NOTE: This review is SPOILER-FREE.
It’s a great time to be a Marvel comics fan. Not only have our favorite characters been realized on-screen by extremely talented actors who take their work seriously, but also by skilled screenwriters who can simply tell a good story.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is 2nd best Marvel movie to date, topped only’and very narrowly’by THE AVENGERS. Of course, THE AVENGERS has the advantage of being a one-stop shop for all of the most popular comic book heroes. With THE WINTER SOLDIER, we’re limited to Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, who owns the role now), Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, who can take a breath and make it iconic), and’the new kid on the block, Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Cap has always been the most vanilla of all the Marvel line of superheroes. He’s a man out of his time, being a WW2 military hero frozen in the mid-1940s and thawed out in the 21st century. Socially awkward, resolutely moral, unwilling and unable to compromise his core beliefs, he’s not just wearing the red, white and blue, he’s the living embodiment of the values the American flag is supposed to represent. In today’s world of shadow governments, spy networks, and an untrusting citizenry, he sticks out like a sore thumb. Thankfully, he seems to be more of a positive influence on those around him than they are a negative influence on him.
In THE WINTER SOLDER, he’s thrown into a clever plot full of conspiracies, betrayal, back-stabbing, and subterfuge. In other words, the United States intelligence community. As we have learned from previous Marvel movie outings, the organization S.H.I.E.L.D. serves as base of operations for the Avengers, and Cap has’since we last saw him in THE AVENGERS’been content to serve his country battling foreign enemies. Once he becomes aware that his latest mission has a hidden agenda, he begins to realize his enemies are also quite, quite domestic. In fact, his enemies are not just hooded terrorists with funny accents, but are sitting across the table from him in his own organization.
Unlike THOR: THE DARK WORLD and IRON MAN 3, THE WINTER SOLDIER directly addresses the aftermath of the events in THE AVENGERS. In the THOR sequel, the “battle of New York” was given a passing reference. The third IRON MAN movie dealt with how one man, Tony Stark, lived with the trauma from that battle. In THE WINTER SOLDIER, we learn how “the battle of New York” has changed the way our national security operates. Suffice to say, it ain’t pretty. A plot twist in the second half of the movie pretty much pulls the rug out from under our heroes (and us in the audience) and raises the stakes immensely such that the action-filled climax of THE WINTER SOLDIER has almost as much “save the world” immediacy as THE AVENGERS.
As a political thriller, THE WINTER SOLDIER engages with a labyrinthine plot that will actually surprise. The audience isn’t simply expected to turn off the brain and enjoy the eye candy; we’like Captain America’are confronted with questions about discerning who our real enemies are and how we need to maintain our moral compass even when morality conflicts with loyalty and patriotism. As an action/adventure romp, the film is about as frenetic as it gets. Granted, there are no battles of New York here with entire city blocks being laid waste, but there are plenty of chases, shoot-outs, hand-to-hand skirmishes, and heli-carrier mayhem to propel the story along. In the middle of it all, actor Chris Evans really steps up to the plate and makes Cap/Steve Rogers his own. Scarlett Johansen finds some new levels to play within her Black Widow character; one gets the impression that when we see her next in THE AVENGERS 2, she will be irrevocably changed by her experience here. Robert Redford seems to be having a wonderful time playing an obnoxious, slithery government suit; you definitely haven’t seen Redford play a role like this before.
Thankfully, directors Anthony and Joe Russo seem to rely on more practical stunts and special effects than on CG mayhem. Unlike THE AVENGERS, which at times seemed to resemble more a video game than a movie, THE WINTER SOLDIER eases off on computer-enhanced overkill’at least until the large-scale destruction in the film’s climax. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely build upon their story for the original CAPTAIN AMERICA film and enhance the threat while maintaining Cap’s basic morality and his refusal to compromise. Those who may be concerned that Marvel Studios may be taking the character of Steve Rogers in some dark and cynical directions need not worry; even as the shadow government around him lies, cajoles, and murders to protect their secrets, Cap remains resolute and morally upright throughout, even as he continues to acclimate to the modern world.
After the so-soness of THOR: THE DARK WORLD and the disrespect shown to the source material in IRON MAN 3, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER gives comic book fans reason to rejoice again. Even those who have never opened up a comic book (and if you haven’t, I have two words for you: Jack Kirby) will have a great time watching this film. I’m not sure if the end of this film sets up CAPTAIN AMERICA 3 or THE AVENGERS 2, but that’s all part of the fun universe that Marvel Studios have created. I haven’t seen a cinematic universe so fully realized since STAR WARS. There are of LOT of promising directions for our characters to go in.
Whichever direction they choose, I’m in.
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