Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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).

A+

33 thoughts on “Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

  1. I like your descriptions of the sequel’s versions of Steve and Natasha. They were a great double-act and really the heart of the movie. Great review!

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  2. ‘Thought you’d enjoy it. I’m intrigued to see how this changes Agents of SHIELD. I was listening to an interview with the directors and apparently when they showed this to the writers of the TV show they were greeted with very stoney faces.

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  5. AT LAST LOVE PIRATE LOGS IN ON CAP!

    (PS, this contains spoilers)

    I have to admit to being nearly as old and anachronistic as Cap himself. I grew up comics impaired (unless you count the George Reeves Superman on TV), and didn’t really catch up until Superhero films became a thing, and someone loaned me vintage X-Men.

    I had no idea who Cap was until the Avengers films. (sorry, bad bad me). Upon seeing the first film (which I enjoyed greatly), I understood… he’s a familiar archetype, one I grew up with; the mythic Golden Hero (opposite of the Dark Hero, think Batman), the White Hat, the Shining Knight. He’s very much like another Rogers… Roy… the white hat on the golden horse, a sum of our ideals and values, the icon of what we wish we were as a country.

    I like Steve Rogers’ anachronistic qualities, both the stout sense of values, and the complete clueless derpyness, the Man Out of Time quality, the slight alienation (Thor shares this fish out of water quality, which is why both of them are my favorite Avengers). While my spiritual views are far more universal than Cap’s, I applaud his expression of them, and the fact we can see this is the comic genre.

    Chris Evans pulls off a rare and wonderful (especially to us female fans) combination of sweet, honorable, vulnerable (oh let me just kiss that and make it better) and raw butt-kicking power. Please can that and clone it. Never mind the insanely trapezoidal upper body thing. Ack. One thing I noted in all the films is how each Avenger has a style of movement; Thor all raw thunderous power, Hulk, smash, ’nuff said, Hawk, compact and efficient… Cap moves like an Olympic Athlete pushed to the next forty-eight levels, a sleek leopard, not wasting a single move. Important to remember, boys, is that simply having a trapezoidal body and Olympic capabilities can make you a Jock Jerk… it is Cap’s character, his intelligence, his understated humor, his honor, his sweetness that makes him appealing.

    Pairing him with Natasha is perfect: polar opposites, yin and yang, Dark Hero and Golden Hero balancing each other. Robert Redford and Samuel L Jackson in the same frame, what can I say… a small mushroom cloud of awesomeness just went up. And Falcon.

    Falcon. Yep. He’d better be back. And I want the suit.

    And we won’t even mention the potential of Bucky… and how this other, darker, more troubled Man Out of Time will change Captain America when he inherits the shield.

    Now, I have questions…

    How is it he didn’t know Peggy was alive, and that she didn’t know he was??????????????
    I had to watch that scene twice before I realized she thought he was some sort of deathbed vision/ghost/hallucination/angel visitation before he handed her the water and touched her hand…

    and…

    WHATTHEHECK? HOW DID THEY GET THE BLUE GLOWEY THING OF LOKI?!?!?!?

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    • You’re exactly right in comparing him to Roy Rogers, that’s exactly the parallel I thought of too. That and the original incarnation of the Lone Ranger. The tendency these days is towards Dark Heroes, and while that’s an interesting avenue to explore, I’m glad that the Cap movie has done so well, proving that people like a wider variety of heroes.

      I saw an interesting comparison between the ending of this film and the ending of Man of Steel that I thought you might like. It talked about how Superman’s solution to the problem was to snap his enemy’s neck, while Cap’s was to sacrifice himself and let himself be beaten to a pulp in order to not only save the day but offer the villain a chance at redemption. Obviously, the situations aren’t completely parallel, but it was still a great point to make.

      As for your question, I imagine that Peggy was suffering from Alzheimer’s in that scene we saw, which is why she was having trouble with the fact that Cap is still alive. It was pretty sad.

      As for how HYDRA got Loki’s staff/spear/scepter, I imagine that SHIELD collected it after The Avengers, but that some HYDRA agents inside SHIELD smuggled it out for HYDRA to play with.

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  6. and PPS….

    As a character, Bucky has such great potential…. the Winter Soldier has this classic Dark Villain/Potential Hero raw power, badass black leather, “Bucky take the wheel” moments (someone memed that one, where he rips the wheel out of Cap’s escape vehicle), his face has that wild Black Stallion mane, shadowed eyes, grim expression… yet, if you look again, Sebastian Stan has a boyish quality, a slight roundness to his features, (yea, even cute) something that may yet return to goodness and light.

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    • You may not know this, but in the comics Bucky (post Winter Soldier) took over as Captain America after Steve Rogers was killed. I think there is definitely a lot of potential for Bucky as a character, which is good because he supposedly signed on for something ridiculous like 9 films or something. (I may be exaggerating, but it was a lot.)

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      • Thanks for the insights!
        I was trying to remember if there was something in any of the films, or credits, that suggested that Steve had looked up Peggy…
        that HYDRA had got the Loki spear…

        …and I am fairly comics impaired (though I love the films, and I did read a bunch of vintage stuff for X-Men and Spiderman), and Cap is a fairly new character for me. I had heard about Bucky taking over the mantle of Captain America (again, one of those heroes who can be inhabited by various folk who have the right temperament and physical skills) at some point. I don’t remember if they bring Cap back (nobody in the Marvel Universe seems to stay dead)…

        There was a neat interview with Chris Evans in which we learn the backstory of his reluctance to sign on for a ridiculous number of films (freeeeedom! freeeeeeeeedom!!!). It seems Iron Man finally convinced him that being Cap would give him the freedom to pursue his other projects. (now how could you turn down an offer to be Captain America???) I am more impressed with his acting abilities after seeing him in some interviews. He and Anthony Mackie would be a hoot to hang out with… and they are very different from their characters. Kudos to both for giving us such great characters.

        I think Sebastian Stan has some great potential there….

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        • He is a super soldier and a military hero during World War II he is Private Steve Rogers became Captain America the first avenger leader of the US led platoon battles Nazi forces of Adolf Hitler and Hydra Organization led by Red Skull leader of a secret organization attempt to takeover the world Captain America and his allies defeated his enemies and the Allied a Forces won over Nazi Germany Red Skull defeated by Captain America during his risky mission he died in a plane crash over the Arctic Circle try to destroy the Tree of a Life/Ygdrassil legendary power source found in Scandinavia during the 8th centuries under Viking rule and disposed into the sea and never used it again for destroying the world and mankind us secured saved by the first avenger and protector of the Allied Forces of the world. Thanks for the information . From:Wayne. http://www.marvelcomics.com

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      • His real name was Corporal William Barnes a true friend of Steve Rogers/Captain America becomes Bucky his backup partner and enforcer he died in a plane crash and recovered by Soviet archaelogist and scientist becomes a pro-communist pro-Russian mercenary /super soldier was trained by Russian army and the KGB his name was the Winter Soldier a ruthless assassin attempt to try to kill The Avengers and Captain America as well also to annihilate X-Men and the Fantastic Four as prime targets of the Winter Soldier a hero or a villain and a estranged friend of Steve Rogers/Captain America. Thanks! From:Wayne. http://www.marvelcomics.com

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