Even taking into account the success it's had to date, 2014 should go down as Marvel Studio's biggest and most exciting year. And not just because of the surprise Summer sci-fi smash Guardians of the Galaxy; several months earlier Marvel had turned everything fans thought they knew about its shared cinematic universe on its head with this edgy second solo outing for Captain America.
Taking its cues primarily from 1970s paranoid conspiracy thrillers in the mould of Three Days of the Condor, the film sees Captain America (Chris Evans) going on the run with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and new chum Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), after he becomes the target of rogue elements within the previously benevolent security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Along the way it introduces a mysterious assassin with a link to Cap's past and confronts topical concerns such as global security and its potential impact on personal freedom.
The above plot outline only hints at how Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a more hard-edged and complex take on the superhero genre than anything the studio has produced up to this point. But don't think for a minute that the darker mood takes the franchise in the direction of Chris Nolan's Batman movies. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo keep the pace ticking over in fine comic book style, balancing the multi-layered storytelling with breathtaking action beats and plenty of sparkling dialogue, no doubt aided by the Russos' prior experience on sitcoms including Arrested Development and Community.
Is it perfect then? Not quite. The story is so intertwined with other Marvel movies that it doesn't work as well as a standalone flick. Latecomers to the party could be baffled. Additionally, the titular supervillain is lacking in depth. Yet the latter is something Marvel film fans are getting used to – and they'll be too busy wondering in which direction the series will head next to care.
Picture: Disney's 3D Blu-ray release splits the 'flat' and stereoscopic versions across separate platters.
Unsurprisingly, the 2D AVC-encoded 2.40:1 1080p presentation is a zinger. Many colours are rather subdued, to match the overall mood of the story, but saturation remains excellent in more vibrant tones (such as Black Widow's shampoo-ad hair). Meanwhile, dark areas of the image harbour a wealth of shadow detail, and there's no trace of artefacting, mosquito noise, colour banding or other encoding issues to spoil your enjoyment.
While the 2D Blu-ray encode is a real five-star effort, the same cannot be said for Disney's stereoscopic version. As with Marvel's previous 3D flicks, the film was shot flat and converted in post-production – and the results this time are clearly hamstrung by the film's darker aesthetic.
The night raid on the Lemurian Star (Chapter 2) sees the already dark exterior shots of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Quinjet flying through clouds rendered almost unintelligible by the additional drop in brightness. Things barely improve when the action moves to the deck, with long-shots of Cap taking out enemy goons still lacking clarity and definition.
The quality picks up quite a bit in brighter sequences, but even then it's only really in a handful of shots of Sam Wilson being chased by a Quinjet as he flies around a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier (Chapter 14) that the stereoscopic enhancement makes any serious impact. So do yourself and your home cinema a favour and stick to the 2D version.
Picture rating: 4/5
Audio: Another Disney disc armed with a stonking DTS-HD MA 7.1 soundtrack. ...The Winter Soldier isn't as action-packed as some blockbuster rivals, but there are more than enough set-pieces here to keep your speakers fed a diet of energetic effects, swift pans and punishing bass. And away from the action the audio team works hard to fill the soundfield with ambient effects that place you amidst the paranoia, while Henry Jackman's original score, which mixes orchestral instrumentation with electronic flourishes, will set your spine-tingling.
Audio rating: 5/5
Extras: Disappointingly, there's no Marvel One-Shot short film this time out (boo!). You do get an engaging commentary from the filmmakers, four deleted/extended scenes (with optional commentary), three short featurettes and a gag reel, but a movie this good deserves something a bit more in-depth.
Extras rating: 2/5
We say: While lacklustre extras and a troublesome 3D conversion hold it back from true greatness, home cinema fans will still salute this hi-def outing for Marvel’s Captain
Captain America: The Winter Solider 3D, Walt Disney, All-region BD, £28 Approx
HCC VERDICT: 4/5
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