The merry Marvel movie making machine chugs along as Phase 2 is fully underway. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World scored at the box office as they capitalized on the runaway success of The Avengers, the third highest grossing film of all time. If you had told a comic book fan decades ago that Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America would be at the center of a billion dollar franchise, they would probably think you were crazier than Deadpool. Despite being integral parts of the Marvel Universe for nearly half a century, they were considered B-list characters while Spider-Man and the X-Men were the publisher’s big sellers. The landscape of the comic book and movie industries has changed.
Captain America: The First Avenger wasn’t as critically praised as some of Marvel Studios’ other releases, but it stood out in the deluge of superhero movies thanks to a period setting and a strong nostalgic feel courtesy of director Joe Johnston, who also helmed the underrated Rocketeer. Since then, Captain America (Chris Evans) has been thawed from his icy slumber, joined the Avengers, and emerged victorious against an alien invasion. In The Winter Soldier, he still finds himself acclimating to a modern world where black and white has merged into shades of gray. After rescuing a freighter ship from a band of pirates, Cap is disgusted to learn that the vessel was a SHIELD installation covertly spying on other nations. He’s even less pleased when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his superior Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) drop the bombshell of a new operation that will launch additional Helicarriers into a connected network of surveillance and devastating weaponry.
Cap’s concerns are validated when Fury is attacked by a masked mercenary known as The Winter Soldier, who is revealed to be best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), left for dead after a raid on a HYDRA train. Barnes has been brainwashed by the secret organization that has infiltrated SHIELD at the highest levels. Hunted down by nearly every resource at SHIELD’s disposal, Cap must rely on a skeleton crew of allies that includes Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and pararescue trooper Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) aka The Falcon.
Marvel made a risky choice when they selected Joe and Anthony Russo as the directing team. The only substantial credits on the resume of the Brothers Russo were several episodes of Arrested Development and Community. Despite a background in sitcoms, the Russos excelled at creating a vibrant superhero film. Unfortunately, Winter Soldier suffers from an overreliance on shaky cam and rapid editing when it comes to hand to hand fight scenes. Luckily, the camera is allowed to breathe during many of the more elaborate set pieces and there are plenty of them. This time around, Captain America proves why he is a super-soldier during the opening prologue as he takes down a team of mercenaries before a showdown with MMA fighter Georges St. Pierre as Batroc the Leaper. Cap sends a man flying into the air with one kick while slinging his trademark shield off parts of the ship to knock out numerous opponents. He also fights a dozen HYDRA agents inside an elevator and single-handedly destroys a quinjet. Cap’s supporting cast also gets their chance to shine with Black Widow kicking ass and the Falcon soaring through the sky with a winged jet pack. Mackie, by the way, is exceptionally charismatic.
Samuel L. Jackson gets more to do here than in past pictures, including an exhilarating car chase through the streets of Washington D.C. Even the use of technology has added to the cool factor with Fury driving an SUV with a heads-up display and automated driving system. There’s also a face reveal that puts anything in Mission: Impossible to shame.
Make no mistake, Winter Soldier isn’t a hollow series of explosions, there’s a lot of heart and gravitas underneath all the CGI. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have imbued the film with the gritty nature of a 70’s political thriller. The casting of Robert Redford from All the President’s Men and 3 Days of the Condor will certainly attest to that. The geeks have truly won when you have Robert Redford in a Marvel movie saying, “Hail Hydra.” Hot button topics like the war on terror, the use of drones, government surveillance of its citizens, and Edward Snowden have inspired the crux of the plot.
In the face of all this turmoil stands the unwavering integrity of Steve Rogers. It’s refreshing to see a protagonist who is so earnest and filmmakers who do not shy away from those traits. This is a stark contrast to Warner Bros’ attempt to darken the image of the Big Blue Boy Scout, Superman. Though there’s an added dimension of humor to Cap through his banter with Widow and Falcon, Chris Evans has truly grown into the role of the super-soldier. The most heartbreaking moment where Cap visits the bedside of an elderly Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and you discover that she has Alzheimer’s. Evans and Atwell are excellent in the scene and the CG used to age Atwell is utterly convincing, light years ahead of the shoddy make-up in Prometheus or J. Edgar. At the same time, producers have not forgotten this is a comic book movie. The story takes a turn for the bizarre when Cap and Widow find a hidden chamber containing an archaic computer system housing the consciousness of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). Thanks to a little voice modulation and a cartoonish accent by Jones, the scene becomes a distinctive method to dump exposition.
Without a doubt, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best film rolled out by Marvel in the second phase of their slate. It could easily be considered one of the best overall, right alongside Iron Man and The Avengers.