Recent weeks have seen superhero tentpoles Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 unleashed onto the viewing public. With both dominating the box office, it appears summer blockbuster season has officially begun.
Judging simply from the first two films out of the gate, it seems that this year’s slate will be less disappointing than the last. Filmmakers have realised that bigger is not necessarily better, and have tempered the monotonous citywide carnage that plagued the likes of Man of Steel and Pacific Rim. In these films the action is controlled, exciting, and the stakes seem more personal. Each makes notable creative choices to distinguish itself, warranting a comparison between the two.
Chris Evans makes a likeable enough Captain America, but his character remains intrinsically bland. Thankfully he is ably supported by Scarlett Johansson, who is given a much meatier role than in previous Marvel Cinematic Universe outings, and is clearly growing more confident as Black Widow. Between her, Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, and Antony Mackie’s Falcon, the movie has more than its fair share of interesting supporting heroes, who play off each other nicely.
However, it’s Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey, who really shine in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Their sizzling chemistry holds the film together and elevates it to a new level. Stone delivers an emotional performance, whilst Garfield is perfect as Spider-Man. He exudes infectious charisma where Tobey Maguire always seemed awkward and reserved, and pulls off with aplomb angsty and comic moments. Sally Field makes the most of her slim amount of screen time as Aunt May, her touching scenes with Garfield grounding the film.
Winner: The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Besides Tom Hiddleston’s fantastic Loki, the Avengers franchise has never really boasted a truly memorable villain. Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier is a step up from Christopher Ecclestone’s forgettable Malekith (Thor: The Dark World) and Ben Kingsley’s execrable Mandarin (Iron Man 3), but he’s never really as menacing when he arrives onscreen as directors Antony and Joe Russo seem to want him to be. His lack of dialogue doesn’t so much add mystique as make his character feel underdeveloped, and he is sidelined in favour of Robert Redford’s sleazy SHIELD operative Alexander Pierce. As for Redford, he’s a fun presence, even if he does coast along a little on his previous political thriller roles.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could have been the best entry in the series, if only its weak villains didn’t threaten to derail the entire experience. The excellent Paul Giamatti is wasted in a fleeting cameo as the Rhino, and his confrontation with Spider-Man is too worryingly reminiscent of the Underminer scene in The Incredibles to ever take seriously. Jamie Foxx fares even worse as Electro, proving unconvincing as an Oscorp engineer who becomes obsessed with Spider-Man after encountering him on the street. What could have been an interesting exploration of an extremely lonely man driven to insanity is hampered by hammy dialogue, camp acting and an unbelievable character arc – Electro transforms in one scene from a helpless victim terrified of his own new powers to a totally unsympathetic, overpowered maniac. Dane DeHaan on the other hand is a great actor, and is actually better than James Franco as the Harry Osborne version of the Green Goblin. Unfortunately his story is equally rushed, even though he is afforded an unbearably tense final showdown.
Winner: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, unlike its immediate predecessor, favours traditional choreographed fight scenes over excessive CGI, and is all the better for it. A hand-to-hand duel with the Winter Soldier halfway through the film is brutal and brilliant, whilst some explosive car chases have audiences on the edge of their seats.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 features some of the most spectacular set pieces in recent memory. Opening with a superb plane crash sequence and moving into a jaw-dropping web-slinging scene, the action never lets up. Each sequence is bright, bold and colourful, and the aesthetic is more striking and stylised than Captain America’s. Director Marc Webb, particularly during an assault on Times Square and an electricity grid-set finale, captures what it feels like to be Spider-Man. He slows down the camera and pans leisurely around the scenes of destruction to represent ‘Spidey Senses’ in a way never depicted in the franchise before, and follows the web-slinger closely during aerial battles to exhilarating effect.
Winner: The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Captain America: The Winter Soldier attempts something a bit more daring than the standard MCU film, introducing political elements. Of course, as Mark Kermode pointed out, there are the obligatory running, jumping and fighting sections, but the storyline, with SHIELD compromised and Captain America on the run, is an intriguing, slow-burning mystery with genuinely gripping twists and turns. It also does a Skyfall and drags its hero into the modern age, questioning the relevance of superhero fiction, where the sides are usually black and white, in an era of government surveillance and lost faith in our supposed protectors. It’s all fairly silly considering the protagonist is a genetically-enhanced supersoldier from the 1940s, but you can’t blame the filmmakers for trying something new.
By contrast, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is pure escapism. As mentioned above, the story suffers from Spider-Man 3 syndrome and is overstuffed with underdeveloped characters, but the film does add a crucial element lacking in almost every superhero drama since The Dark Knight: a proper sense of peril. Whilst the Avengers movies frequently cop out of actually killing anyone, this film presents palpable danger for its characters, and to its credit is unafraid to travel to some dark places.
Winner and overall victor: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Both films are in cinemas now
Photograph: Colombia Pictures