the two elements are well integrated and largely serve each others purpose. Much of the films characterisation happens mid-action, and their a great sense of banter in the script that the cast deliver really well. The first couple of MCU Phase 2 movies have been good fun, but a little baggy, films that are entertaining almost despite some structural or plot problems but I think that The Winter Solider is much more finely machined. I guess it needed to be, in many ways.