[This review contains mild SPOILERS for CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER.]
Superhero films have become a tentpole of modern cinema. Where The Dark Knight legitimized the genre for those wary of capes and cowls, The Avengers proved fun didn’t need to be sacrificed for intensity or quality. Now, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has raised the bar yet again and has firmly cemented the superhero film as more than mindless entertainment full of spectacle and explosions.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel had a character who was easily their toughest sell. More so than Iron Man or Thor, Captain America is a far more realistic hero, yet still super-powered. Being only slightly super, the line between what he can do and what any physically fit, well-trained human can do is thin. But it’s within that slim margin Cap operates, doing the work of an exceptional soldier, only better.
Director Joe Johnston eased viewers into the world of super soldiers and alien technology in the first Captain America by masquerading the film as a WWII action-adventure. This time around directors Anthony and Joe Russo have disguised The Winter Soldier as a political thriller steeped in espionage and with a surprising amount of commentary on our current dilemmas over freedom and security.
At the start, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still adjusting to life in the 21st century, is reconnecting with his past (including a particularly touching reunion with Peggy, played by an almost unrecognizable Hayley Atwell thanks to incredible aging VFX), and working as SHIELD’s top agent in the field. Since The Avengers, Steve has etched out a life for himself, such as it is, and the movie is no longer depicting him as the perpetual “fish out of water.” Now, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely take time exploring Steve’s vulnerabilities, have him questioning his patriotism, and for the first time, discovering what it is he wants to do with his life.
For someone as good-hearted and honest as Cap, working for a network of spies is difficult. In a post-Battle of New York world, SHIELD is reactionary to the point of forsaking an individual’s freedom to better protect the society as a whole. At least that’s how Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) spins it when he unveils SHIELD’s latest, Operation: Insight. Consisting of three Helicarriers linked via satellite, their purpose is to patrol and eliminate threats before they can develop. It’s Minority Report on a global scale. Once SHIELD is revealed to have been compromised, Fury gives Cap a flash drive containing encrypted data about Operation: Insight that even he can’t decode, forcing Cap to become a fugitive while he seeks out the truth about SHIELD, Insight, and their connection with the mysterious Winter Soldier.
From beginning to end The Winter Soldier is a thrill ride, effortlessly weaving together car chases, shootouts, climactic set pieces, and some of the most entertainly choreographed fight scenes outside of kung-fu films. Without a doubt The Winter Soldier is one of the best action films in years. An astonishing feat for the Russo Brothers, newcomers to the action-adventure blockbuster after making a name for themselves directing TV comedies like Arrested Development and Community.
Since it has a PG-13 rating the violence is for the most part bloodless (many casualties simply disappear in fiery explosions, for instance), but the physicality of the many, MANY action sequences is unparalleled. Just about everyone gets the opportunity to display their proficient hand-to-hand combat and artillery skills. More so than in The Avengers or The First Avenger, these agents come across a truly formidable. The Winter Soldier uses a lot of quick cuts for the action scenes, the fights especially, and it’s used effectively, but at times it had me wishing it was filmed in a higher frame rate, which would have given those fantastic fights more clarity.
It should also be noted that for a majority of the film our heroes wear mostly street clothes. It’s a great decision from a production standpoint because it only helps to ground what’s already Marvel’s least fantastical film. Not that I don’t enjoy a good superhero costume (in fact, Cap wears several), but seeing these amazing feats and stunts performed in street clothes only adds to the realism permeating throughout The Winter Soldier.
Everyone gives top notch performances. Evans, now playing Steve Rogers for the third time, has settled into the role comfortably, delivering Cap’s earnestness and surprisingly dry humor with ease. Fury is given more to do than ever before and Jackson relishes the opportunity to show what a badass agent he is. It’s mind-blowing a cinema legend like Robert Redford is in this film, only again legitimizing the superhero genre as the next frontier of great American film. His turn as senior SHIELD member, Alexander Pierce is masterful, bringing a sense of gravitas to what could have easily been just another popcorn flick. Anthony Mackie proves a welcomed addition to the MCU, and his Sam Wilson’s camaraderie with Steve not only fills a hole left by Bucky’s death but brings to light another topical issue: PTSD. Again, The Winter Soldier takes bold steps to set itself apart from other superhero films, and it could be argued that at its core the film has a lot to say about returning soldiers and their place in our society.
Unsurprisingly, I was most looking forward to again seeing Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and she does not disappoint. Where The Avengers began crafting a more faceted, multi-layered Natasha, The Winter Soldier fleshes out her character in more significant ways. Given the drastically changing circumstances in this film we get to see a wider breadth of emotion from Natasha. She too is questioning what role she should be playing in the world, especially once SHIELD is proven to be just as reckless and untrustworthy as the KGB. With every appearance Johansson only gets better as Natasha, once the credits begin rolling you’ll demand Marvel begin preparations for that long-rumored, solo Black Widow movie.
Teamwork was the foundation of The Avengers, but in The Winter Soldier Cap assembles his own team, and it’s not only an effective team but diverse. There’s a scene in a particular that struck me, and it’s just Cap, Black Widow, Falcon, Fury, and Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) discussing their next move. Notice anything? There’s only one white dude! This is without question Cap’s movie, I’m not saying they’re reinventing the wheel, but an ensemble including prominent roles for women and black men is something to be celebrated.
Another quick and uplifting observation: none of the female roles in this film were relegated to love interest. You could argue Peggy Carter was a former love interest, and her niece, Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) will develop into one down the line, but not in this film, and it’s unbelievably refreshing.
[The following paragraph contains major SPOILERS.]
Lastly, let’s talk about the Winter Soldier. His true identity isn’t a total secret, and I’m sure most of our audience are familiar with his origin, but from a plot standpoint it only really matters that Steve doesn’t know. And when the truth is revealed to him it’s a poignant, tragic moment Evans plays wonderfully. Sebastian Stan, returning in an extremely different capacity, manages to do much with the very little he’s given. A lesser actor would have played the Winter Soldier as a mindless monster, but Stan infuses the role with pathos, allowing the audience to witness up close his inner turmoil and pain.
[End of SPOILERS.]
To put it bluntly, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is triumph. It’s Marvel’s ninth film in their shared, cinematic universe and not only is it one of their best offerings, it’s a serious game-changer. The landscape of the MCU has been altered significantly, and fans as well as the casual movie-goer should be excited for where it’s heading next.