Let’s start with the summary – Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best second film of the Marvel studio films so far. It is better than Iron Man 2, obviously, and even better than Thor: Dark World. It manages the trick of bringing out what worked well in the comic books (in this case, the modern espionage/conspiracy style of the recent Ed Brubaker/Steve Epting run) with what works best in film, namely massive action mixed with good acting and snappy dialogue.
The story is a good, modern-day conspiracy thriller, contrasting the post-Snowden whistleblowing world of the NSA spying on us with the 1940s mind-set of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who believes in a world of freedom and purer reasons for fighting. The thrust of the narrative is based on Operation: Insight – SHIELD has three helicarriers that will have the ability to target terrorists before they do anything and eliminate them. Rogers, who works for SHIELD, is not happy, as would be expected, questioning Fury’s decisions; when Fury discovers something that unnerves him and asks for a delay in the operation, his life is targeted by a group pretending to be police and a certain bionic-armed masked villain of the subtitle. When top SHIELD official, friend of Fury and member of the World Security Council, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), confronts Rogers about meeting Fury and Rogers doesn’t comply, Pierce orders SHIELD to take him down. Rogers becomes a fugitive with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), and turns to recently befriended Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) for help, a vet now offering counselling to combatants with post-traumatic stress disorder but who is a former paratrooper with more to offer – and together they discover a huge conspiracy at the heart of SHIELD …
One of the great things that this film does is showing Captain America as a badass. The fight scenes are really good with great choreography that display his unique fighting style (at the end, the film thanks Kieron Dwyer, which I thought was nice because I always thought he did a great job of drawing Cap’s style of fighting) and which were something new and dynamic – the infusion of Eastern cinema has forced Hollywood to up its game and do something different, and it shows here.
The action in general is great – there are great set pieces all along: the film starts with Cap, the Widow and SHIELD agents rescuing a SHIELD ship that has been taken by pirates (led by Batroc, who still uses savate and manages to look great); there is the murder attempt on Fury; the chase of our three heroes by the Winter Soldier and colleagues; the helicarrier action hinted at in the trailer. The film is over two hours long but it never drags and is an impressive action blockbuster debut from Anthony and Joe Russo, two directors better known for their creative input on Arrested Development and Community. Also because of the Russo brothers, the film is funny – there is sharp banter between Cap and Widow and Falcon (with Mackie getting the lion’s share) and snappy lines.
(A nice shout-out for Community fans: Danny Pudi has a cameo, as does Aaron Himelstein, who played the debate guy from City College.)
The film manages well with the characters in general. The Falcon worked really well, making a slightly goofy-looking character in the comic books look good and a nice updating of the character’s story; Mackie is really good, interacting well with Evans, and it’s great to see the first African American superhero finally on the screens. Black Widow continues work well in the Marvel cinematic universe and Johannson does a great job, mixing sass with vulnerability and action (the film also offers other strong female characters in Maria Hill and Agent 13, so that’s another plus for the film). Evans also does well with Rogers in what is a tough role as the boy scout of the Marvel books.
As a Marvel fan, I loved the references: Stephen Strange is name-checked, which was great; they made Batroc cool; one of the villainous characters is Brock Rumlow, who is Crossbones in the comic books; a well-played Stan Lee cameo; the way the story used elements from Secret War (by Bendis/Dell’Otto), the start of Secret Warriors and the Winter Soldier storyline (although not a Russian agent in the film, because we like the Russians now, but at least they still included a connection to the Black Widow); a lovely mid-credit teaser for Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and a coda scene that comes straight from the Brubaker/Epting comic book.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a very entertaining piece of Marvel superhero action with interesting characters, an interesting plot and great action. Although the final third is less complex and has to have a small band of heroes destroy a massive conspiracy in an action scene, it still does it with skill and verve. The writers and directors have signed on for the third film, which would presumably have Cap and the Falcon hunting the Winter Soldier (that’s not really a spoiler, is it?), but the end of the film also has ramifications for the Marvel cinematic universe and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, and I can’t wait to see more.
[Explanation of my updated film rating system]