Without its prequel's knockabout novelty value of being set in ye olde 1940s, CA:TWS is left adrift in the MCU without a USP. Seriously, what's it got to offer that the rest of The Avengers' stories haven't? A hero whose superpower is that he's quite strong? Come on. The only interesting thing about Steve Rogers is that he's a fish out of water; a man out of time, with different values and an outsider's view of the modern world. All of which worked well for him in The First Avenger and Marvel Avengers Assemble, but that arc was pretty much complete once he took part in a technologically advanced assault on an alien army from another dimension. The Winter Soldier gets Cap's diminishing confusion with the 21st century out of the way in the first twenty minutes and never refers to it again, rendering him as exciting and unique as magnolia-painted walls.
Spot the difference
But, like the film itself, let's ignore the interesting stuff and get on with its failings as entertainment. With a hero who's already the least interesting person in the room, Captain America: The Winter Soldier's job is to empty that room and refill it with people even less interesting in order to make sure you notice him. And so, as well as the criminally wasted Redford - who said so much more with near-silence in All Is Lost than he does with all the inconsequential waffle he's given here - we have Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, who's ill-advisedly been given a major role despite being a character so lacking in character that she's incapable of sustaining more than a few scenes per film. Then there's Anthony Mackie, a charismatic actor lumbered with the black sidekick role that worked so well in Iron Man Three that it may as well be replicated here, right? (If you can name Mackie's character after you leave the cinema without being a fan of the comics, bravo.)
It's not Rhodey, you massive racist.
But it can't be all bad, right? Well, no, although boy does it try. Cap hanging out in museums to remember the old days is a nice touch, what with him being a museum piece himself, and there are some witty moments and lines - although for every "I'm 95, I'm not dead", there's an exchange like "It's a tough way to live..." "But it's a good way not to die". NOBODY talks like that. Not even superheroes. And Samuel L Jackson is always good value, but again he's hamstrung by the script: one moment affords him the perfect chance to deliver a world-class SLJ line with great vengeance and furious anger, but nobody's written one for him. That sound you can hear is a million fanboys being brought to the brink of orgasm before suddenly having a bucket of ice dumped over their nethers. Even the film's big reveal, an admirably brave plot turn which affects the past, present and future of the entire MCU, is explained at length in a ridiculous exposition scene by a "character" who has absolutely no reason to do so.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier's problems are perhaps encapsulated in one gag towards the end which I won't spoil here, but suffice to say that at the exact point when you think they've pulled off at least one brilliant, funny, surprising moment, it's immediately undone by a dumb - and worse, unnecessary - punchline. It's the kind of thing Joss Whedon or Drew Pearce would have nailed in their sleep, and it leaves the whole exercise reeking of what could have been. If Marvel want to keep making superhero films for the ages, they need to invest in writers and directors with vision and characters worth watching. Guardians Of The Galaxy and Ant-Man look bonkers enough to be worthwhile, but given the choice between Captain America 3 and Iron Man 4, on this evidence, I'm with Robert Redford's niece.