Captain America trades up from the WWII genre to a 1970s-style conspiracy thriller, and the result, as the hype has indicated, is among the finest films yet accomplished by Marvel Studios. The action is not without some hiccups, and the last act does indulge in comic book silliness. Plus, there isn’t nearly as much of the Winter Soldier as you might expect. However, this is a more mature, politically topical, and intricately plotted effort from Marvel than usual, yet it never forgets to also be fun and emotionally affecting, with Chris Evans again delivering alongside a stellar supporting cast, particularly Scarlett Johansson and new additions to the franchise played by Anthony Mackie and Robert Redford.
THE REVIEW – MINIMAL SPOILERS
When Screen Junkies’ Honest Trailers applied its signature mockery to The Avengers, they described Captain America as “no one’s favorite character, but he just kind of has to be there.” I laughed because it felt true. Captain America is the byproduct of a bygone era, punching Hitler out on the cover of his first ever comic book in 1940, a full year before we actually entered the war. He was an instant success. Of course, wartime readers would love him-he’s practically a walking, talking American flag. Resurrected by Marvel in 1964 as a kind of unfrozen superhero, Cap would become a man out of time fighting for truth and justice in a world playing by a different set of rules. By 2008, Marvel thought the ideals preached by Captain America were so out of whack with the new world order they killed him off. Sure, he was back pretty quickly, but their point about questioning whether there was a place in the world for a Captain America wasn’t wrong.
Not having become an actual comic book reader until recently, my first Captain America was the one played by Matt Sallinger in the notoriously atrocious 1990 film.
That left me immune to any interest in the character ever again. So, I actually skipped Captain America: The First Avenger when it was in theaters in 2011, catching it much later via rental. It was apparently better than expected, but what the heck did I care about Captain America at a time when America’s reputation outside its own borders was so low that Marvel had to advertise the film as simply The First Avenger in certain countries? We preferred our superheroes dark and brooding, not red, white, and blue and jingoistic.
However, director Joe Johnston proved me wrong, delivering exactly the type of old-fashioned, WWII movie Captain America needed, and there was something charming about First Avenger’s unabashed idealism landing smack dab in the age of cynicism. Sure, the film is a bit too heavy on montages, and the CGI for the pre-super soldier serum Steve Rogers doesn’t completely work. Plus, their last act is a tad lackluster. However, holding it altogether is Chris Evans’ admirably restrained lead performance alongside the perfectly spunky Haley Atwell as his love interest. It is a testament to their performances and the writing that Rogers’ closing descent into the ocean as he says his anguished, but adorably resilient goodbye to Peggy comes off as so utterly heartbreaking:
Now, Evans is back in Winter Soldier, after his detour bickering with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in Avengers. Returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have pulled Evans’ Steve Rogers out of the WWII (just with comic book Nazis) terrain of First Avenger and into political/conspiracy thriller (just with way more first fights) in Winter Soldier. Gone is director Joe Johnston’s signature sepia tones replaced with a Paul Greengrass-like approach from new directors Joe and Anthony Russo, mostly known for their work directing Arrested Development and Community episodes. That means the nostalgic charm of First Avenger is most definitely gone, replaced by visceral action, and Captain America with his back up against the wall.
In reality, though, Winter Soldier is more of a sequel to the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe than it is First Avenger, drawing upon our now collectively long histories with these characters (Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Black Widow, Captain America) and institutions (SHIELD). It also directly continues the events of The Avengers, picking up character arcs for Steve Rogers, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, and Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow that Joss Whedon started. Even that council of world leaders Whedon struggled to visualize in Avengers returns in expanded fashion. So, early on when Rogers objects to a scary, invasive new SHIELD plan with global implications an annoyed Fury insists, “It’s about past time you get with the program,” we know this is calling back to how Tony Stark helped Rogers learn to distrust SHIELD in The Avengers.
The first third or so of Winter Soldier is mostly devoted to reminding us of these types of things while performing some expositional heavy lifting, establishing SHIELD’s plans to launch 3 hellicarriers to proactively snuff out of crime from the skies. We meet new characters like Robert Redford’s avuncular Alexander Pearce, and Anthonie Mackie’s charming Sam Wilson/Falcon, a clear Bucky Barnes surrogate for Rogers. We see Steve Rogers visit an elderly Peggy Carter, whom the Russos seem intent to shoot only in close-up as if to say, “That’s gorgeous Hayley Atwell under that make-up and CGI, but she totally looks like a 90-something old woman! Suck it, Prometheus!”
As tipped off in all the trailers, the dividing line in the plot comes when Nick Fury is attacked by SHIELD agents in a surprisingly gripping car chase in downtown DC (or somewhere near there). From that point forward, the film’s conspiracy thriller inspirations demand that it turn into a game of forging alliances while figuring out who you can and cannot trust (Rogers aligns with Black Widow and new best bud Falcon), going on the run while the bad guys attack, and then finally recouping long enough to take the fight right back to the villains.
While this provides the film its narrative structure and glue, the conspiracy thriller aspect of Winter Soldier has perhaps been somewhat overblown by those promoting it. Yes, there is a conspiracy, and Robert Redford’s presence and performance very clearly means to conjure memories of Three Days of the Condor. Plus, the ultimate revelations shake not just Steve Rogers but the very foundation of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to its core. And, yes, we get scenes of our heroes on the run, desperate for a port in a storm.
However, Winter Soldier is an action movie before anything else, and it has maybe more of that to offer than you’d expect. The Russos show their inexperience with this type of material, staging far too much of the action in city streets or highways to literally ground the action in something resembling reality but instead coming off ever so slightly monotonous. Plus, they seem far too intent on giving Paul Greengrass’ infamous shaky cam a run for its money. On the plus side, if you are able to adjust to the action, as I was after the Nick Fury care chase sequence, it can be intensely visceral, greatly helped by a Nolan-esque favoring of practical over CGI.
The actual conspiracy plot driving everything forward may not be the type to hold up to scrutiny upon repeat viewing, but clearly the film is designed to ape the conventions of a conspiracy/spy thriller to hook us with the familiar in the hopes that we’ll go along with everything as the revelations start leaning far more toward comic book territory. Make no doubt about it, though Winter Soldier is a more mature offering than your average Marvel Studios film there is still a fair amount of silliness, and those wanting the film to stick closer to its conspiracy thriller roots might be disappointed when reminded that this is still a comic book movie. It does somewhat attempt a Christopher Nolan approach of employing a plot which adapts real world events and anxieties into a comic book context, with elements of Winter Soldier‘s conspiracy clearly echoing the NSA scandal as well as real world historical events like Operation Paperclip. It is in the face of such oddly familiar components that Captain America’s heroism is made to seem all the more relevant and necessary, battling both systemic corruption and personal betrayals.
As far as the performances go, Chris Evans again plays Steve Rogers to vanilla-flavored perfection with an added layer of self-deprecation, which though minimal still goes a long way. For all of the hours of hard work he undoubtedly put into his action scenes, Evans’ highlights of the entire film likely comes from an impromptu speech delivered over a PA system, and an impassioned pledge during the final fight. Scarlet Johannson’s Black Widow serves as the film’s almost co-lead, and you either take her sometimes monotone line delivery as being pitch-perfect for her guarded character or a distracting sign of someone forgetting to emote. However, she does finally get to open up a bit more this time around, and she and Evans share an easy-going, flirtatious chemistry, with her amorality humorously contrasting with his rigid morality. Similar to Thor with his pomposity, Captain America needs someone around to help serve as a check on his idealism, and whereas Thor always has Loki now Cap has Black Widow.
Also stealing laughs is Mackie’s Falcon, whose back story parallels Rogers’ own. Mackie manages to make a man who can somehow fly via jet-propelled booster pack and wings look insanely cool while also usually getting the best lines.
Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier is difficult to discuss since not only is he basically one big spoiler he’s also been used as a giant misdirection in Marvel’s advertising, not completely dissimilar to what they did with the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. So, I’ll simply offer that while Stan makes for a formidable villain he ultimately ends the film with his story just having truly begun. Plus, he seems to have a bit of a bad habit of taking a slow and steady approach to assassination, ala a slasher villain.
Emily Van Kamp is around even less as Agent 13, a potential love interest for a future film being strong here but barely present. The real standout in the supporting cast is Robert Redford. The sheer weight of our cinematic memory attached to and respect for Redford instantly elevates everything around him, as though he gets to have a bit of fun this project was clearly more than just a lark for him.
The Russo brothers’ debut as action film directors is not a flawless one, but it is also perhaps more adept than one might expect. They might have been better off trimming their final cut of the film down a little, but while others have argued the film drags I simply recall being thoroughly engaged and never bored.
Henry Jackman (Captain Phillips, GI Joe: Retaliation) replaces Alan Silvestri as composer, but whereas Silvestri provided a very lush and period-perfect orchestral score Jackman is far more utilitarian.
There’s nothing as hummable as this in Winter Soldier:
Clearly, they got Silvestri to do an old-fashioned score for an old-fashioned movie like First Avenger, and Jackman to do something completely modern, with minimal instrumentation. The result, though, is Jackman provided an incredibly bland score, whose only memorable element is a a character theme for the Winter Soldier which mimics the signature theme which accompanied each of Joker’s appearances in The Dark Knight.
As per usual, there are two extra scenes after the conclusion of the film, a mid-credits sequence setting up Avengers: Age of Ultron, and a post-credits shot checking in on a significant character from Winter Soldier. The mid-credits bit, directed by Joss Whedon, is essential, though utterly confusing to the comic book illiterate. The post-credits bit was originally written to be the last scene of the movie, and just got shuffled around to be the coda after the credits. It’s not worth the wait.
What did you think? Like it? Hate it? Let us know in the comments section. For a less high-brow, more spoileriffic discussion of the film check out our “Nitpicking Winter Soldier” article.