Is this the second Cap movie? The third if you count Avengers? Does an “Easter egg” cameo in Thor: The Dark World count as an appearance? Captain America: The Winter Soldier is advertised as the sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger, but there are a lot of pipelines feeding into Winter Soldier, including every cinematic appearance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to this point as well as TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which this film will almost certainly affect.
We’re going to have to start thinking of these films as serialized chapters of the Marvel universe, a new amalgamation of television, comics and film, and not what we’ve formerly called “movies.” The Winter Soldier probably wouldn’t be as good as it is if it weren’t another thrilling episode of the Marvel Universe Show. It pays off Nick Fury and Black Widow’s appearances in Iron Man movies and Avengers in a way that’s more substantial than what happens to Captain America (Chris Evans) by the end of this film. In any other story, this might feel like a narrative short changing; the ending being focused so heavily on what happens to Cap’s buddies at the expense of what happens to the title character(s), but this is Marvel. It’s just another chapter; watch this postcredits stinger and see. And if that one left you confused, here, have another.
What I can say in all confidence is that The Winter Soldier is the best “part two” of the line. It’s a spectacularly violent move into Bourne territory, with enhanced supersoldiers kicking the ever-livin’ daylights out of each other over what freedom really means. In this case, Cap is pitted against forces within S.H.I.E.L.D. when he objects to Project Insight, the agency’s plan to unleash three satellite-controlled helicarriers capable of wiping out thousands of people at a time with the push of a button. S.H.I.E.L.D. head Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) thinks this is a terrific idea; Captain America does not. Funny how the people who object to S.H.I.E.L.D. suddenly become the targets of the Winter Soldier, a cyborg-armed, black-ops assassin that spies tell each other about like a campfire ghost story.
It’s unclear how much of a mystery Marvel wants the identity of this character to be. The studio hasn’t shied away from using the actor in promotional materials (the “Assembling a Universe” TV special just stated it outright), but it is asking advance audiences to keep it mum and the plot certainly reveals it as if it’s a mystery (though heavily foreshadowed). Comic fans might worry that Winter Soldier’s identity is the only big reveal in the film, and I’m happy to say that it really isn’t.
There are elements of Captain America lore and the typical Marvel Easter eggs worked into the plot in unexpected ways. Even if there weren’t any fan service, the screenplay is punchy enough. It’s comic booky but logical and it stays just enough ahead of you to give it zip but not lose you. These things are designed with kids in mind (somewhat - The Winter Soldier features enough munitions to make the Punisher jealous), and I imagine The Winter Solider will be a lot of preteens’ first shadow-government conspiracy thriller.
Chris Evans returns to Cap in capable form, but his best scenes are the ones that harken back to World War II, whether that’s in flashbacks with best friend Bucky Barnes or modern-day moments where the Avenger ties up loose ends from his own past. Evans, and perhaps the script, have a tendency to make Steve Rogers a little too glib at times, but its keeping within the post-Avengers Joss Whedon influence across all properties. Scarlett Johansson benefits the most here from her time in that team film, and it’s hard to believe this is the same character who vamped through Iron Man 2 in a ringlet wig. Natasha is more relaxed, almost earthy at times, and although she’s missing the world-weariness that the script calls for, she comes alive in the action scenes.
Frankly, this is the best Samuel L. Jackson has ever been in a Marvel film and it only took a half dozen appearances as Nick Fury before he seems to have found his voice. In past films, Jackson was either given too much expository junk or lines that sounded tin-eared from the actor’s lips (Avengers’ “Are you planning to step on us?”). He ends up becoming the center of the film, caught between Cap and Pierce in the worst possible way, and Jackson has memorable scenes with both Evans and Redford.
One of my favorite “bromances” in comics is fully represented here as well, as Sam Wilson aka the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) joins the players as one of the few people Cap can trust when things start to go down. Mackie comes across with big-time movie-star charisma, playing up his iconic superhero moments in the Falcon suit and falling head over heels for Cap’s natural do-gooder optimism. Don’t be surprised if Cap and Falcon become subject to the same kind of unauthorized, loving fan tributes as Thor and Loki or Stark and Banner.
Anthony and Joe Russo prove themselves to be more adept at action than expected (coming off Community and Owen Wilson clunker You, Me, and Dupree). Sound-design choices and clear set-piece choreography give impact to every punch and squib. It certainly makes a mostly bloodless film feel a lot more dangerous and violent when you can hear bones breaking and the surprise pop-pop-pop of actual bullets. The finale of The Winter Soldier is probably much bigger than it needed to be, with mammoth helicarriers wreaking all manner of destruction for our heroes and villains to play around in. It closes out a film that never feels like a spectacle movie with spectacle. I’m starting to wonder if Marvel films will ever be able to return to the more controlled finales of The Incredible Hulk or Thor.
Whereas Iron Man 3 gave us a self-contained sense of finality, The Winter Soldier changes Marvel universe status quo then promises another installment more blatantly than any Marvel film before it. We can evaluate it, but can we do it on its own terms or only in comparison to every piece that’s led us to this point? Marvel might ask, “Does it matter?” Because if you’re buying your ticket for The Winter Soldier and you don’t like the kind of new blockbuster model it's cooking up here, you’re probably not its audience anyway. It’s something to think about while the rest of the world shouts, “Make mine Marvel!”
Captain America: The Winter Soldier hits theaters on April 04, 2014.
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