Welcome back! Now that I’ve had plenty of time to rest, it’s time for my first official review for a 2014 movie.
When Captain America: The First Avenger was released, it was such a breath of fresh air. Fitted with a retro World War II vibe, and directed by Joe Johnston, it felt like something out of an Indiana Jones flick rather than any traditional superhero flick. Up until this point, it remained my favorite entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after The Avengers, and in what has so far been a great second phase for Marvel’s constructed world, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has undoubtedly been the highlight. For what was already a wonderfully old-school adventure, The Winter Soldier is a spectacular update that stands as one of Marvel’s best since outings
In the film, which acts as more of a sequel to the original Captain America than The Avengers, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), attempting to adjust back into the world that has vastly progressed in his absence, now closely works alongside SHIELD for various missions, though not without occasionally calling into question the organization’s motives and excessive lengths, none the least of which are those putting him at odds with SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Things get even more complicated when a threat called The Winter Soldier enters the fray, and with the help of assassin Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) and paramilitary man Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Rogers sets out not only to learn the identity of this enigmatic threat, but to delve deeper into SHIELD’S shady operations.
The film is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, known primarily for their work in comedy films and TV series, and while they may have seemed like an odd choice to direct at first, their decision was an ultimately inspired one. One of the greatest strengths of this film is its wonderful political commentary and subtext, which liken it to thrillers of the 1970’s. One of the film’s defining themes is that of the advancement and evolution of security, technology, and alliances, represented by Rogers’ presence in the modern day and age. Whereas the first film had a very black and white line between friend and foe, those same lines are completely blurred for Steve, with uncertain motivations and shadowy dealings making him question his allegiances, evoking some of the film’s most effective paranoia. As much of a patriot as Steve is, this inconsistency in global protection tends to shake his faith, leading both him, and the film itself, to question if the ends justify even the most heinous means. At what point are these advancements for “protection” twisted into simple means of outright tyranny? This is further enhanced by the organization’s planned prevention of catastrophe by taking out suspicious targets based on personal history and flawed algorithms, a pseudo –Sci-Fi ideal that feels like something straight out of a story by Phillip K. Dick, and also draws comparison to the controversial issue of drone strikes. All of this thematic material is superbly realized, ranking the film among the most ambitious comic book adaptations of all time.
However, this doesn’t mean that the film loses sight of one crucial element that Marvel has always succeeded at in their films; their high levels of excitement and comedy. While these elements could have threatened to undermine the overall tone and depth to the film, they’re actually a very welcome inclusion to the experience. While not going for nearly as many laughs as something like Iron Man 3, when the film hits a comedic cord, it hits it very well, none the least of which include banter between Steve and Sam Wilson. Both this movie’s cast and characters are impressively assembled, with returning members Evans, Johansson, and Jackson all giving it their A-Game. As far as newcomers go, Anthony Mackie fits seamlessly into the universe, and his scenes alongside Evans are among the wittiest elements of the film, and Robert Redford, whose own casting is a reference to the 70’s thrillers The Winter Soldier takes influence from, terrifically sinks his teeth into a crucial supporting role that effectively enhances the film’s political commentary. If I had any one element to criticize about the film, however, it’s the treatment of the subtitled character itself. They do a successful job at making him feel like a legitimate threat, and the back story behind him is admittedly brilliant, but for something with so much build up behind it, the character does tend to feel sidelined, almost rendered as little more than a glorified henchman.
As for the action, it’s a standout series of well-delivered thrills, and has surprising depth behind it. Much like Joss Whedon did for The Avengers, this movie is smart to spread these set-pieces out and not overwhelm the audience before we’ve gotten a chance to care for these characters, escalating to those bigger moments and not just starting out by playing your best cards early. Among the highlights include a car chase featuring Nick Fury, a scene where Rogers fights against agents of SHIELD in an elevator, and a shootout where the Winter Soldier’s identity is finally revealed. All of this builds up to the high-stakes climax, and it’s one of Marvel’s best and most exhilarating to date. It’s a cliché at this point, but it’s enough to literally leave you on the edge of your seat.
The summer movie season hasn’t even begun, and it already has a high standard to reach. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the more ambitious action films released in years, evolving its character into the modern setting with such flying colors, and thrilling and tickling to high heights.
Also, as if I need to remind anyone at this point, be sure to stay through the credits for additional footage. Like Thor: The Dark World, this film features two post credits clips. The first is a set up to the upcoming Age of Ultron, and the second serves as an excellent bookend to the film.
****1/2 / *****