Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) / Action-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout
Running Time: 136 min.

Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Frank Grillo, Cobie Smulders, Emily VanKamp, Toby Jones, Georges St. Pierre, Hayley Atwell, Maximillano Hernandez, Jenny Agutter, Garry Shandling
Small role: Stan Lee, Garry Sinise (voice), Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ed Brubaker
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (based on elements of the comic books by Ed Brubaker)

Review published April 4, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a sequel to both Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, two of the best of the Marvel series of movies to come out, and manages to rank right among them in terms of sheer entertainment value and thoughtful comic-book execution.

Chris Evans (Scott Pilgrim, Push) returns as Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, the World War II hero who found himself cryogenically frozen for decades, still adjusting to the world of today.  He has been actively working with S.H.I.E.L.D., with his main contact being Nick Fury (Jackson, RoboCop), who sends him off with his best agent, Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Johansson, Her).  However, it soon becomes apparent that not everything is going to plan within the powerful world espionage organization, causing Rogers to reevaluate just what side he has been aiding all along -- the good guys or the criminals he has sworn to take down.

Enter the Winter Soldier (Stan, Black Swan), perhaps the most treacherous assassin that Captain America has ever faced, who is out to kill him and his friends in the organization for reasons unknown.  To find out, Cap is going to have to investigate his own organization, though he's not sure who to trust any more, not even his own superiors.  With the help of Romanoff and a fellow war vet named Sam Wilson (Mackie, Runner Runner), Rogers is being targeted by good guys and bad guys alike who are out to take him down with deadly force.

Sibling directors Anthony and Joe Russo take over the directorial chores from Joe Johnston, taking on their biggest endeavor ever (their background is in small-scale and small-screen comedies, including the abysmal You Me and Dupree), and they come through with flying colors. Whereas Johnston infused his film with an appropriately retro vibe, the Russos give it a modern, even futuristic vibe as with the other Marvel efforts.  It's a marvelous looking film that eschews green-screening and CGI when possible (though there is still plenty), which may be why it often looks less like a cartoon than other similar efforts.

Returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Dawn Treader, Prince Caspian) continue to score big with the Captain America character, and this time they outdo themselves by making a grand-scale action film with an undertaking that comes closest to rivaling the scope and intricacies of The Avengers as an event (Supporting player Anthony Mackie describes this entry adeptly as Avengers 1.5).  But it's in the smaller, more bittersweet nostalgic moments that The Winter Soldier succeeds, with scenes that have time to breathe and build up character depth before we're whisked off into another incredible set piece. 

The screenplay is gutsy, as Marvel could have just rested on its laurels and continued to churn out formula films like they did with its prior two Phase 2 flicks, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, which had a few interesting insular developments but added very little to the overall universe as a whole.  The Winter Soldier shakes up the status quo of the Avengers-verse in a very permanent way -- where even superheroes can and do get harmed, bleed, and die -- creating fan interest in the next chapter of the Avengers crossover that would not have been there without such risk-taking in its plot.  

The screenplay may fall under the realm of typical superhero-flick formula from time to time, but for the most part, Winter Soldier is more of a straight-up thriller with bursts of explosive action for its first half, before finally cutting loose with a very prolonged (perhaps a touch fatiguing) action climax.  And not just some cheesy knockoff, but one that ties in themes that speak to modern-day issues like the lack of privacy in today's digital age, the overreaching hand of national security, and the mass information culled about us all from an overreaching government entity that tracks our every move.  Is it protection, or is it oppression of the public, to keep them fearful in order to control them? 

It's an eye-opening experience for Steve Rogers, whose most essential core values necessitate trust of his fellow warriors and knowledge that he fights for good, to learn that the government forces he once laid out life and limb is now potentially compromising the beliefs and values he fought so hard to maintain, and may actually be the big bully he had always sworn to take down.

Marvel continues to excel at putting together strong superhero films, getting the right directors and right actors for the task in each successive release.  It's hard to imagine a better Captain America than Chris Evans, who exudes charm, humor, physical strength, and believable wholesomeness.  Perhaps because of his boyishly good looks, perhaps because of his brawn, Evans doesn't get nearly enough credit for actually being a terrific actor and capable leading man.  If you need toughness, sincerity, humor, romanticism, emotional resonance, and 'aw, shucks' old-fashioned values without seeming corny, Evans exudes that stalwart quality through and through.

The supporting cast is terrific, including the ever-calming presence of Robert Redford (All is Lost, Lions for Lambs) as the most influential member of the World Security Council, and most vital mentor to Nick Fury.  Redford's presence hearkens back to such 1970s paranoid thrillers as his own Three Days of the Condor or All the President's Men -- films The Winter Soldier often hearkens to in its storyline of shifty government agencies and public paranoia.  Scarlett Johansson gets a real chance to shine, as she's not as much a supporting player as a sidekick to Captain America, contrasting his virtuous nature well with he kind of real-world earthiness that makes for a good, balanced team, especially as her combat skills are of a similar vein.  And speaking of sidekicks, the supremely enjoyable Anthony Mackie plays the man who in the old Marvel comics would actually be Cap's sidekick for a spell, the Falcon.  Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury is also expanded upon for this film, given much more to do from an action standpoint than in previous entries, showcasing how he became the kind of respected and feared leader he is.

Though the special effects are as first-rate as you'd expect, what definitely gives The Winter Solider a leg up is the quality of the fight choreography.  If you have been wondering just why Captain America is considered a major superhero in the comics universe, his ability to deliver a high-flying kick or wince-inducing blunt attack is in full evidence in this film, which is carried through with some of the best panache I've seen outside of a film made in Hong Kong.  Bad guys don't just get knocked out, they're downright pummeled to submission or tossed through windows for even daring to foolishly think they could best America's ultimate super soldier.  And lest you think that Cap's shield is a silly costume piece of only occasional use, it is shown here as not only the best means of protection, but a most formidable weapon.  He may not be lost without it, but he'd be a lot less invincible.

With solid characterizations, fantastic action, provocative subtexts, bold directions, major reveals, and just good, smart comic book thrills, Captain America: The Winter Soldier easily goes down as one of the best Marvel movies yet, as well as one of the best blockbuster sequels of any variety. McFeely and Markus are now two for two with their Captain America films, perhaps usurping Iron Man's claim to be the Avengers solo hero worth watching most.  If you're already invested in this universe, it's a must-see film, as it sets up for future entries in a very big way.  If you're not, you should catch up to speed ASAP with a triple feature of The First Avenger, The Avengers, and this one; you'll call yourself a fanboy in no time.

-- There is an extended mid-credits scene setting up a future film, as well as a post-credits capper to what's come before.

-- Followed by Avengers: Age of Ultron

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo