There’s nothing quite like a Marvel movie, is there? I remember reading a slew of articles sometime before the original Captain America and Thor movies that were worried we’d all become sick of superheros, worried that by the time the big Avengers event came along everyone would be too tired of big budget superhero movies to care. There were also a lot of comparisons to the “legendary” Christopher Nolan directed Batman movies and murmurs of discontent that Marvel wasn’t following a similar template with its own movies (legendary is airquoted because I strongly disagree with it). And now here we are, years later, with the first of our now bi-annual Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and possibly the best one yet.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an ass-kickin’ superhero movie based on the ground breaking Winter Soldier storyline by Ed Brubaker. It’s directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and stars Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson. Chris Evans of course plays Steve Rodgers, the titular Captain America, who is having a lot of trouble adjusting to the new world he’s woken up in. Following the events of The Avengers he’s joined SHIELD in the hopes of continuing his work fighting the good fight and is paired up with Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, aka the wonderful Scarlett Johansson. They soon find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy and directly in the crosshairs of The Winter Soldier, teaming up with Veteran Support Group organiser Sam Wilson (aka The Falcon) along the way, played by Marvel newcomer Anthony Mackie.
The Winter Soldier is perhaps, after the grand experiment that was The Avengers, the ballsiest movie in the MCU so far. While the Iron Man movies are defined by their star and the Thor movies are defined by their wondeful mashups of science-fiction and Norse mythology, Captain America is a movie that cannot repeat itself. The first movie was a war movie, an origin story set in the trenches of the second world war. Given Cap’s status as the man out of time, and our society embroiled in a very different kind of war, The Winter Soldier needed to be a different type of movie.
Marvel quite rightly followed the logical path with this sequel and showed us the reactions of a man who went to sleep in the 1940’s and woke up in modern times, a man who has not been given the chance to adjust to how morally grey the world is now but instead is slammed into it. When Steve Rodgers fell asleep it was as simple as the Allies were good guys and the Nazis (and Hydra) were bad guys, it was much simpler than it is today. Cap is a man whose morality clashes with the world he now inhabits. The best thing The Winter Soldier does is pair Steve Rodgers with Natasha Romanoff. Aside from the sizzling chemistry between Evans and Johansson, these two characters are both different sides of the same coin. They’re not too dissimilar in goals but are both products of their time, and have vastly different ways of looking at the world. Quiter moments of the movie that allow them to open up to one another are captivating, and it’s fair to say they make one hell of a team as well.
In case the casting of Robert Redford as a member of the SHIELD council wasn’t enough of a wink at the camera, this is not your average superhero movie, in fact it spends most of its time paying homage to 70’s paranoia thrillers (hence Redford). The movie takes a different approach to its heroes and has some very interesting things to say on the subject of what heroes actually mean in the modern world. There are the usual comic book twists and the movie does descend into your more standard big budget, superhero movie affair in its third act, and the end result is a blockbuster with a brain and a message (and puts ABC’s Agents of SHIELD to shame by creating interesting, relatable and likeable SHIELD agents within minutes, something the TV show has yet to manage in the months it has been on air) .
The explosions and fight scenes are still here of course and are gloriously well executed, and the titular adversary is sparsely used before the third act, only showing up to make his presence known. In fact the Winter Soldier feels like one of the most dangerous and powerful adversaries that’s come about in the Marvel Universe. The movie as a whole is very well directed, and I tip my hat to whoever at Marvel decided to hire the Russo brothers for the job. Of all the unusual directors Marvel have hired for their Phase 2 movies this was the strangest, the Russo’s being best known for the work on sitcoms such as Community and Happy Endings, but it has paid dividends.
The performances here are mostly top notch. The returning Chris Evans and Samuel L. Jackson are both their usual excellent selves, and newcomer Anthony Mackie gives a very solid performance as Cap’s new sidekick. Scarlett Johansson is given the most screen time she’s recieved in a Marvel movie to date and she definitely makes the most of it, serving up yet another memorable performance, making me want to shout louder for her to get her own Black Widow movie (there’s definitely enough hints in The Winter Soldier to suggest it’s a strong possibility). Cobie Smulders, making a return to her character from The Avengers, gives her best performance yet, and Robert Redford gives a performance you’d expect from Robert Redford, which is no bad thing. There’s even a very welcome and extremely touching cameo from Hayley Atwell, reprising her role as a much older Peggy Carter. It’s also definitely worth staying for the Joss Whedon created post-credits stinger (both of them), which makes some intruguing ties into the upcoming Avengers sequel.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not a movie content with simply being a placeholder between Avengers movies, and forms an excellent study of both its characters and the world they occupy. It’s a tense and extremely enjoyable thriller and although it’s a little disappointing when it falls back on, admittedly spectacular, yet standard comic book action in its final act, it’s an excellent movie throughout. It also just might be the best movie Marvel Studios has made since founding the Marvel Cinematic Universe.