I have to say that I wasn’t particularly thrilled by Captain America: The First Avenger. As the last film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be released before The Avengers, it felt like just one more piece in the puzzle rather than a compelling story in its own right. That’s not to say that I disliked the film, or that it was particularly bad (still a big step ahead of Iron Man 2), it just wasn’t as interesting to me as Thor or Iron Man. It was another solid origin story, with a strong cast and a fun setting, but the end result of the film seemed to just serve as setup for The Avengers. (In a recent rewatch of that film, I’ve realized that I might have judged it a little too harshly upon my first viewing.) Three years and four movies later we now have Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which might be the most complex and interesting film Marvel has made to date, not to mention one of the most entertaining, and it’s a game-changer for the universe its predecessor helped to create.
The Winter Soldier picks up a few years after we last saw Captain Steve Rogers in the Battle of New York at the end of The Avengers. Rogers splits his time between living in Washington, D.C., flirting with his cute neighbor and trying to catch up on 60 years of popular culture, and going on missions for Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., often with Natasha Romanoff as a partner. We watch the two of them mount a rescue of a ship captured by pirates, with Rogers jumping from an airplane without a parachute before taking out the pirates, all while discussing his personal life with Romanoff whenever they get a break in the action. Since we last saw him, he’s become a little blasé about his activities, perhaps due to Romanoff rubbing off on him a bit, and he doesn’t feel like he’s making as much of a difference as he could. That’s called even more into question when he discovers that their “rescue mission” was actually cover for Romanoff to recover intelligence and was never about the hostages at all.
Rogers heads to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters for a chat with Nick Fury, who reveals Project Insight, a fleet of Helicarriers with satellite uplink designed to eliminate threats before they get a chance to come to fruition. Rogers, with his WWII-era ethics, objects to Fury’s “shoot first” attitude, and Fury responds with the pragmatic view that S.H.I.E.L.D. operates as necessary to keep people safe. Everything changes, however, when Fury’s SUV is attacked and Rogers is forced to go on the run by Fury’s boss, Alexander Pierce. Rogers must work to uncover a plot within S.H.I.E.L.D. while struggling to decide who to trust, and his mission will wrap him, Romanoff, Fury, Rogers’ new friend Sam Wilson up in a threat that will shake the very foundation of everything that Marvel has built thus far through nine films. It will also bring him face to face with the Winter Soldier, a mysterious assassin with a metal arm and strength and speed to match even Captain America.
It’s hard to discuss The Winter Soldier without giving away crucial plot points and spoiling some aspect of the film. The film, which was heavily inspired by the political thrillers of the 1970’s, twists and turns, with surprises, shocks and betrayals around every corner. It’s also the biggest film yet in the MCU, both in terms of scale and significance. While The Avengers brought the superheroes together for the first time, they all went their separate ways afterwards. With The Winter Soldier, there’s no going back after this film. The events we see over two hours will have major and immediate effects on the rest of the MCU (beginning with Agents of SHIELD), and one of the most impressive aspects of the film is its daring. It takes characters we’ve spent the last several years growing to care about and drops a grenade in their midst, and we only scratch the surface of the chaos that erupts during the course of the movie. I can’t remember another film like The Winter Soldier having ever been released before, with the potential for such a wide ranging impact to come for multiple franchises. If Iron Man 3 upped the emotional and psychological stakes for our cast of characters, showing us the potential depth that these stories allow, The Winter Soldier shows us the potential for storytelling that exists in a universe as broad as the MCU.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is also the most action-packed film that Marvel has yet produced. The Russo Brothers (Anthony and Joe, whose resume is mostly filled with episodes of TV comedies like Arrested Development and Community) have a seriously impressive eye and sense of pacing. Action, particularly on the scale of The Winter Soldier, can be tremendously difficult to balance (just look at the final 45 minutes of Man of Steel), and the Russo Brothers pull it of spectacularly. From the special-ops inspired opening sequence to a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat car chase to the soaring and complex climax, they manage to not only hold your attention but get you to feel the emotional stakes for the characters. They also have a great timing for comedy, and the script (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) is surprisingly funny. But beyond action and comedy, The Winter Soldier is about something bigger. The film has a lot to say on a variety of topics and seems tied into the sorts of news stories we hear every day. Central to the story is what role a spy organization plays in the modern world as well as what limits (if any) there should be on its power, but the movie also makes time for commentary on the balance of freedom and security and an exploration of the burdens soldiers carry when they return home from war. (There’s even a shockingly honest criticism of the “greatest generation” that really helps to capture the ideas at the heart of the film.) Very few action films can be thrilling, funny and deep at the same time, especially as many of them fail to pull off even one or two of those aspects, and within the last year Marvel has delivered two that outpace almost everything else.
The anchor of The Winter Soldier is Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. Rogers, as we catch up to him, is still struggling to adjust to the modern world, but is at least actively trying to engage in it. The moral compromises he’s had to make are obviously taking a toll on him, but he still believes he’s fighting for the good guys. Of course, as things become murkier and more complex, even Captain America must struggle to find his place in society. Evans plays Rogers as suitably world-weary, with an idealism that’s been dragged through the mud but can never be completely extinguished, and he really helps ground some of the more fantastical elements of the story. At his side is Romanoff, whose values have been compromised into nonexistence. Scarlett Johansson is in many ways the star of the film, and she has a world-weariness that matches Rogers’, though hers comes from having played all the sides and filled every role imaginable. While Captain America fights to reconcile his sense of self with the reality of the world, Romanoff has to figure out who she wants to be within this complex world that she knows so well. They’re such polar opposites but they’re perfectly matched as opposite sides of the same coin, both necessary to do what needs to be done.
The rest of the cast are great as well. Samuel L. Jackson has a bigger role to play here than even in The Avengers, and he makes the most of it. In many ways as the face of S.H.I.E.L.D., his Nick Fury has the most to lose when things start to go badly, and Jackson handles that burden with his typical swagger and badassitude. Cobie Smulders returns as Maria Hill, who is tough and in charge in her short time onscreen. The two newcomers really help sell the film, however. First is Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, looking sharp in a suit as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., and he really gives the film that 1970’s thriller vibe that it’s going for. Redford is always great, and it’s a sign of how far superhero movies have come that an actor of his caliber and reputation would take a role of this sort. Then there’s Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, a war veteran who Rogers befriends, who is the heart and soul of the flim. Wilson gives Rogers someone he can truly relate to for the first time, as they both have experienced the horrors and losses of war, an experience that is similar no matter the time period. As a S.H.I.E.L.D. outsider, Wilson also gets to give us a fresh view of its tactics and morals, a welcome viewpoint in a film filled with insiders. Only Emily VanCamp’s Agent 13 fails to make much of an impression, although she does have a good moment or two. I expect she was thrown in mostly as an introduction in advance of Captain America 3, which is fine on its own but a little disappointing considering her presence in the film’s marketing.
When a Captain America sequel was first announced I didn’t know exactly what to expect. While I enjoyed the first film, as I said it wasn’t particularly compelling to me. I loved how Joss Whedon used the character in The Avengers, but I was still unsure of what they would do with him in a standalone movie in the present day. The trailers certainly caught my interest, but I can honestly say I never expected something on the level of The Winter Soldier. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. The Avengers was the end of Marvel’s Phase One, bringing together these separate heroes for the first time, and it was as big and memorable as we all expected. But with The Winter Soldier, I was completely blown away. In many ways it felt like it was the end of a larger Phase One (instead of in the middle of Phase 2), that began in 2008 with Iron Man, more like the final song at the end of act one of a musical, the song that changes everything right before the curtain drops. That’s always the show-stopping song that ends up stuck in your head for weeks, whether it’s “Defying Gravity” or “One Day More,” and that’s exactly the feeling I left the theater with. More than any other film thus far, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the culmination of everything that came before it, and will have the biggest impact on things going forward. For a film in that position to be as fun, emotional and exciting as this is truly remarkable, and I can’t wait to see what comes next (especially considering the obligatory mid-credits and post-credits scenes).