After the stunning success of The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble, if you must) there was a feeling of “well, how will Marvel top this?” and to their credit the subsequent movies weren’t simply Avengers 1.5. Iron Man 3 followed soon after so it had the most of the post-Avengers fallout to deal with, but director/writer Shane Black still made a typical Shane Black film, minus the cursing. Thor: The Dark World saw the titular demi-god wrestle with his new-found responsibilities on Asgard and his love of Earth, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier follows through with that theme of the displaced hero, as the thawed-out WWII super-soldier Steve Rogers struggles to find his place in a world which has moved on. But more than that thematic through-line is the fact that the Thor and Captain America follow-ups play like direct sequels to their respective movies, which highlighted Marvel's continuing commitment to their characters whilst still serving their over-arching storylines (unlike certain other summer blockbusters which trade continuity and characterisation for incessant CG destruction).
The Winter Soldier begins with Rogers (Chris Evans) running ops for SHIELD alongside fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) under the auspices of Director Nicholas Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). As Rogers catches up with an old friend and makes a new one in the form of war veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), disturbing rumours begin to fly about SHIELD being compromised from within, and then comes the revelation that Fury himself may be behind it. But after Fury is ambushed by a mysterious figure from Roger’s past and the running of the organisation is left solely to Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Captain America is forced to go underground and discover the sinister truth for himself, uncovering a conspiracy which will shake SHIELD (and indeed the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe) down to its very foundations.
Directed by prolific TV helmers Anthony and Joe Russo, The Winter Soldier is that rare cinematic treat: a blockbuster with brains. Admittedly, it’s not as labyrinthine an epic as it thinks it is, but neither does it tie itself in knots with the nonsensical plotting that plagues so many of these big ‘tentpole’ movie releases. It presents its story with drive and energy and wit, bolstered by a winning performance from Chris Evans and some thrilling action scenes. The action has been staged with a minimum of CG but a maximum of practical special effects (until we get to the finale, anyway) which gives it a visceral slam-bang quality that I haven’t experienced with a Hollywood action movie in quite some time. It’s not just Shakey-Cam for the sake of it though as the editing is excellent, keeping up a fast pace without ever losing track of the geography of the scene, be it frenetic car chases, chilling shootouts on city streets or crunching fistfights (which showcase some killer MMA moves). Kudos to the brothers Russo and their editing team of Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt for creating such dynamic but intelligible action sequences.
Yet it’s not just about the action. The narrative is just as enthralling in a slow-burning way, weaving several story strands from Cap’s past and his future into one cohesive tale. There isn’t a single plot development that feels forced or arbitrary, the screenplay organically leading from one scene to the next, and it still manages to work in snatches of the quirky humour which the MCU is famed for. The more I watch The Winter Soldier the more I admire how well constructed it is. And, as an unashamed fan of the first Cap movie, I can’t emphasise enough how delighted I am that the sequel is indeed just that: a proper sequel which follows through on all of the loose ends from the first one and still delivers a thoroughly entertaining story of its own, which plays like a supercharged version of the conspiracy movies of yesteryear.
The movie inevitably devolves into the usual CG-heavy melee in the third act, however it’s built up enough goodwill by then that I can cut it some slack and just go with it. It’s a pity that the music is so utterly forgettable, as I had huge hopes for Henry Jackman’s score after what he did on X-Men: First Class, and the dialogue is occasionally a bit stiff (people tend to speak in statements rather than actually conversing with each other) but again the movie is so good that these minor faults can be overlooked. Captain America 3 is due in 2016, directed by the Russo brothers once again, but they’ll have to go some way to top this excellent effort.
Disney present the movie on two Blu-ray discs, one for the 2D version and one for the 3D (they’re not fans of the 2D/3D on one disc method). It’s worth noting that this UK release of the film includes the original US version of Steve Rogers’ notebook, and not the localised edition which played in UK cinemas. Did Cap really need to know about the 1966 World Cup?
The Winter Soldier was shot predominantly in anamorphic on the Arri Alexa (Marvel’s current go-to camera) and finished on a 2K DI, resulting in a 2.40 widescreen image which is faithfully translated on Blu-ray. Picture quality is very good, with sharp detail and surprisingly straightforward colour. I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just unusual to see a movie these days with such normal looking skin tones as opposed to the more common ‘stuck in a spray tan booth’ aesthetic, and the primaries are vibrant and strong. Black levels don’t always reach down as absolutely deep as I would like and a few shots have a dusting of noise and a touch of banding, but otherwise this digitally captured image is pristine.
The 3D version, converted from the original 2D photography, is like a lot of recent stereo conversions: it’s extremely competent but ultimately quite safe and mundane. There’s a fair sense of depth and separation yet it rarely pushes that depth too far. Its other attributes are similar to the 2D although the colour is more variable, with things like skin tones looking a little overcooked at times and the image is much darker in the lower-light shots. The 3D version of Thor: The Dark World was also much darker than its 2D counterpart, and I simply can't fathom why they'd crush down the black levels when they know that it'll be viewed with greatly reduced light output on 3D displays, especially active ones. Unfortunately the 3D conversion didn’t leave it all on the battlefield, but the 2D encode gets a 9/10 which is reflected in the score at the end of this review.
Below are two screencaps taken directly from the .mt2s streams of the respective versions. They are compressed so they do not represent a transparent copy of each capture, but the colour and gamma are accurate. Note the lobster-ish tinge to Cap's face and the darker appearance of the bulkhead behind him in the 3D. His hair has also been smoothed over as part of the stereo conversion, as has the noise which is obvious in the 2D but reduced in the 3D.
Audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless. The track has all of the things you’d expect from a modern multichannel mix, with thudding bass, clear dialogue and lots of interaction with the rear speakers as bullets zip around, shattered glass tinkles to the floor and various flying objects swoop around the sound stage. Some of the quieter stretches are a bit too quiet and lack the finest examples of all-round ambience that one may expect, but other scenes are excellent like when Cap and Black Widow discover the computer in the bunker, and as it comes to life you can hear the databanks chatter and whirr all around you. Expect to give your system a thorough workout with this one.
As for the bonus features, Marvel used to actually care about such things but since the Disney takeover extra features have been quite thin on the ground. On the Front Line is a 10 minute look at the action sensibilities of the filmmakers and their commitment to practical effects. On Set with Anthony Mackie: Cut The Check! is a brief 2 minutes of Mackie delivering his annoying catchphrase. Steve Rogers’ Notebook is another 2 minute featurette which explains the rationale behind the localised versions of Cap’s list of cultural events to catch up on. (Personally I think it was a cynical attempt to curry international favour for a movie called Captain America, and I’m glad that the UK disc is the original US version.)
The Deleted and Extended Scenes amount to no more than 3 and a half minutes of expository moments which were rightfully cut from the film, playable with or without audio commentary from the directors. Last of the video features are a typically unfunny gag reel and a trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy (which also auto-plays when you first start the disc). It’s an extremely disappointing package which is improved slightly by an audio commentary for the main movie, where the directors and screenwriters share an enjoyable chat-track detailing their filmic influences (I can't have been the only one who noticed their homage to Rocky III) and their collective experience of making the film.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best MCU movie by far, delivering a blistering action thriller that’s got a fair case for being one of the greatest comic book movies ever made. This UK Blu-ray delivers equally thrilling sound and 2D picture quality, though the 3D conversion is unremarkable and the roster of extras is slim. It still comes highly recommended, however.