The following article should be read while listening to Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” soundtrack:
One common observation about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (starting with 2008’s Iron Man and continuing this weekend with Captain America: The Winter Soldier) is that each of the films have a certain sameness about them, for better or for worse. The tone, structure, and visual aesthetic aren’t that different from picture to picture, with multiple characters and plotline crossing over. They feel more like glorified TV episodes with blockbuster budgets than individual stories with their own distinct look and feel. As a result, they lack the panache that have set Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films apart from other superhero films.
But every once in a while, a Marvel film gets a chance to stand out from the rest of the pack. Iron Man Three did it last year by masquerading itself as a Shane Black action-comedy (probably because it was actually co-written and directed by Shane Black) and Captain America: The First Avenger managed to evoke the feel of a classic World War II adventure film like The Rocketeer. So perhaps it’s only fitting that its sequel also breaks the standard Marvel mold, at least to an extent.
The one-liners, interconnecting references, overarching plots are all still there, but The Winter Soldier manages to change things up tonally, paying homage to the political and conspiracy thrillers of the 1970’s, films like Parallax View, Marathon, Man, and The Conversation. In fact, The Winter Soldier is at its best when it echoes these films, not when it has massive ‘heli-carriers’ blasting away at each other.
Captain America has been asleep for over 70 years, so what better way for him to experience lost time than by starring in his own political thriller? But it’s not the government conspiracies, secret assassins, Russian brainwashing, or even the use of Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man soundtrack that give the film its stake in this genre. It’s the casting of Robert Redford.
It’s been a long time since Redford’s matinee idol days, with the legendary actor/director instead focusing his time on the Sundance Film Festival and smaller projects like last year’s All is Lost. So it must’ve come as a surprise to many to see him showing up in the latest comic book blockbuster. Yet, The Winter Soldier might be more in Redford’s wheelhouse than most other superhero movies.
Back in the 70’s, Redford was famous for starring in such paranoid classics as Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men. In both, he played men striving to get to the bottom of government conspiracies. Later in his career, Redford would star in similarly minded films likeSneakers and Spy Game. Even his last directorial/starring effort, The Company You Keep, features him on the run from the government. In a way, his role in The Winter Soldier brings his career full circle.
Casting Robert Redford in your conspiracy thriller is akin to getting Robert De Niro to star in your gangster film. He brings in a lot of baggage. He’s the type of actor that’s so established within the genre you can’t help but think of his past roles when he appears on screen. Sometimes this can be detrimental, especially if the actor is playing against type. But Redford manages to skillfully walk the tight rope between homaging himself and subverting expectations. His role as Alexander Pierce is exactly the type of character young Redford would be wary of: cold and calculating, with a puppeteer’s vision of the future.
The role of young Redford is instead played here by Chris Evans’ Captain America, a young, upstanding patriot who by the end of the film will have his faith in government institutions challenged. And of course in the tradition of these classic thrillers, that means Captain America will see something he wasn’t supposed to and go on the run, pursued by those he thought he could trust.
The film owes a big debt to and is really inspired by Three Days of the Condor, with the filmmakers going so far as to dub the sequel Three Days of Captain America. There are hush-hush conversations in darkly lit apartments, secret agencies within secret agencies, complex discussions on trust and the cost of freedom, and of course, Robert Redford. But the film never forgets that at its core it’s still a comic book. So between the intrigue and conspiracies, we get plenty of fist fights, car chases, and explosions.
People often wonder when superhero fatigue will settle in. Marvel is already committed to releasing at least two films a year, and DC isn’t that far behind with its own universe of films. But with The Winter Soldier, Marvel proves that superhero moves aren’t a genre, they’re a form within which any genre can work. So as long as Marvel continues to shake things up (as they seem to be with this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy), I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of these films for years to come.
Nick van Lieshout is an aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter. You can follow him on Twitter @Shout92.