The Marvel Studios films have, in their short existence, changed the way the public thinks of costumed heroes. Since 2008’s Iron Man, these films have focused more on telling a story, and then using established–sometimes iconic–characters to tell that story.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the epitome of that brand of story telling. This film is not a comic book movie. It’s a tense political thriller, like a good Tom Clancy yarn, but instead of Jack Ryan, the lead is a 95-year-old super soldier who dresses up in red, white and blue and carries a big shield.
The Winter Soldier opens up two years after the events of The Avengers. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still trying to learn about this new world, and he works with SHIELD as Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) “janitor,” a man who cleans up the spy organization’s messes, much to his chagrin.
While out on a run, Rogers meets Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a veteran of Afghanistan, and the two hit it off as they both know what it’s like to lose someone close to them in wartime–Rogers with his best friend James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and Wilson with his wingmate in their paratrooper unit, Reilly–and then to come home and try to fit back into society.
Rogers is deeply conflicted as he tries to figure out his place in this wild new world. And it is what makes him so relatable to audiences. We see through his eyes, a world of “spy versus spy,” and the good guys aren’t always wearing white hats. Evans plays Steve Rogers serious–more serous than Evans’ previous roles–and it works so darn well that the cinematic Cap is, without a doubt, one of the best Marvel Movie characters.
As Rogers adjusts to life after a 60 year deep freeze and an alien invasion, Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is constantly trying to fix him up with a woman, but his heart still resides with Peggy Carter (Hailey Atwell), who is still alive, but is in her late 90s.
During a mission to liberate a SHIELD cargo ship, The Lemurian Star, from an Algerian terrorist named Georges Batroc (George St. Pierre), Cap and Black Widow stumble upon a conspiracy that will ultimately shake SHIELD to it’s very core and forever change every single Marvel Studios film and TV property going forward. Yes, it’s that big.
At its core, The Winter Soldier is a political thriller that calls into question what freedom really is, and what we, as a people, are willing to give up to have that sense of “freedom,” false or otherwise. There is a lot of social commentary here as SHIELD is working on a top secret initiative called “Project Insight” which would put three heavily armed Helicarriers constantly in our airspace, linked to satellites for the sole purpose of killing any threat before it even happens. What’s funny is that this isn’t that far off from science fact, and the film ties this into real world events with the Chitauri invasion of New York in The Avengers standing in for something catastrophic like 9/11.
Before the audience can even begin to chew on the implications of what SHIELD is doing, things turn bad and Nick Fury is taken out by a mysterious man with a cybernetic arm known in the intelligence community only as the “Winter Soldier.” This apparition has had a hand in geopolitical events going back 50 years, and Cap thinks him only a ghost. But he’s not a ghost and Steve Rogers learns soon enough that the world is a place filled with danger in every corner and friends can become enemies in the blink of an eye.
The cast is rounded out with some well-established and some up-and-coming star power. Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, a senior leader within SHIELD, the liaison to the World Security Council, and Nick Fury’s best friend. Emily VanCamp (TV’s Revenge) plays Sharon Carter/Agent 13, a SHIELD agent tasked with keeping an eye of Cap by pretending to be his neighbor, and Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) reprises her Agent Maria Hill from The Avengers. Frank Grillo (End of Watch, Zero Dark Thirty) plays Brock Rumlow, who comic fans may recognize will soon take on a new persona.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely return from The First Avenger to heap conflict on top of conflict, and Cap and friends are forced to run and hide as the mystery deepens. The script is tightly woven in equal parts Marvel Comics lore–especially the Ed Brubaker run of the mid-2000s–and of a tense ’70s-era thriller. People die. Buildings are destroyed. Heroes fall. To but it bluntly, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a brutal film for our heroes and our national psyche, and serves as a transitional vehicle for the next phases of the Marvel Studios films.
The brothers Russo, Anthony and Joe, who are veterans of TV, come through by delivering a film that saves the true spectacle until the very end. Again, The Winter Soldier is story driven and the explosions and special effects are reserved for a climax that is pulse pounding as there is action on five different fronts, all happening simultaneously. The Russo’s pull it off with aplomb and deliver one of, if not the best, comic book movies to date.
The Winter Soldier is not without its flaws. The titular character is a little underdeveloped, and is used basically as a weapon against Cap and his friends. But even so, he is a relentless, almost frightening weapon whose screen presence is heightened by a theme that resembles a scream. Make no mistake; even underdeveloped, the Winter Soldier is a very real threat to the entire marvel Universe and his story is only just beginning here.
Also, as in last year’s Iron Man 3, as things get hairy, why don’t the other Avengers–especially Hawkeye–a standing SHIELD member–show up? Not that I miss him, as Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon is a much better character and fits into this world much better than an archer dressed in purple leather.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a damn fine film, comic book or otherwise. And that has been the calling card for the Marvel Studios projects since the beginning. There are callbacks to events and characters from previous films in the canon, including Garry Shandling reprising his Senator Stern from Iron Man 2. There is even a HUGE Marvel name drop that marks the first time this character has been referenced and the rumored movie could be coming as part of Marvel Studio’s Phase III.
Also, be aware that there are two post-film stingers in the credits: one in the mid-credits, one after. Both are pretty huge, but the mid-credits scene ties directly into the next Avengers film, Age of Ultron, currently filming around the world.
In the real world, we are told that to have freedom, we have to give up our security, and in The Winter Soldier, we are shown what that can lead to if left unchecked. It’s a tightly woven film with twists and turns, and at its core, it’s still very much a costumed hero drama executed exceptionally well. If this is the level of storytelling that the Marvel Studios films are getting to here in the middle of Phase II, the mind can only boggle at what is to come in Phases III and IV. Oh, and there will be a IV and a V and a VI…
Captain America: The Winter Soldier opened nationwide on April 4, 2014