2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger was a bit of a surprise. Not a surprise that it was a hit — the Marvel train was moving full speed ahead at that point, with Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and two Iron Man films under their belts by then. No, it was more a surprise because it was pretty good, despite a character that doesn’t have quite the cachet as a god of thunder, a giant green bipolar monster, or a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist with a nifty robotic suit. Yet it managed to make what sometimes seems like a relatively generic hero into one that could be quite engaging. That character, portrayed by Chris Evans, was further advanced in The Avengers, which saw him developing from a soldier into a leader, with a few bumps in the road.
Now that he’s had the chance to play the role a third time, Evans finally feels at home with the character, and his performance as Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, is easily the best of the three. He’s comfortable and confident in the role now, and that sense of satisfying sense of self that he exudes is what ultimately grounds the film and serves as its bedrock. Evans never quite felt at home in the first film, but now he’s made the role his own, and The Winter Soldier is a better film for it.
Of course, what also makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier such an enjoyable film is that it’s simply an extremely well-written and well-directed story. The screenplay, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who collaborated on the first film as well as Thor: The Dark World) is firmly entrenched in the new universe set up by The Avengers. Unlike the second Thor film or the third Iron Man film, it doesn’t remove the character from that universe and tell a separate story. Instead, it hurls Rogers into a fascinating and labyrinthine tale about SHIELD itself, and about the dangers and pitfalls of such a vast, deadly entity charged with, essentially defending the free world from both all manner of global threats. It’s a solid narrative bound together by some great performances, and all handled expertly by Anthony and Joe Russo in the director’s chairs. Continuing Marvel’s trend of picking unlikely directors to helm their pictures with great success, the Russo Brothers (Welcome To Collinwood, You Me & Dupree) brought a decidedly non-action pedigree, but managed to balance a massive budget, sprawling story, sharp group of actors and intense action demands quite well, creating a film that surpasses anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe short of The Avengers itself.
It does this by using some of the same storytelling techniques that made Iron Man 3 so effective. While it concerns a massive conspiracy that threatens to undo the very society that SHIELD has hoped to protect, it often does so in a very non-superhero fashion. Yes, there’s wild action and crazy technology, cyborg super soldiers and helicarriers and, you know, a 95 year-old man who was frozen in time who is super-strong and carries a vibranium shield. But once the film establishes itself and cracks the story open, it becomes less a barrage of action and more a sleuth-and-spy thriller. Similar to Iron Man 3, Evans spends a surprising amount of time out of the suit, and instead he’s simply learning about himself and the world around him, as well as trying to navigate this complex world of deadly geopolitics that a man who was until recently simply a super-powered grunt is wholly unfamiliar with. It’s a bit of a coming-of-age tale for him, as he tries to find who to trust and who to fear.
I’ve come this far without really telling much about the plot itself, and that’s fairly deliberate. While the titular Winter Soldier is perhaps the film’s worst-kept secret, the story itself is fairly startling in how profoundly it will affect the larger Marvel universe, and as such deserves to be unspoiled as much as possible. Suffice it to say that Rogers finds himself on shaky ground with SHIELD and the world at large, and must come to depend on a handful of allies to uncover a huge and terrifying plot spawned by enemies both old and new. It’s a tightly plotted story, with a healthy dose of intriguing detective work mixed in with some absolutely terrific action sequences, but it’s also an outstanding ensemble piece.
Evans’s castmates are a big part of its success. Like Evans himself, Scarlett Johansson has also come to embody the role of Natasha Romanoff, The Black Widow, and she plays a large part as friend, ally and confidant in the film, while also holding her own as a decidedly serious ass-kicker. Anthony Mackie is the newcomer as Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon, in one of the absolute highlights of the film. Falcon is a longtime ally of Cap in the comics, and it’s great to see the evolution of that friendship come to life on the screen, albeit in a somewhat rushed fashion. But Mackie is excellent in the role, becoming far more than a simple sidekick but instead a fully formed character in a very short period of time. As an added bonus, the action sequences featuring the Falcon and his mechanical wings are absolutely stunning and some of the best in all of Marvel’s cinematic history. Yes, I mean that. The rest of the cast acquits themselves exceptionally, with Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury back in the forefront, his machinations playing a large part of the crisis at hand, but also the new addition of Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, Fury’s boss. Supporting roles by Emily VanCamp and Frank Grillo round things out nicely.
When the film does kick into a higher gear, the action is absolutely spectacular. The physicality that Evans brings to the role is now a brutal, visceral thing, and the choreography uses that to outstanding effect. Watching him barrel through walls and bounce around corners, using the shield as an extension of that same frenzied energy is more fully-rendered here than ever before. The fight scenes are completely devoid of slow motion, and are instead fast, hard, breathless affairs that feel powerful and effective. The film’s third act, where things blow completely open and the inevitable giant action set-pieces come into play, is wild and intense and vividly rendered, but never so big as to make the viewer lose sight of the action, and more importantly, always feels like it’s serving the story, not the other way around. Yes, it’s a fairly bananas sequence that of course comes down to the last second, but it’s all so well-packaged that you don’t mind the occasional cliche.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a huge, fun, deeply satisfying film, and not just because it’s a well-made comic book movie. It’s a well-made movie that tells a fairly impressive story about the dangers of absolute powers, about corruption and greed and betrayal. But it’s also about heroes, and it gets the audience behind its heroes without devolving into jingoistic bloviating or ham-handed, corny imagery. There’s no flag-waving, no ridiculous speeches or lectures on freedom and justice and all that. Those ideas are there, but they’re subtly woven into the script, made a part of the story (as they should be) so as to make him a better and more engaging character, but not used as a club to beat the viewer into submission. It’s a collection of capable performances and beautifully-rendered action sequences combined to build a well-crafted, energetic and interesting story, and is unquestionably one of the best in this increasingly-large and now far more complicated universe.