If you’ve ever wondered how cool it would be if a superhero movie was combined with an espionage thriller, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a dream come true. It’s as much “The Rogers Ultimatum” as it is an irresistibly cool blockbuster, and though a totally different film than the quality origin story of “Captain America: The First Avenger,” it’s an even better one.
If you didn’t think Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe (now loving referred to by most as “the MCU”) could get any more complicated, guess again. “Winter Soldier” turns the entire thing on its head, with major implications for future Marvel films as well as the Marvel TV show “Agents of SHIELD.” Without spoiling anything, the premise is that there’s some deception going on within the ranks of the Marvel world’s most powerful organization.
In response to the Chitauri invasion in “The Avengers,” SHIELD has moved full speed ahead with Project Insight, a plan to launch of series of satellite-controlled helicarriers capable of instantly eliminating major threats anywhere in the world. This much power, however, doesn’t gel with Captain America’s beliefs, and he and SHIELD are a little at odds with each other.
Keeping Captain America’s second solo adventure conjoined with SHIELD’s narrative and characters such as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gives this film more weight, as though it’s a sequel to “The Avengers” as much as it’s a sequel to “First Avenger.” It makes sense too, as the context of Captain America (Chris Evans) finding his place and his role in a modern world necessitates SHIELD’s involvement, as Cap is a “man out of time” with no public persona in the modern day. As much as the script dives head first into a thriller, it never loses sight of Rogers’ personal journey, which is an impressive feat.
Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who crafted “First Avenger,” were handed this totally different concept and yet make it work so well on so many fronts. It’s the best screenplay in terms of plot that Marvel Studios has put together in its brief but impressive six-year history.
Behind the camera, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo prove Marvel Studios knows exactly how to scout directing talent, putting its faith in the directors of TV comedies “Community” and “Happy Endings” to make an action-packed, violent, high-stakes superhero film without a shred of doubt. The Russos’ eye for stylish, wow-moment action shots exceeds their sense of humor to the point you’d hardly believe their own credentials. The film surprises constantly with how many ways an indestructible shield can be used as a weapon, and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon puts other Marvel sidekicks to shame (looking at you, War Machine).
Mackie makes an instantly likable addition to the cast, so much so it’s almost a shame he didn’t get his own headlining hero, such as Marvel’s Black Panther. Something similar could be said for Frank Grillo as Rumlow. Robert Redford’s added gravitas as SHIELD bigwig Alexander Pierce will still be a pleasant surprise even after the movie is over.
The complexity of “Winter Soldier” is pretty astounding, especially because it works. Part of it is a sequel to “First Avenger,” part of it is a SHIELD move, part of it is an “Avengers” follow-up, etc. “Winter Soldier” succeeds in all of those roles and in incorporating so many elements, from character development to big-time action to big twists and turns. That level of ambition generally results in generic praises of “highly entertaining” mixed with “messy” or “convoluted.” This film blends them together with few visible seams.
“Winter Soldier” is probably a better film than “The Avengers,” but the giddy factor of having all those main characters in one movie is hard to make up for under even the best of circumstances. A more worthy discussion for this movie is just how well the previous Marvel films set the tone for this one to do something bigger and bolder.
We’re familiar with the characters, with SHIELD, with the Marvel universe, so much so that Marvel Studios recognizes we already are bringing a lot to the viewing experience before the film ever begins, so it can bend the rules a bit. Courteously, it does not do so in an exclusive way. Even if you haven’t seen “First Avenger,” this film catches you up to speed; it’s the additional layers of enjoyment for fans of different engagement levels that makes the franchise work so well. “Winter Soldier” would still be wildly entertaining without it, but it wouldn’t fire so impressively on all its cylinders.
If the film itself weren’t enough, it leaves a distinct imprint on the rest of the MCU and makes the possibility of “Captain America 3” all the more exciting.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Ed Brubaker, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (comic)
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie