In 2008, director Christopher Nolan did his part to change the world of comic book movies. Rather than use the source material to create another action blockbuster with a recognizable superhero lead, the filmmaker instead made The Dark Knight as a dark crime thriller that happened to feature Batman as the lead detective. To say it “legitimized” the genre is reductive to some of the fantastic movies that were released before it, but its unique approach garnered deserved attention from those who might not otherwise be interested in cape-and-cowl wearing vigilantes.
Of course, in that same time span, Marvel Studios has left an equally impactful mark. Not only have they delivered differently toned superhero stories – favoring the bright and fun over the dark and dramatic – but they've also developed the innovative and risky Marvel Cinematic Universe that webs together all of the studio’s characters into one shared world.
In many ways, Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier is perhaps the greatest film to come out in the wake of those developments. One part tense 1970s-esque political thriller with very contemporary themes of government surveillance and pre-emptive strikes, and one part giant adventure with colorful heroes and spectacular action, the film is everything anyone could want from a comic book movie and will stand as one of the best of all time.
The new sequel is a character driven story that is as much about Captain America (Chris Evans) fighting a wide-spread and powerful enemy as it is about him finding a place in the modern world, adjusting his life completely after having grown up in the 1930s, fought in World War II and been frozen in ice for 60+ years. A soldier through-and-through, he teams up with the intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. as a field agent working dangerous missions around the world, but questions some of the work he is doing when it doesn’t fully live up to his moral code. Things only get worse when a shocking and devastating incident leaves Cap unable to trust anyone or anything – and leads him on a path to discover the truth about who he is really working for and who is really in charge.
It’s a mark of a great script and a great edit if you can look back at an entire film and not find a single extraneous scene, and that’s just one of Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s many hallmarks. The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is taut and well-structured, the layers of the film’s mystery unfolding gradually and leading to an ambitious third act filled with important consequences. Every scene that doesn’t directly relate to the plot adds numerous layers to the characters and their relationships, from Cap and Falcon meeting during a jog around the National Mall to the patriotic superhero learning about his own heroic, historic past during a trip to the Captain America exhibit in the Smithsonian.
Both assisting and opposing Cap in his mission for truth is a terrific cast of excellent supporting characters that are smartly used, both in their adaptation from the page to the screen and in the way they help deepen and expand the movie’s plot. Like she was in Joss Whedon's The Avengers, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is back by Captain America’s side in The Winter Soldier and plays a perfect foil for the titular hero, his black and white view of morality not quite gelling with her shades of grey worldview. Similar things can also be said for Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who after three appearances finally gets to play an action-heavy, expanded role in a Marvel Studios film. New to the team is Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson a.k.a. Falcon, a retired soldier who used to be part of a specialized airborne unit, but he is so charismatic and meshes so well with Cap that you’d swear he’d been around all along.
Not too much can (or should) be said about the villains of the movie at this time, as part of the joy in a conspiracy thriller is not knowing which characters you can really trust, but it is safe in that respect to talk about The Winter Soldier, played by Sebastian Stan. As a brainwashed assassin, the character isn’t overly complex on the surface – personality tends to be one of the things washed away in the brainwashing process – but he has tremendous plot presence, both actively and thematically. The Soldier makes a formidable physical foe for Captain America, possessing incredible strength, amazing agility, and a crushing metal arm, but more powerful is his existence as a literal ghost from the hero’s past who has come back to haunt him in the most horrific way imaginable.
Bringing all of these characters to life are actors who just seem to get better and better within their roles with each outing. Evans proves once again to be an immensely charming lead who is able to make his character’s Boy Scout earnestness seem all the more heroic in a deeply cynical world, while both Johansson and Jackson both add depth and layers to clandestine heroes who never wear the truth on their sleeves. As another newcomer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Robert Redford has a tremendously commanding presence and some fantastic moments with Jackson, but it’s Mackie who winds up taking Rookie of the Year just for his excellent on-screen chemistry with Evans that clicks from the very first scene of the movie.
While one of the standout flaws of Marvel Studios’ early run of films was a lack of any really outstanding action sequences, their titles since The Avengers have eliminated that fault – with Captain America: The Winter Soldier being the company’s most thrilling, action-packed work yet. The Russo brothers – whose background is primarily in television comedies like Community and Arrested Development - had no blockbuster movie experience prior to making the sequel, but absolutely crush it with thrilling car chases, stylish fight sequences, and a collection of epic set pieces. Even characters whom we have become familiar with in other multiple stories move in new and interesting ways, and the Russos’ camera captures every punch, kick, jump, lunge and block with top-notch visceral energy. The action is so spectacular that one has to wonder just how Whedon plans to raise the bar with the upcoming The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
For whatever reason, Captain America seems to be the character that the folks at Marvel Studios are really best at translating to the big screen. Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger was an immensely fun period adventure with wonderful themes about duty and honor, and The Winter Soldier only furthers and expands on those ideas while replacing The Dirty Dozen approach with something closer to Three Days of the Condor. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a spectacularly-made, tense, thrilling ride, and whether you go to the theater for the blockbuster action or the exciting story, you will leave more than satisfied.