With Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Marvel Cinematic Universe once again finds its confident stride after stumbling last year with Thor: The Dark World, and even manages to step up the game and set the bar even higher for future additions to the franchise. Smart, character-driven, riveting and intense throughout, it’s the rare sequel that surpasses its predecessor in every measurable way, and thus it stands among the very best that Marvel Studios has given audiences thus far.
Two years have passed since Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) joined forces with the not-so-jolly green giant, the billionaire-genius-playboy-philanthropist in the shiny armor, the long-haired, hammer-wielding demigod from another dimension, the redhead femme fatale superspy and the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who prefers tricked-out bows and arrows over guns to save New York City from an invading alien army in Marvel’s The Avengers. Since that fateful day, Cap’s joined the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a special operative so that he can still do his part to protect the world from bad guys, but in this brave new world so different from the “greatest generation” he was born into, a world colored in more grey than black and white, it’s just not that easy to tell who the bad guys are anymore, or even if he can trust his colleagues or the people giving the orders.
Things come to a head for Cap when one of those colleagues is attacked in the open in the heart of D.C. by a well-armed team led by a “ghost”, an assassin known only as “the Winter Soldier” by espionage and counter-intelligence types who insist that he’s just a myth. When the investigation into the attack leads literally to Cap’s doorstep, the shield-slinging super-soldier suddenly finds himself under attack and on the run from the very agents who were comrades-in-arms just days before. With help from his Avengers teammate Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Cap sets out to investigate who’s really behind the Winter Soldier’s attacks. The trail will eventually lead him back to his very origins, as well as to a conspiracy that should have monumental effects on the Marvel landscape in future stories, and an enemy whose true identity he’s wholly unprepared to uncover.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, mainly known for their work on episodes of “Arrested Development” and “Community”, prove themselves extremely capable in terms of balancing breathtaking action, character-driven dialogue and drama, and suspense. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who penned the first Captain America film and also the action comedy Pain and Gain, draws many ideas and concepts from writer Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed run in the Captain America comics from 2004-2012, but also takes Cap’s world and the entirety of the Marvel cinematic world in a direction that few fans coming into the film will expect. It’s also a script that’s firmly in touch with political and social phenomenon that inform today’s real world headlines and tensions, such as the ongoing struggle to reconcile the need for security versus the desire to preserve personal freedoms and civil liberties, and the ethics of proactive and preemptive measures against perceived threats to ensure safety and security. What better way to examine and explore these ideas in a fictional setting than through the perspective of an individual whose very perceptions and notions of freedom and security are borne from a time we regard to be simpler and more innocent? Working with a character like Captain America allows the opportunity to work with these themes within the framework of an action thriller, and to do so organically and compellingly.
The Russo Brothers, in turn, take that screenplay and deliver a film that takes its time in building suspense and intrigue and establishing its characters, giving each one of the them opportunities to shine. There are plenty of moments throughout the film that will delight the fanboys and fangirls in the audience who are in the know because they read the comics, but because the action and the character moments are so well balanced and presented, there’s just as much for the casual audiences who haven’t seen every Marvel movie or ever picked up a comic book to enjoy. The eventual reveal of the identity of the Winter Soldier, which just about any Captain America fan will know going in anyway, is carefully and wisely delayed in the progression of the film so that the story’s larger mysteries and intrigues can hold center stage. When it finally does happen, it’s at a point where tension in the film is near its peak — don’t be surprised if you hear a few gasps in the audience around you when you see the film, even if you knew who it was all along.
As for the cast here, Evans in particular deserves a great deal of credit for truly inhabiting this role and for making a character often cynically regarded as dull and uninteresting relatable and human. In the first film, Evans made the most of Steve Rogers’ underdog origins in order to make him a sympathetic figure, a character audiences could connect to because his story — that of a kid with a good heart and a mind to help people but with a weak body suddenly becoming the pinnacle of human physical perfection overnight — is ultimately one of childhood wish fulfillment. Here in Winter Soldier, however, it’s Cap’s struggle to find his place in the world and how best to help that Evans works to his advantage. He makes Cap’s struggle to connect to his new surroundings and the people around him one that’s interesting to watch — he’s the underdog again, but this time it’s not bullies and his own physical limitations he’s fighting against, but instead the complexity and conflicted morality that is the hallmark of our times, and you want him to win.
Evans gets lots of solid backup here from Scarlett Johansson, whose character is in many ways Cap’s polar opposite and a product of the world and the times she’s lived in, but finds her own notions and beliefs shaken by what the two uncover in the course of the story. Anthony Mackie, who is likeable from the moment he’s on-screen, is a welcome presence as the film’s everyman: his Sam Wilson is not a super-soldier and he’s not a super-spy, but just a soldier wanting to do his part. Also, since Cap is, by definition, not the most smart alecky of characters, the best one-liners and pop culture zingers that provide the film’s comic relief fall to Johansson and Mackie, and they don’t fail to deliver. The final edit of the film might make fans of TV stars Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother”) and Emily VanCamp (“Revenge”) wish that their favorites had gotten more screen time, as their roles, however pivotal, are small. It might’ve been especially good to see more of Smulders, who reprises her role as S.H.I.E.L.D. deputy director Maria Hill from Marvel’s The Avengers, but who seems far more comfortable and at ease within the character here than she did that first time out.
What about Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Redford? Well, what about them? Jackson simply IS Nick Fury, as he has been from the very first Iron Man film, and Robert Redford is … well, Robert Redford, as he has been in film pretty much since he stopped trying to be anyone else 20 years ago, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You don’t cast Robert Redford in a film because you want him to be anything else. You cast him in your film to be Robert Redford, period.
All in all, Captain America: The Winter Soldier delivers on all of its promises of political intrigue, suspense, and pulse-pounding action, and succeeds in taking its characters and the Marvel Universe with in a truly unexpected and exciting direction. It should set a new bar for quality both within Marvel’s own line of films and superhero movies in general, but perhaps most importantly, it accomplishes what great comic books and comic book storylines have done for fans for decades.
It leaves you dying to know what happens next.
Score: 4.5 out of 5
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, with Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo.
Running Time: 136 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout.
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