With Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel has made it 3 for 3 with superhero sequels that surpass their predecessors. This Phase Two dealie is working out pretty well. But with the possible exception of Avengers and Iron Man 3, they are all still stuck on the level of “acceptable summer fun,” rather than anything special. Winter Soldier does not break the trend. What’s frustrating is that any of them seem a few tweaks away from something great, and that’s more evident here than in any Marvel movie to date.
Since The Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans) has been getting his hands dirtier than he likes, leading SHIELD undercover operations all over the globe. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has become his partner in adventuring, even if she always seems to have a separate mission from him. Cap is uncomfortable with the growing surveillance state, exemplified by the soon-to-launch “Insight” program, which will deploy a trio of helicarriers to monitor the entire world. But then things go to pot when a legendary assassin known as the Winter Soldier (played by spoiler alert even though you probably know who it is) attacks SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), precipitating a sequence of events that leads to Cap and Widow being branded as traitors and forces them to go on the run to figure out what the heck is going on.
As usual for the Marvel films, the character work is on point at every step. Evans is still a likable paragon as Cap, though now he’s shading it in with more turmoil as the character grapples with complexities he’s never had to deal with before, especially once he discovers the identity of the Winter Soldier. For his part, the title character is strangely a bit of a non-presence. He doesn’t show up until at least a half hour into the film, and he pops up only sporadically throughout. And then there’s the fact that SPOILER EVEN THOUGH YOU KNOW THIS he’s actually Cap’s WWII pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), not quite dead after all. There’s only the barest background given to us to get us to feel anything about their relationship, and it ends up being more of a prelude to real character development than anything else, since Bucky vamooses at the end of the film and nothing is really resolved.
Much better is Johansson as Widow who, surprisingly, is pretty much a co-lead and not just a supporting character here. In fact, she gets to undergo more interesting change than Cap does in his own movie. It helps that Johansson is allowed to be funny and not just po-faced anymore. Anthony Mackie also slides into proceedings pretty effortlessly, even if he isn’t given much to actually do until the back half. He has the kind of friendship with Cap that they can’t quite sell between Cap and Bucky. Neither of these characters will be getting solo films anytime soon, sadly, but they totally should.
Robert Redford is kind of wasted as the authority figure whom you totally know will probably turn out to be antagonistic because that’s the way things go in movies now. He’s fine, but pretty much anyone could have played the role. Jackson is finally given something to do in these films besides stand around and be cool, and it turns out that when you give him an active participation in the plot, Fury is legitimately cool.
Like I said, the characters are the draw with these movies. The script gets the best energy out of bouncing them off each other. Cap and Widow chatting during a car ride is more involving than the two of them in a fight scene. Which is a shame, because that needn’t be the case. But I feel like this is going to keep happening as long as Marvel hires TV people for their films. The action in Winter Soldier is certainly better than in Thor 2 and a lot of the other Marvels, but it’s still marred by a camera that shakes more than it needs to, close-ups where wides would serve better, and a whole lot of unnecessary cutting. The biggest shame is that, underneath all of that, you can tell that the fights are actually really good. The choreography is excellent, with varied maneuvers and attacks that are clearly thought out. But I can’t appreciate this when I’m struggling to keep up with what’s going on.
Besides that, the movie also has the familiar Marvel problem of a script that feels one or two revisions away from being optimal. There’s the spotty use of the film’s title character, and how it spends a middle portion sort of mired in a plot point easter egg hunt, and how it seems like it could have been twenty minutes shorter if various elements were just rearranged and tightened up. The biggest sin, though, is that SPOILERS it reintroduces Toby Jones’s Arnim Zola character from the first Cap film, now living as a disembodied consciousness in a computer system. And then it kills him after one scene. And I’m sorry, but AI Toby Jones is a way cooler villain than the Winter Soldier, Frank Grillo, or SPOILER Robert Redford.
Winter Soldier tries to be relevant in a way most of the other Marvels aren’t, it’s plot addressing anxieties over government intrusion into our lives. Cap finds himself fighting a culture of fear just as much as he does supervillains. It’s a cool angle, even if the movie can’t really go into it more than ticking off references to drone warfare and our NSA spying. Overall, the movie is a lot of fun, and it continues to encourage my continued interest in the Marvel movieverse.
- Rated: PG-13
- Genre: Action, Conspiracy, Superhero
- Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
- Starring: Anthony Mackie, Chris Evans, Cobie Smulders, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan
- Written by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
- Studio: Disney, Marvel