No, it’s not better than The Avengers, but it’s certainly a step above and a step to the side from other superhero films. CAWS brings back the dark days of the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970’s complete with Robert Redford, giving this Marvel creation a cooler, more sinister tone. Creating a world where Captain America (Chris Evans) and The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) can co-exist with the ins and outs of political intrigue is almost as big a triumph as making a film where all the superheroes get equal time and yet work together (The Avengers).
Of course the film has the prerequisite fights and scenes of massive destruction (can someone please come up with a reasonable alternative for destroying streets and large buildings?). The fight scenes are well done when things are filmed on a more comprehensive, massive scale; less so with the more intimate, “this time it’s personal” face-offs between CA and The Winter Soldier. The latter are a bit clunky at times.
Marvel is working on several levels at once to bring out the danger posed to SHIELD by Hydra. For those not on top of all this, our allegiance is to SHIELD (sort of), but we have lots of doubts about who the good guys and the bad guys are and who is working what angle. Hydra is an embedded group within SHIELD and they are the bad guys. Not being a comic book. Marvel or superhero nerd, that’s the best I can do. But the questions about loyalty, good causes, and who is really doing what to whom—those things that infused the ‘70’s political films—work well with the SHIELD/Hydra dynamic. The doubts that CA has with the modern world of warfare, intelligence gathering and the multi-layered agendas of everyone around him are stronger here than the first time around, and fit in snugly with the film’s landscape of intrigue and shadows.
The look of the film reflects the political undertones. This is a cooler color palette than we’re used to seeing, which dovetails nicely with the subdued tone of the film. What makes the film almost too cool at times is Evan’s performance. The New York Times rightly called Evans a “recessive screen presence,” and he underplays perhaps too much. We don’t need to see IronMan’s snark, the Hulk’s energy, Hawkeye’s intensity, or Thor’s princely breadth. But it would be nice to see a little more passion accompany this hero’s second thoughts and misgivings. But Evans still conveys a old-fashioned centered morality that few others could come close to.
The film gives Scarlett Johansson a much greater role than the first time around, and while she is often as underplayed as Evans, she brings an intelligence, humor and intensity to her role that balances CA nicely. The screenwriters also give her a good amount of humor, much is which is aimed at CA, which gives us all a breather from his quiet stolidity.
The two additions that command attention and screen time are the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) himself and another sort of superhero, Falcon (Anthony Mackie), also known as Sam. The Winter Soldier drives the plot, but is an imprecise screen presence, even with the emotional backstory they give him. Not sure if it’s the writing or the performance, but he doesn’t quite bring much more than a slight dark menace to the film, even while he admittedly “brings it” in the fighting scenes.
Much more successful an entry is made by Mackie (previously best known for The Hurt Locker), who owns the screen when he’s on, and brings a fully rounded, likable character to the series. He brings depth when necessary, as well as humor and a believable fighting style. Not sure if he can carry a superhero film of his own, but he sure brings a good deal of weight to this film.
It’s also nice to see Jenny Agutter slip out of her nun’s outfit in Call the Midwife and show up as a strong international leader.
As many have noted, what sets this apart is the retro vibe of films such as Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, among many others. If you let go, you are drawn into a tale here of shadows and intrigue, wondering what is real and who you can trust. As oxymoronic as it might seem, there is an intelligence here that doesn’t just bring a superhero story down to earth, but under the earth into caves and shadows of conspiracy and double- and triple-dealing where we begin to question everything and everyone. That’s quite a feat for a movie featuring a “Capsicle” from the ‘40s, another old soldier “reborn” and refit with a new and powerful arm, and a guy who can fly. We accept all of them and all of the political treachery as well. A risky combination, and it works.