Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you Marvel’s best movie to date. Yes, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers was an absolute triumph, and nothing will ever be as cool as seeing all those heroes team up on screen for the first time, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier is just about as perfect a superhero movie you can get and delivers on all the promise of Marvel’s ongoing saga. As a standalone film, Winter Soldier presents an epic story with many moving parts as it mashes the fist-pumping action of modern superhero flicks and the suspense and intrigue of a 70’s spy-thriller. As the 9th episode in the franchise, it weaves threads from the first Captain America movie and The Avengers with explosive results that forever change the landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But most importantly as a comic book movie, it puts character first to give us strong progression for series veterans while still making sure newcomers don’t get lost in the shuffle. All of that combined with directors Anthony and Joe Russo’s comedic flare, and you have yourself one of the most exciting blockbusters in years (even if Marvel did spoil most of the action in their excessive online marketing).
Following the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), is doing his best to adjust to life in the modern world. Despite the underlying sense of loss in being ‘the man out of time’, Rogers tries to move forward with his life but finds that protecting the innocent in today’s world means forsaking those same freedoms America is supposed to represent. As the shadowy figures within S.H.I.E.L.D. begin to stir, Cap and fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) set out on a mission to uncover a far-reaching conspiracy and draw a line between security and an absence of liberty.
As you can probably tell, The Winter Soldier has a lot to say about the surveillance and intimidation going on in today’s world, in particular all the recent controversy over the NSA. Like Marvel have done for years in comics, it’s all told with fictional substitutions, and those threatening America go from merely radicalized to comic-book-evil. Take away the high-flying spectacle and at its heart this is a political-thriller with a revelation halfway through that takes a very aggressive stance on what the West is turning into.
If you’re worried this all sounds a tad too dark and heady, fear not. The Russo brothers know that brooding is for Batman and that Marvel Studios have earned their success by being fun. The Winter Soldier is closer in tone to The Avengers (or Joss Whedon in general) than any of the other solo films, with the Russos drawing from their tenure on Community to expertly tune the humour and bouncy dialogue of the script. It’s a levity that proves crucial for humanising the potentially stoic cast of spies and superheroes.
Just because they come from TV doesn’t mean the Russo brothers can’t bring the boom. The Winter Soldier is a master class on superhero action; not only are its set-pieces tense and exciting, but the Russos look at what’s special about these icons to ensure they not only kick ass (and they certainly do), but the way in which ass is kicked is interesting and unique for each and every character. Black Widow, for instance, bounces around like a ninja and uses the terrain to her advantage, while Cap’s strength and speed see him lay waste to enemy soldiers with explosive power and military precision (and the way he uses his shield in this movie…so damn awesome). Hell, they even made Batroc the freaking Leaper look cool for a moment there with all his spinning savate kicks.
One of the coolest things about the movie is how central it makes Cap to the greater universe. The history of S.H.I.E.L.D., and some big new threats, all pour out of Cap’s war with Hydra in Captain America: The First Avenger. To a certain point, the film fails to capitalise on the sense of history between characters and within the world inherent to the comics. What they capture so perfectly though, is the idea that Cap is a symbol to rally behind and a wakeup call to the modern world. Both the concept of the character and his role in this film could easily be too cheesy to bear, but Chris Evans is just so damn earnest and lovable you can’t help but buy into his wide-eyed worldview.
Surprisingly less central to the story is the Winter Soldier himself, who doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as one would expect. On the off chance you haven’t already had it spoiled for you, I won’t get too into who he is and why he’s so important. Marvel are clearly playing the long game with this character, but it’s probably not a bad move given how starved these movies currently are for a decent non-Loki villain. For what we do get of the Winter Soldier, he proves a compelling and tragic antagonist who is absolutely lethal from the first terrifying moment we see him appear on the horizon. This is not a man who hides behind cover; he stands tall as he moves slowly and fearlessly through the battlefield, fighting with blinding fury and tactical brilliance. And while we may not see as much as we would have liked, the relationship the film establishes between Cap and Winter Soldier is as moving as it is intense and will no doubt pay off big time down the track
This is a big cast with generally great performances and strong character work across the board. Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow both see some real progression in their biggest showing to date, while new faces like Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Frank Grillo’s Brock Rumlow (or Crossbones as he is better known to comic fans) manage to hold their own as well. But if there is one member of the supporting cast that deserves special mention, it’s Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce. Oftentimes leading the film’s discussion on national security, Redford adds a gravitas to the film that reminds that this is a movie with a lot to say and it isn’t just all about people in costumes punching each other.
Yes there are some leaps in logic and yes it does get a little comic book wacky sometimes (especially with one out-there villain’s cameo who I still can’t believe they made work in a movie), but this is one of the most entertaining and cerebral big Hollywood action flicks in years. If you’re a fan of Marvel Studios or are at all looking forward to The Avengers: Age of Ultron, this is a big story for that world that you definitely don’t want to miss. Ignoring all that, this is still one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has everything the genre needs: strong characters, lots of heart, a poignant societal message, and fantastic, balls-to-the-walls action. Suddenly Whedon might need to watch his back as Marvel’s golden boy.
Oh, and as always, stick till the very end of the credits if you want the whole experience.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10