We know Marvel has calculated a brilliant master plan for their cinematic universe, and it’s been going pretty well so far, now heading into the second half of Phase Two following Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. But the stakes keep getting amped up with Marvel and the entire genre just got itself a quick hard kick in the ass from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the smartest film so far in their entire roster, and a prime example of how sequels should be done. To say this thinker’s comic book adventure knocks it out of the ballpark is an understatement.
Captain America’s sophomore solo outing boasts a dense plot that has the First Avenger involved with uncovering deep seeded conspiracies that can be traced to the highest levels of S.H.I.E.L.D., who also marked him as a wanted man and facing off with a ghost from his distant past.
Marvel’s darker tone in Phase Two has allowed their big screen solo films to really flourish. We are past both all of the origin stories and first all-star adventure in The Avengers, so now these characters can really cut loose and (except for Iron Man 2), the sequels have consistently found ways to improve on the originals. Captain America: The Winter Solider may be the best entry in the entire Marvel series and ranks as one of the smartest comic book films to date as a entertaining espionage thriller with plenty of exciting action.
Captain Steve Rogers is still getting used to the modern world. He carries around a pen and pad to keep a written list of things he missed during his decades on ice. His mission with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in The Avengers let us see how he initially adjusted to his man out of time scenario. To Joss Whedon’s credit, we were fortunate to get any character development out of Cap while balancing such a large ensemble cast of heroes and villains. In this sequel, we re-join a Rogers who is a far more developed character. The film masterfully builds upon the established big screen history from serviceable origin story in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which took the enlisted Brooklyn weakling from World War II to present day. Make no mistake: The Winter Soldier is THE Captain America movie we’ve been waiting for and Evans proves more than ever how good he is in the role.
Directing brothers Anthony and Joe Russo have Rogers utilizing the full physical potential of his super solder serum enhanced body, which is here is a brutal weapon. Cap can level a dozen S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives in an elevator, take a parachute-less skydive from a military transport, and use his indestructible Vibranium shield as a virtual extension of his body. It’s comic book Cap literally brought to life as Rogers throws his mighty shield at enemies and have it return to his grasp with boomerang-like precision, uses it to deflect barrages of enemy gunfire, and protect him from tons of fallen rubble.
He is completely in tune with his enhanced abilities. He is the perfect and deadliest of soldiers. The film benefits from the larger Marvel playground that has been rapidly expanding since 2008’s Iron Man. The razor sharp screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFelly utilizes a wide (and sometimes unexpected) cast of established supporting characters. Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Flacon is by no means a convenient sidekick. Mackie’s chemistry with Evans is seamless, and hits it off from very the moving first scene in the movie.
In her third big screen appearance, Scarlet Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff finally gets her due, having suffered from being sorely overmatched by rubbing shoulders with gods, monsters and aliens. Her super powerless presence in The Avengers wasn’t the best of situations to showcase her too human skills set. But by placing her alongside Rogers, Falcon and S.H.I.E.L.D. in this grounded spy scenario, it allows Black Widow to finally break out, kick ass and confront her past as a KGB assassin.
Samuel L. Jackson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury gets some long overdue and well deserved character development as well after too many extended cameos of barking out orders in a black leather trench coat. Fury has a full subplot that adds a layer to the dense conspiracy and works well with Robert Redford, who brings a welcome cold steel presence to the cast as senior S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Alexander Pierce.
Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson / The Falcon is by no means a throw away or one-off sidekick, who spreads his mechanics military wings to soar for impressive aerial sequences. From the first scene in the film, his camaraderie with Rogers is set, and proves to be a vital key throughout film. Sebastian Stan reprises his role as Bucky Barnes, now the formidable and menacing Winter Soldier. In another smart aspect of the screenplay, Rogers is forced to confront many echoes from his past, including his best friend from the ’40s who is now also living in the present day and playing on the opposite team.
The overall scope is a game changer here in relation to larger Marvel continuity, even more so than the compartmentalized upheaval suffered by Tony Stark in Iron Man 3. While The Winter Soldier never comes off as anything but big, the enormous third act finale is well worth its steady build up. The narrative consequences will have to be addressed in Avengers: Age of Ultron and cannot be ignored in ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., further strengthening Marvel’s overall mission of making each film count in the grand story arc.
With snappy dialogue, a few fun notable winks to the fans, plenty of spectacular action sequences and incredible interplay among the large ensemble cast, Captain America: The Winter Soldier completely succeeds as a comic book movie while doing double duty as a non-stop old school tense espionage thriller. It’s also easily the most violent of the series, there is no hiding the high body count. The top-notch screenplay is incredibly smart, and even clocking in at over two hours, the film manages to maintain a perfect pace. Throw in an entertaining huge finale and two bonus end credits scenes, what you have is a crowning achievement in the already well-oiled Marvel movie machine.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens in 2D, 3D and IMAX on April 4th.
REVIEW RATING: ★★★★½★
Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlet Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Studio: Disney & Marvel Studios
Running Time: 136 minutes