We’ve been to see Captain American: The Winter Soldier.
In short it’s a rollicking adventure mainly, as I explained to my kids, “because Robert Redford!”. To which they were bemused. And you may be too, so I’ll explain - but beware, there are spoilers ahead.
The first two-thirds of the film, which sit on the line between thriller and action, and then bobbed from side to side, dipping into both as needed is excellent.
(The third act is a bit more predictably straightforward and bombastic, but it does that in a well, entertaining fashion.)
While making the film the directors, the Russo brothers weren’t candid about their intention to carry nods to 70s conspiracy thrillers.
And, man!, I loved them saying that! Seeking inspiration from the genre containing some of my fave films: All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, The Conversation, and the not-so-well-known Winter Kills (which has an amazing production story, documented in Who Killed Winter Kills?). The 70s, particularly its conspiracy genre, was a time Hollywood was funding some interesting projects shrouded in intrigue and paranoia, and questioning the real world - resulting in some great films.
And the Russos were talking about this about the same time Iron Man 3 came out, itself a great piece of fun, a Marvelised 80s buddy flick. The Avengers, Iron Man 3 and, to a lesser extent, Thor, had started to nudge Marvel’s films firmly into firmly interesting territory, and Captain America 2 looked to increase that feeling.
Shortly afterwards Robert Redford was cast as Alexander Pierce in the film. Redford is a great actor, a noted experienced head, but also a defining figure in the 70s conspiracy thrillers (All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor). This move definitely appealed to an older audience - or more cinema-savvy viewers.
What would Pierce’s role be? An introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to mark a “handing over”, like he’ll be the “next Nick Fury” - or would it be something else? Pierce’s absence from the Winter Soldier’s promotional material left this question hanging open tantalisingly.
Redford plays his chracter of Pierce with all the charmful authority you’d expect from, well, Robert Redford. And it makes sense that Robert Redford is in charge of the world’s security.
But when the reveal of Pierce as the big bad comes it isn’t that revelatory. It’s an about-face you suspect is coming, because having Robert Redford be a force for all good would be too easy, too obvious for a Marvel, who seem to be progressively contriving a more startling twist with each new film.
The problem Marvel faced and will continue to face - not just from a general expectancy from film watchers, but especially themselves since Iron Man 3 - is people expect an about-face. It’s a habit, an expectancy of modern cinema that the audience will witness a twist, a pivot, something unexpected. Marvel, of anyone, played this masterfully in the marketing and lead up to the release of Iron Man 3.
Ben Kingsley is the Mandarin! the film’s marketing told you. It didn’t hide that. Just look at that poster! “You won’t see me coming” was Kinglsey’s much-loved ominous line from the film’s trailer.
Watch Iron Man 3 and you walk away with a slightly different perspective: Kingsley’s character in the film turns out to be an actor playing the Mandarin. It’s a twist no-one saw coming (c’mon - no-one did), and the line in the trailer now carries an air of meta ominousity for anyone who has seen the film. So, Redford being the Big Bad: it’s the expected twist.
But still, having Robert Redford play the bad is so awesome because… Robert Redford!
The scene when it is finally laid bare that Pierce/Redford is the film’s bad is also a masterly scene in the film. Pierce’s calmness in the presence of the Winter Soldier is unnerving. And the “I wish you had knocked” line leads into a fantastic shot, cutting to outside the room, the home, the audience looking into Pierce’s home at nighttime - as they see Pierce execute his maid, against a static driven score.
In those couple of minutes the comic book world is dipped so deeply into the 70s films the Russos said they would borrow from. And it’s a fantastic, fantastic moment, laden with darkness of scene (nighttime, shadows) and character heightened by Redford’s presence - and possibly beyond most of the people younger than 21 at the showing we were at.
Expectancy - or at least building expectancy - is something Marvel do well (littered above are a few references to the marketing of their films) and their regular during- and post-credits scenes aid that. They tease so, so well! The Winter Soldier’s during-credits scene sets up something already anticipated, the second Avengers film. But the post-credits scene from the Winter Solider is the most exciting for me. This scene in the epilogue for the film I have just seen, and the prologue for something we don’t know about yet. (As my son said: “Dad. He looks angry.” And, by God, he does.)
This translates into confidence for Marvel’s films at the moment, and their upcoming slate just heightens that: Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers 2, and Ant Man. That last film in particular is the most intriguing from a studio knowing how to entertain satisfyingly working with a highly confident director of thrillingly entertaining films, Edgar Wright. Heck, the reason I want to see Ant Man? Because Edgar Wright.
And Marvel and Wright have already got a great cast together for Ant Man, including an actor in the same ilk as Redford: Michael Douglas. But please don’t make him the big bad of Ant Man. Why? Because we’ll be expecting it now. Because Robert Redford.