It’s all about the timing. Captain America was a little dull in the 1940s – an all-round good guy, an unabashed symbol of wartime propaganda. But stick him in a freezer and bring him to the 21st century, and he becomes a badass outcast. That’s when it gets interesting. The idea of a man removed from his time is something the previous Marvel films have barely touched upon, with the exception of a few tech-related gags.
Faced with an increasingly controlling SHIELD, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) finds himself uncomfortable taking orders. “This isn’t freedom, this is fear”, he snaps. And so the all-American hero begins to have doubts about those he serves. Things get worse when the agency comes under attack and nobody knows who to blame.
'The Winter Soldier' is an unusual Marvel picture in that it actually feels vaguely sensible. It seems an odd move considering the series is heading towards intergalactic warfare, but gone are the brighter shades of 'The Avengers'. The vibe is primarily that of a 1970s political conspiracy thriller, unexpectedly made more poignant by recent NSA intelligence scandals. Picking at shadowy government practices is a bold move, and allows the film to strike a more mature tone.
Action is used very effectively, coming in short bursts of savagery. There are no repetitive, Michael Bay-esque extended segments of cars being flipped over - the violence is up close and to the point, like a wrench to the face. After all the CGI and inter-dimensional fluttering of 'Thor: The Dark World', it’s refreshing to see something a little more grounded. Not Christopher Nolan’s kind of grounded, of course. Marvel has steered clear of that. Nothing is weighed down by the kind of tedious despondency that threatened to drown 'The Dark Knight'.
Despite its more mature ambitions, 'The Winter Soldier' never forgets its roots in a comic book about a man with a killer frisbee. Heavier moments are nicely balanced with nicely timed, well-scripted humour. Outlandish elements are celebrated, not excused or glossed over. There’s something hilariously ironic about a man who hits people with a shield, and he does that a lot. There are plenty of nods and winks to the past, although these are subtle enough that you won't catch all of them until a second viewing, and newcomers won’t feel left out.
Most importantly, there's room for characters to develop. The Cap's continuous struggle to understand modern society is an endless source of entertainment. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow is finally promoted beyond ass-kicking duties, and Anthony Mackie's amiable Falcon (think backpack with Buzz Lightyear wings) is a welcome addition.
There will come a point when these films reach critical mass, when all of these characters and overlapping storylines become too much for Marvel to handle. But for now we seem safe. 'The Winter Soldier' is possibly the studio's strongest outing yet, and most certainly the Captain's.
'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' is out in UK cinemas on Friday, through Walt Disney Pictures.