Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the follow-up to what was easily one of the best Marvel films to date, trades its predecessor’s love of one genre for the love of another. Instead of a matinee styled adventure yarn, Cap now finds himself encamped inside of a legitimately exciting, tightly paced action thriller, and thankfully nothing has been lost in the interim. It forwards the current Marvel game plan with considerable ease and dexterity without getting bogged down in over-plotting and world building, content to deliver a solid movie instead of a cog in a franchise machine. In the storytelling department it does just enough to get by and the filmmaking can be kind of shaky down the stretch, but in every other respect it’s just as pleasant of a surprise as the shockingly great First Avenger was.
Much like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, Cap picks up some time after the events of The Avengers, as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) continues to adjust to life in the 21st century after about 50 years of being frozen solid. He’s begun working as a glorified clean-up man for messes made by SHIELD, and he’s getting increasingly sick of not being told the whole story behind every mission Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) send him on. When data recovered from a hijacked SHIELD vessel proves to provide the deadly secret to stealing and misappropriating the use of gunships currently being designed by the government to eradicate threats before they start, Captain America is thrown into battle against two parts of his past: the former Nazi science division Hydra and the titular mythical super soldier that will turn out to be his most dogged adversary yet.
Dialing back on the patriotism of the first film to show how Steve’s world has changed, the film allows Cap to blossom a bit more as a character and as a person instead of just a one-man wrecking crew. Despite having the same writers as the previous solo outing (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) and getting its title and core MacGuffin from Ed Brubaker’s now legendary comic book arc, this Cap feels like something fresh and different. While it’s certainly not the better of the two movies, it definitely has an assured vision of what classic Captain America should be while putting a modern spin on things.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have made a big step up in their game, especially since they are most widely known for their work on TV’s Community. They deliver a big event picture with enough gaps and slowdowns in the story to let the mythology build and allow the characters and actors room to grow within the film. It’s certainly a grittier version of Cap in terms of its sometimes disarmingly real violence and a tendency to favour close-quarters hand to hand combat that at times feels like The Russo’s studied The Raid quite vigorously, but it also allows Steve Rogers to still maintain his integrity without stooping to the level of those around him (a particularly brutal and very Un-Cap-like knife throw and beat down, not withstanding).
Evans has acclimated to his newfound matinee idol status quite nicely, portraying Steve as a professional do-gooder with a sense of humour about himself. It’s this kind of effortless grace and bouncing between a smart soldier and a loving naive everyman that makes his scenes opposite his decidedly gruffer co-stars the engine that drives the film between the set pieces. The slightly flirty, but almost brother/sister kind of relationship he has to Johansson’s Black Widow (once again nicely walking the line between sexy and badass, but this time actually given stuff to do of consequence) and the addition of an equally good natured best friend in the form of Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson allow Evans a lot more chances to show off his already established deadpan comedic chops and quick wit. Sure, he’s a great physical presence and he can deliver jingoistic speeches with the best of them, but Evans has always brought a charm to Steve Rogers that the other Marvel heroes seem to be lacking. In his hands he comes across as the only member of The Avengers squad anyone would probably want to hang out with in real life.
The story ebbs and flows nicely between action chaos and paranoid thriller, and despite nearly coming apart towards the end when it comes to the story’s internal logic and the motivations of the villains, there’s still a lot of great things worth thinking about, especially with regards to Mackie’s character and the addition of Robert Redford’s role as a turncoat government stooge that has very unsubtly been working for Hydra for decades.
Mackie’s Wilson has been deftly written to not only become a new hero for the franchise and the greater Marvel universe, but he’s also there to represent the 40 years of military history that Steve has missed out on. Working as a counsellor for soldiers with PTSD and wrestling with his own feelings about his job, Mackie actually delivers a very soulful performance that feels almost like an extension of the great work he did in Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker several years ago. Instead of feeling like a tacked on addition simply dropped into the film to sell more merchandise, Mackie becomes a welcome addition in an already crowding universe.
As for Redford, it would be hard to remember the last time it looked like he was having so much fun. He’s clearly relishing his snake in the grass role, playing the chief baddie like a more erudite version of Donald Rumsfeld on drugs. Through him, the film finally does the best job yet of trying to get across a message that the Marvel franchise has been trying since the first Iron Man film to get across: the idea that pre-emptive strikes against potential threats only serves to harbour greater fear and hatred. His prized gunships are nothing more than drones that are big enough to blot out the sky. It’s doesn’t become a question of ethics, but a deeper more troubling question as to how much longer it will be before the bigger, better mousetrap is built.
Really, the weakest link in the story outside of the sort of breakdown that these films normally have once they need to get to the big action-packed finale is that the actual Winter Soldier of the title could have played a bigger role than he actually does. Gauging from some of the reactions at the press screening, the actual identity of the Winter Soldier isn’t as big of common knowledge as I thought it was, originally, so I won’t spoil it. It’s just strange that the film really takes the name of a character that really only pops up every now and then and really only seems to have the biggest impact in the final ten minutes. Those who strictly expect the film to be about the Winter Soldier might be a bit thrown, but the character is still handled as well as it needs to be.
In terms of filmmaking, the Russo’s work here is a bit all over the place. Naturally, their strengths lie in the film’s sense of humour and characterization, but they seem to be quite good at most of the action scenes, delivering a pretty great opening fight between Evans and MMA superstar Georges St.Pierre (in a bit part as a French mercenary that sets the plot in motion), a well done tracking shot of Cap busting walls down to chase down a villain, a cleverly choreographed multi-assailant fight in an elevator, not one, but two very different and still exciting car chases. They can’t quite nail the finale, however. Once the “bombs start bursting in air” things get a bit chaotic and loose instead of the tightly constructed work that came before it. The film is also plagued quite oddly by some shoddy green screen work that even makes people looking out of office windows that are obviously on a sound stage seem strangely fake. It’s a weird problem for a film of this kind to have.
Still, those are minor problems. Overall, Winter Soldier is a blast that should please Marvel fans just fine and give casual observers well more than inscrutable, bare minimum fan service. Much like the previous Cap film, it’s a great stand alone film that exists within a juggernaut franchise. Let’s hope they can keep this one going at this pace even if everything else gets out of control (which judging by the film’s ponderous and really confusing mid-credits stinger that will really only get the hardest of die hard Marvel fans excited, looks to be very soon).