With Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios again finds its stride after stumbling last year with Thor: The Dark World. They even manage to step up the game and set the bar even higher for future additions to the franchise.
Smart, character-driven, riveting and intense throughout, it’s the rare sequel that surpasses its predecessor in every measurable way. It thus stands among the very best that Marvel Studios has given audiences thus far.
What’s it about?
Two years have passed since Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) joined forces with “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” to save New York City from an invading alien army in Marvel’s The Avengers.
Since then, Cap’s joined S.H.I.E.L.D. so that he can still do his part to protect the world from bad guys. However, in this brave new world colored in more grey than black and white, it’s just not that easy to tell who the bad guys are anymore. In fact, he’s not sure he can trust even his colleagues or the people giving the orders.
Things come to a head for Cap when one of those colleagues is attacked by an assassin known only as “the Winter Soldier.” When the investigation into the attack leads literally to Cap’s doorstep, he suddenly finds himself under attack from agents who were comrades-in-arms just days before.
With help from Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Cap sets out to investigate who’s really behind the Winter Soldier’s attacks. The trail will eventually lead him back to his very origins, as well as to a conspiracy that should have monumental effects on the Marvel landscape in future stories.
He’ll also face an enemy whose true identity he’s wholly unprepared to uncover.
Enter the Russos
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo prove themselves extremely capable in terms of balancing breathtaking action, character-driven dialogue and drama, and suspense.
The film’s screenplay draws many ideas and concepts from writer Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed run in the Captain America comics from 2004-2012. It also takes Cap’s world and the entirety of the Marvel cinematic world in a direction that few fans coming into the film will expect.
That direction is firmly in touch with phenomenon that inform today’s real world headlines and tensions. The ongoing struggle to reconcile the need for security versus the desire to preserve personal freedoms and civil liberties, the ethics of preemptive measures against perceived threats to ensure safety and security, it’s all here.
The Russo Brothers, in turn, take that screenplay and deliver a film that takes its time in building suspense and intrigue. They take a patient approach to establishing the film’s characters, giving each one of the them opportunities to shine.
There are plenty of moments throughout the film that will delight the fanboys and fangirls who are in the know because they read the comics. But because the action and the character moments are so well balanced, there’s just as much for the casual audiences who haven’t seen every Marvel movie or ever picked up a comic book to enjoy.
Evans takes point
As for the cast here, Evans in particular deserves a great deal of credit for truly inhabiting this role.
In the first film, Evans made the most of Steve Rogers’ underdog origins in order to make him a sympathetic figure. His story, after all is ultimately one of childhood wish fulfillment, one that’s timelessly relatable.
Here, however, it’s Cap’s struggle to find his place in the world and how best to help that Evans works to his advantage. He’s the underdog again, but this time it’s not bullies and his own physical limitations he’s fighting against.
Instead, its the complexity and conflicted morality that is the hallmark of our times, and you want him to win.
Evans gets lots of solid backup here from Scarlett Johansson, whose character is in many ways Cap’s polar opposite. Anthony Mackie is a welcome presence as the film’s everyman. His Sam Wilson is no super-soldier or super-spy, but just a soldier wanting to do his part.
Also, Cap is, by definition, not the most smart-alecky of characters. As a result, the duty to deliver the film’s subtle comic relief falls to Johansson and Mackie, and they don’t fail to deliver.
All in all, Captain America: The Winter Soldier delivers on its promises of intrigue, suspense, and pulse-pounding action.
It should set a new bar for quality both within Marvel’s own line of films and superhero movies in general. Perhaps most importantly, it accomplishes what great comic books and comic book storylines have done for fans for decades.
It leaves you dying to know what happens next.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, with Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo.
Running Time: 136 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout.