Before getting into my review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a confession is in order. Back in my snotty-nosed and comic-clutching youth, I hated Captain America. “Too boring,” said I. Later I used words like “propagandistic” and “passé” both before and after I knew what they meant. When Kevin Feige and Marvel announced their Avengers cinematic roll out, it was the Captain America film series that I dreaded the most. Then the unexpected happened. Somehow, the Captain America turned out to be the most consistently entertaining and unpredictable non-Iron Man Marvel franchise. Feige and co. have approached the series with an understanding of the characters’ pitfalls as much as his strengths. The first Captain America movie openly satirized Cap’s propaganda origin and silly costume. The Avengers turned his dated ideals into a running gag. Now Captain America: The Winter Soldier has not only pitted Cap against America, but transformed the series into a 70s-style paranoid political thriller a la Three Days Of The Condor (that Robert Redford stunt casting is no accident). It’s as if Kevin Feige knew how much I hated the character and went out of his way to make me love Steve Rogers. Of course, I’m not nearly narcissistic enough to believe that or consider myself the only person with Cap skepticism. It’s just been a pleasant surprise to suddenly find myself desperately anticipating the next cinematic adventure of a character that I mocked mercilessly as a teenager.
Things kick off with some good old-fashioned butt kicking as Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) break up a big boat hostage situation with fists, guns, and a certain iconic shield. However, the fact that Widow had a secret info-grabbing mission that Cap didn’t know about concerns our trusty hero. So the man with the shield demands some answers from the man who runs SHIELD, good ol’ Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson). Turns out that Fury is supervising a new international defense initiative that involves a fleet of heli-carriers floating around the planet to monitor and analyze every citizen without them noticing and taking machine gun action to prevent crimes/terrorism before they happen. It’s a Watergate-era paranoid fantasy with Edward Snowden contemporary cred, organized by Robert Redford in slimy liberal politician mode. Cap doesn’t take to kindly to the idea and rather quickly, SHIELD doesn’t take too kindly to him. Soon Cap n’ Widow are on the run, pursued by a fleet of government operatives and a super-powered masked missionary named The Winter Soldier. If you’ve read the comics or pay attention to the face-slap foreshadowing, you’ll know who that Winter Soldier is and will also smirk out a smile once the words “Hail Hydra” are uttered. The movie is just as littered with comic book in-jokes and references as every previous title shot out of the Marvel Movie canon, but this time the action feels more gritty, ground level, and “realistic” with little brooding.
As always, Kevin Feige hired unexpected filmmakers to helm this sequel and they ended up being the perfect choice. The sibling-directing duo of Anthony and Joe Russo previously worked exclusively in comedy on films like Welcome To Collingwood and TV shows like Arrested Development and Community. Yet, despite sprinkling in liberal doses of humor, their focus is on relentless paranoia, suspense, and action that never lets up. The political commentary at the film’s center is well handled (pitching exaggerated contemporary US surveillance issues against the old timey values of Captain America was pretty ingenious) and Redford classes up the picture a notch by doing all the heavy lifting in that area. However, that element never consumes the movie. It’s merely backdrop. This is primarily a rip-roaring action movie with Cap and the Widow at the center. The Russos’ focus on foot chases, choreographed fights, and car carnage that work like gangbusters. If the first Captain America movie offered wartime hero nostalgia, this one hinges on spy and paranoia thriller nostalgia in just as satisfying a way. The cast is strong and it’s a bullet train of entertainment even with a saggy 138 minute running time. Weirdly, the film’s primary weaknesses arrive when the movie serves the Marvel Movie Universe rather than its own needs.
Much of The Winter Soldier’s running time is dedicated to establishing new franchise regulars and removing (or at least temporarily derailing) one of the lynchpins of the first phase of the Marvel Movie Universe. Thankfully, this isn’t as distracting as it was in Iron Man 2, but definitely slows things down. Oddly, the titular Winter Soldier is the least developed central plot thread. It’s clearly all been left vague to leave open doors for sequels, and that’s fine. But why make that the title if it’s not the focus? Still, these complaints and any others (like some distracting Scarlett stunt doubling or the useless post-conversion 3D) qualify as piddling and nitpicking at best. It might not be perfect, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier ranks in the top tier of Marvel productions and thus far is the finest hour of Phase 2. The blockbuster is smart, funny, dramatic, relentlessly action-packed, and moves the grand Marvel narrative forward in a few key steps. To satisfy all those threads requires a lot of juggling that the Russos pull off with an ease that deserves applause. This is a big win for Feige and Marvel that proves not only is their production conveyer belt still working, but the team still has quite a few surprises up their sleeves. My teenage self would be disgusted to learn that Captain America is now one of my favorite movie superheroes. This tricky franchise has been handled brilliantly so far, and at this point I’ll be approaching the initially head-scratching Guardians Of The Galaxy movie with giddy excitement. What once felt like a risky project now feels like brilliantly ballsy one and it’s hard to imagine that Marvel is going to drop the ball any time soon. Certainly not with the next Avengers movie coming next, anyways.