Currently in the middle of its “Phase Two” stage leading up to next year’s Avengers sequel, its becoming increasingly clear that Marvel Studios weakness is to turn their movies into broad (and not very funny) comedies in the hope of recreating the magic Joss Whedon gave The Avengers. Their last release, Thor sequel The Dark World, may be the studio’s most lacklustre effort so far, feeling more like a rival studio’s attempt to rip-off the superhero mash-up of comedy and mythology perfected by Whedon rather than an original spectacle from the people currently at the centre of the blockbuster universe.
So the employment of directors Joe and Anthony Russo, best known for directing episodes of sitcoms like Arrested Development and Community (whose star Danny Pudi makes an entertaining cameo here) and feature films like You, Me and Dupree, to direct the Captain America sequel gave natural cause for concern that the studio seemed more focused on making comedies. This is why I’m delighted to say that, whilst not without humour, it is the least funny Marvel offering yet, instead delivering frequent kinetic action sequences in place of laughs and a plot that feels heavily inspired by 70’s conspiracy thrillers.
Chris Evans returns as Steve Rogers, now working for SHIELD in Washington in a modern world he is still not fully adapted to two years after the events of The Avengers. After an assignment to save a vessel taken by Algerian pirates (the film’s first and best action sequence, channeling the realism of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies despite consisting entirely of a man dressed in the American flag twatting disposable goons with a shield) is interrupted by Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) stealing data from the ship’s computers, Rogers’ realises the agency he’s working for breaches the privacy of the world’s citizens in order to protect them, like an intergalactic NSA.
Soon, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is denied access to the files of the operation, and gets ambushed by a set of assassins led by the mysterious Winter Soldier. It’s a testament to the film that the action gets kicked off so early, as to say what happens next would constitute a major spoiler, but leaves Rogers and Romanoff on the run as rogue agents from SHIELD.
As with all the best conspiracy thrillers, the conspiracy itself isn’t important (especially when it’s as simplistic as it is here – this is a film aimed at children after all), but rather the emotional implications of the people tangled up in them. These are handled especially well here, with Rogers’ visit to the now ninety-something year old Peggy Carter shortly after finding out about the secret operation being a particular highlight.
The first 45 minutes of the film suggest that this could be Marvel’s best effort yet, but ultimately it falls way short of the mark. Although the character development is far better than any of the studio’s other efforts, and it stays committed to its conspiracy thriller stylisation, it’s the repetitive nature of the action sequences that proves to be the low-point. The first three set-pieces (on the hijacked ship, in a car chase with Nick Fury and Rogers attacking goons in a lift at SHIELD headquarters) are gripping, and far more violent than you’d expect a Marvel movie to be. However, once you’ve seen one shootout, you’ve seen them all, and I became frequently bored during the last half hour, save for the frequent character flashbacks and an enjoyable Robert Redford performance.
Despite the fact it runs out of steam, this has left me excited for the third Captain America instalment, and is a far superior film than the forgettable first outing.