At this point, Marvel Studios being in the middle of Phase Two in their Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is astonishing that the studio has managed to keep a stable continuity, while also keeping the quality of their films relatively solid. They are at a position previously unexplored in cinema, and the fact that they have come to their tenth project without a box-office or critical failure, along with Kevin Feige’s extremely well-thought out planning process, is something that will be examined by film aficionados for years. Their most recent project is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the sequel to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger (which I’m in the minority in that this is one of my favorite Marvel Studios film). The new film keeps the writing duo from the first film, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, but Joe Johnston is not returning as the director; this time around we have Anthony and Joe Russo, Emmy Award winning brothers known for their TV work on Arrested Development and Community, as well as their films Welcome to Collinwood, which they also wrote, and You, Me and Dupree. By this point, the challenge that anyone who helms a Marvel Studios film is to not just be able to keep the continuity of the film in check with the overall universe, develop any character or universe growth necessary for future projects, but also make an entertaining blockbuster that works on its own merits. Even my least favorite Marvel film, The Incredible Hulk, is still really entertaining. Despite whatever opinions that you may have with some of their films, it is hard to say that any of them fell completely flat on every level. At least, not yet.
We follow Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) as he slowly adjusts to the new world that he has woken up to, while also working for S.H.I.E.L.D. However, he gets increasingly uncomfortable with how S.H.I.E.L.D. is working in a post-Loki-attacking-New-York world, and it doesn’t help that during a hostage extraction mission, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has instructed Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to gather data from enemy computers without Captain America’s knowledge, and adding on to that concern is a point where he learns of Project Insight, in which three Helicarriers are linked to satellites and are used to preemptively eliminate any threats. All of a sudden, Nick Fury is ambushed by assassins disguised as police officers and a mysterious figure known as the Winter Soldier. What ensues is a superhero that feels like a 70’s paranoid political thriller filmed in the style of a Jason Bourne film. With twists and turns coming at every corner, we get a scheme that only Captain America, Black Widow and their new friend Sam Wilson aka the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) can crack, and my God, this film is fantastic!
To start, this is probably the best script to come out of Marvel so far. It brings a darker, smarter and poignant element that is brilliantly combined with the comic book blockbuster side of the film. By going the direction that this film took it does a very good job at creating a parallel to post-9/11 America and using that to create a personal drama with Captain America, who is forced to face a world that is morally grey and how he can fit in this world, is brilliant. The drama in the film is very well done, and while there is still humor in typical Marvel fashion, it is a bit limited; this is the most serious and dramatic film they have done so far. The Russo brothers have done an excellent job with their direction. I was surprised by the large number of practical effects, which ground the film even more; so when the CGI does come in it is superbly integrated with the live-action footage. They also do a great job with adding a lot of suspense and intrigue to the story with a quick pace, while also slowing down at points to allow the more human moments to happen as organically as possible.
The acting is great from everyone. Chris Evans has more than earned the role of Captain America and he shows no sign of phoning his performance in. As far as I’m concerned, he is Captain America. Scarlett Johansson shines as Black Widow. It helps that she has much more to do here than in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, so we are able to connect with her more than ever before. Samuel L. Jackson also has more to do this time around and he has many great moments in the film. Anthony Mackie kills it as the Falcon, feeling right at home with this universe. However, for the most part, you see him as Sam Wilson who is a Pararescue war vet who lost a friend and decided to become a PTSD counselor. He has a warm presence that adds a lot to the character, making him work well with everyone else in the film, and he gets to do some really cool stuff once he’s in the Falcon suit. In an interesting casting choice, there is Hollywood legend, Robert Redford playing Alexander Pierce, an old friend of Nick Fury, a senior leader in S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as a member of the World Security Council. Obviously the choice of him playing this role is heavily influenced by his involvement in famous 70’s thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men. He plays the role like he would those older films, adding some legitimacy to the style that the film is going for. The supporting cast including, but not limited to Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Maximiliano Hernández and Toby Jones, do a really good job with their roles.
The action in the film is bar none the best action I have seen in a superhero film. What makes a huge difference is partially due to the weight of the action. With every punch, kick or fall, you can feel the impact within you (some of the credit goes to the incredible sound design), and when every blow makes you go “Wow, that must have hurt!” then you know the film is doing something right. Contributing to that aspect is also the excellent fight choreography. There are a good number of fist fights in the film and they are pulled off with visceral tension and (implied, this is still PG-13) brutality.
Of course, no film is perfect, so let’s go over the flaws. Some of the twists that are in the film are fairly predictable; I was able to predict one twist in particular just from first viewing the trailer. There were also a few, very minor moments in the film that confused me a bit, unfortunately I can’t get into too much detail due to spoilers, but they were very minor. Also, a couple instances during the action scenes, I felt that the camera was too close to the actors, which is a shame considering how great the stunt work and choreography is, but thankfully there were just a few; most of the time, they are very well shot, if a bit shaky at times. One thing that I heard from some other reviews that I only partially agree with is that the ultimate payoff to the whole conspiracy really just ends in a giant explosion fest climax, very typical of comic book films. However, I felt that this film earned its climax through effective build up and character development. Also, for a film subtitled: The Winter Soldier, there isn’t as much Winter Soldier as you’d expect. Don’t get me wrong, he is in the movie quite a bit, and his role is crucial, but his presence in the film is as big as the mob was in The Dark Knight, as opposed to how much the Joker was in it. Given how the film ends, “The Winter Soldier” would make a more appropriate subtitle for Captain America 3.
Whenever people discuss “the best superhero film ever made,” two films are immediately brought up: The Dark Knight and The Avengers (and yeah, I know X2, Superman, Spider-Man 2 and a couple others get thrown around, but come on, let’s be real here). Though Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not as groundbreaking as those two, I feel comfortable in saying that this is one of the best superhero films ever made. In terms of Marvel films, it only lacks the novelty of The Avengers having multiple heroes together, but in other aspects, it is a superior and better crafted film. The movie does what every good sequel should do, especially a sequel that is a part of an in-film universe, and that is to increasingly challenge the characters on an personal and physical level, as well as expand the universe, by pushing it forward to places the viewer wouldn’t expect. The Winter Soldier achieves all these in spades, ending the film on a note that leaves both the characters and the world completely changed from what it was in the beginning. It is a slickly directed, smartly written, excellently acted and immensely entertaining blend of old school thrills and modern mythmaking that will satisfy Marvel diehards and those unfamiliar.
Side Note: Considering how different things end up in the film, it actually gave me good reason to catch up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and it’ll be interesting to see what direction the show takes in response to this film. Another thing I should bring up is the traditional post-credits scenes. There are two like in the past several films. The first one, after the first set of credits, sets up The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and will please any fan of the comics. Also, pay attention to the dialogue during the film and you’ll hear an awesome name drop. The second one after the credits are over, is a short scene that simply gives a bit of closure for one of the characters, it’s a decent scene, but you aren’t missing much if you leave early. Final thing I should mention, this year is by far the riskiest year for Marvel since releasing Iron Man in 2008. First you have The Winter Soldier, which takes the world in an interesting, and unexpected direction, and then later this year, there is Guardians of the Galaxy, which will most likely develop the Cosmic Marvel universe more, and will definitely get into much weirder territory than any comic book film has done thus far. Fingers crossed that it pays off.