Superhero movie. Action flick. Spy thriller. Take your pick. All of the above (and then some) apply to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the ninth film in the Marvel cinematic universe and the third of five planned in phase two of the series. The fanboys are still with me. Is everyone else? Okay. Follow along. Phase one consisted of the terrific game changer Iron Man, followed by the not so hot until the third act Incredible Hulk, followed by the crushing letdown of Iron Man 2, followed by the pretty good period piece Captain America: The First Avenger, and concluding with the final “lead-up” film and a bit over emphatic Thor; all of which culminated to the inevitable release of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, which was, and still is, the standard of superhero movies (excluding The Dark Knight trilogy). It’s two years later, and since The Avengers we’ve seen Tony Stark drag his suit through the snow and discover a drunken actor babbling about a new role he’s been given to supply his drug habit and we’ve seen Thor and Loki team up to, you guessed it, save the earth from an enemy from space whilst zipping through dimensions. It’s all cool. Two relatively strong entries into phase two already (say what you want about Iron Man 3, it wasn’t that bad… but yes, Thor 2 was better). The keyword there is relatively strong. Throw them both to the side and kneel before Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film so smart, engaging, and flat out entertaining that it throws itself at the front of not only this cinematic universe, but the Marvel canon in general.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that The Winter Soldier is the best Marvel movie ever, as a lot of people are saying, nor am I saying it is as good as, or better than The Avengers, as a lot of people are saying. What I am saying is this: those people have every reason to say so. It will require more thought and more viewings before I can make that decision indefinitely. But here’s the kicker. It doesn’t matter. Don’t get too caught up in comparing this to Whedon’s 2012 hit. If you do so, you could miss everything that sets this one apart. This is different from the others. Not like Iron Man 3, which had a black comedic tone that was obviously cast by director Shane Black. The Winter Soldier is different in about every way. And it’s a good thing.
Track with me. It’s been two years since the events of The Avengers. We are finally seeing just how Steve Rodgers (a never better Chris Evans, proving his born-for-this-role persona with each scene) is personally and socially adapting to the new world after being thawed at the conclusion of The First Avenger. Sometimes it’s a laugh riot as we see the things he is trying to learn and adjust himself to. Being the closest to S.H.I.E.L.D. of all of the Avengers, we see a lot of what is going on behind the scenes of the organization; higher up in the chain, not like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. material. We see Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, having as much fun as one would expect in this role) quite a bit in this movie, Robert Redford (giving a calm and hypnotic performance) comes in as a high authoritative figure, and Natasha Romanoff (a sleek and sexy Scarlett Johansson, having the most fun she’s had as Black Widow) is kicking ass with Cap. And let’s not forget Anthony Mackie, stepping into the role of the Falcon, having a blast teaming up with Cap. Mackie is hilarious and a welcome addition to this film. But as events unfold, S.H.I.E.L.D. is proving to be more untrustworthy by the minute (just what Rodgers needs while trying to gain trust in those around him), and to make matters worse, a new enemy has risen from among the shadows known only as the Winter Soldier, who has a more personal connection with Steve Rodgers than S.H.I.E.L.D. let him believe. The rest is left for you to see for yourselves, for I never have spoilers in my reviews unless indicated.
After stating the plot, why not kick off the critiquing with the writing. The script for The Winter Soldier is penned by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and is adapted (or should I say inspired by) the Winter Soldier comic arc by Ed Brubaker. Having read that comic arc and loving virtually every page of it, I went into this film knowing certain plot elements and outcomes, yet still managed to be surprised, and that is to the credits of these two writers. Having also written the script for Captain America: The First Avenger, Markus and McFeely had credentials and history with this character, so it was safe to say the material was in safe hands. But I don’t think anyone expected this. This script deviates from the source material a massive amount, but it doesn’t matter. This isn’t a film adaptation of that story, it’s a film based around the ideas of that story, and because of that, this movie took certain turns I didn’t see coming, which brought a sense of intensity and interest. Along the same lines, and without spoilers, I loved what the two did with the character of the Winter Soldier, bringing him at the right times, and creating a sense of dread, fear, and even sympathy as the film progresses. But it’s not only the story elements that make this script so good, it’s the dialogue. In The First Avenger we spent the entire running time, save the final few moments, in the WWII era. In The Avengers, Joss Whedon had to balance all the characters together into one movie, not focusing too much on one character. So, with The Winter Soldier, one of the large tasks is to show us, the audience, what Steve Rodgers is going through and facing in adapting to modern times, and this script presents that in a manner almost as sharp and witty as Joss Whedon himself could have presented it. Whether it’s a “to-do list” in Rodger’s pocket focusing on modern fads or his conversations with Natasha featuring pop culture references, it all feels welcome and never forced, and I commend Markus and McFeely for bringing Cap to modern day with a ferocious sense of humor.
Anthony Russo and Joe Russo direct this film, following The First Avenger director Joe Johnston (who also directed Jurassic Park III, but we won’t go there). Johnston didn’t do anything terrible with the first Captain America movie, but it was like Kenneth Branaugh, who directed Thor. There was room for improvement. Here, the Russos do a remarkable job at directing. For starters, some of the shots they get in this movie blew my mind. Gorgeous shots of city buildings, excellent camera placement during car chases and/or crashes, and a shot of Captain America facing the Winter Soldier toward the finale of the film, to name a few. But it isn’t just the shots that are memorable. How about those fight scenes? One of the first sequences of the film featured a stealth based fight scene that had some truly excellent choreography and sound editing. To be quite frank, some of the fight scenes in this movie, largely due to quality and the rarely effective shaky cam, reminded me of one of the three original Bourne films. They were some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. That also goes for car chases and crashes. The sound editing was skull crushingly accurate and effective. The score for the movie, especially when the Winter Soldier appeared on screen, was intense and exceptional. It made the scenes come alive. Oh, and watch out for the scene involving Nick Fury, the Winter Soldier, and the police cruisers. It may just blow you away.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Thanks to exceptional direction from the Russo Brothers, a strong script, and great performances from its dedicated stars, Captain America: The Winter Soldier overcomes any hint of campy elements that could be expected from a hero named “Captain America,” and instead hustles itself to the front line of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While it’s a bit too early for this reviewer to say that The Winter Soldier is better than The Avengers, I will end this review by saying this: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best movie of Phase 2 so far, and not only is it one of the absolute best in this Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s among the absolute best under the Marvel label in general.