Captain America: The Winter Soldier review

Review James Hunt 20 Mar 2014 - 21:00

How can a superhero based on uncomplicated world politics operate in the modern world? James finds out...

Throughout its promo period, Marvel Studios has been describing Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a political thriller with added superheroes, and from the moment the film opens it certainly looks the part. Following the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has taken to hanging around Washington DC, running covert ops for SHIELD, staying out of the limelight and struggling to deal with the moral compromises his side seems to be making in the name of freedom. He's still a soldier, but more reluctantly than before.

This is, without apology, a story about Cap trying to operate in the modern world. Punching Nazis might've been enough in the 1940s, but things are rarely so straightforward in the 21st century. The message we're consistently given by those in power is that good people have to do bad things to keep us safe, and the world of Captain America now reflects and challenges those areas of moral uncertainty. It's definitely a thriller – the action is tense, character loyalties are uncertain and there are plot twists all over the place - but the political elements are less developed than has been suggested.

Still, it's probably for the best. You can only take political intrigue so far in a framework where the problems must ultimately be solved by a dude in a costume punching someone in the face, and this film is about as serious as it can get away with. Not to a fault - if anything, once the villain's eventual plot is uncovered, it's almost admirably ridiculous – but even though the film isn't entirely fluff, it's perhaps more fluff than it wishes it was.

That's not necessarily a problem. We wouldn't be here if we didn't love superhero fluff. The strangest thing is that despite a 136-minute running time and a plot that barely stands still, the movie somehow can't make time for everything it wants to. The biggest and most disappointing casualty of this is the titular antagonist, whose appearances are cryptic, one-note and slightly too rare. The Winter Soldier is relegated to a bit player in a story about something else, rather than being the narrative driver the film's name suggests.

Luckily, the strong ensemble makes up for the occasionally too-absent super-villain. Nick Fury gets more to do in this film than ever before, and Samuel L. Jackson delivers everything you'd expect of him. The Black Widow is upgraded almost as far as co-lead, and deservedly so. Scarlett Johansson's performance is impressively at ease: warm yet guarded, deeper than the material she's given, and proof if any were needed that she deserves a solo film. Franchise newcomer Anthony Mackie is instantly engaging as Sam Wilson, a Cap fanboy-turned-sidekick. And even though Robert Redford is arguably coasting on his previous performances, he's an entertaining presence nonetheless.

Furthermore, direction, from the Russo brothers, is strong, not least for giving us action sequences that we can follow. Marvel's left-field pick for directors of its films has paid dividends again.

Still, it's Chris Evans as Steve Rogers who remains the heart of the film, and if nothing else this film underscores how perfect he is for the role. A mixture of corn-fed patriotism and deadpan humour are underpinned by an unspoken sense of loss. Thankfully, one thing Captain America: The Winter Soldier gets unflinchingly correct about its lead is that in a world of moral compartmentalisation and compromise, Steve Rogers always does the right thing. He makes the kind of choices you hope you'd be brave enough to.

Given that there are so many action scenes, it helps as well that they're varied and interesting. Cap has always been a street-level hero, and though that worked against him alongside the larger-than-life members of The Avengers, it's in his favour here where he's the fastest, strongest person in most rooms. This is a film that makes Cap's ability to leap out of a window seem as cool as repulsor boots or a magic hammer. It's superheroes-as-Jason Bourne. With the possible exception of a CGI-riddled climax that'll ring a little too familiar to Avengers viewers, it all works brilliantly.

It might not be a perfectly-constructed film, but at least it's trying something different with the character, rather than returning to the backdrop and themes of the first. If you're a fan of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, you'll doubtless be happy enough with the results: new heroes and villains are debuted, at least one old villain returns unexpectedly, and there are major story developments that'll undoubtedly ripple into the Marvel films that follow. It's even tonally unique, with less romance and comedy than previous MCU instalments, but more tension and intrigue.

As with Thor: The Dark World, it doesn't need to be spectacular. It gets by because simply spending time with the characters is enough to make the ticket price worth it. Even so, it feels like a script that went a couple of drafts beyond perfect. The characters are there, but the emotion isn't. There's a focus on the plot over the story. It's occasionally meandering, and if it lost 20 minutes almost anywhere it'd come out vastly improved.

Perhaps most strangely, there's a good chance that it'll leave you more excited about the next Captain America film than the one you just watched. It probably won't hurt Marvel's reputation for solid, enjoyable action flicks - but after the likes of Avengers and Iron Man 3, it's hard not to hold the company to higher standards than Captain America: The Winter Soldier ultimately reaches.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out on 26 March.

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Hmm, three stars? I'm hearing either "best Marvel film since the Avengers" or "decent superhero movie but nothing special" in the reviews I've read...I'm gonna give it a go either way - hopefully it'll be good!

On a slightly different note, would it be possible for you to summarise reviews at the end, similar to how they do it at IGN? It'd be really helpful DoG :)

"despite a 136-minute running time and a plot that barely stands still, the movie somehow can't make time for everything it wants to"

"if it lost 20 minutes almost anywhere it'd come out vastly improved"

Odd discrepancy. Too short, yet too long.

Translation: you didn't read any of the review, just skipped to the star rating.

We liked the film, but in a weird way, that is an accurate criticism!

To clarify, it wants to include too much but would benefit from dropping some of it entirely.

I can see how it could be both. If it's a bit long but doesnt use it's time to do what it needs to. He does say "It's occasionally meandering" so maybe it should of been tighter OR spent it's running time on other things than what it does.

Not the review i was expecting after what we'd been hearing. tempered my expectations a bit. which is probably a good thing

Iron Man 3 isnt the high standard you say it is, at least to me. So maybe I'll like this better. I've not really liked a Marvel film since Avengers though so I am going ina little skeptical of all the 'best film since...' reviews. Glad this one was a little less hysterically praising.

yeah, summarizing reviews at the end in a similar way to IGN would be massively useful.

"At least one old villain returns unexpectedly"
Does this have anything to do with a spoiler in the title of a track of the movie's soundtrack album?

Ah, the inaugural "Let's all moan about a star rating for a film we haven't seen yet". Marvelous.

Hmm.Probably wise that The Winter Soldier storyline doesn,t dominate the story considering how the first film didn't really depict Cap and Bucky together much.The whole Bucky survived thing couldn't attain the same kind of emotional impact as the comics.More interested in the national security Vs.personal freedom theme,how Sharon Carter is used in the plot and the Captain America/Black Widow character comparisons anyway.

Wish I had, cos I think there is a spoiler in the review (not going to mention it, cos that will just compound the problem)

Wow, I was really looking forward to this. If you'd call Iron Man 3 a better movie, then this must be utter garbage.

It's probable that we have different opinions of Iron Man 3. I would take that into account when considering my sentiments in the review.

I tend to read the last sentence of the review and check the star
rating. This gives me context so I can read the review with the rating
already in my mind. But a spoiler-free review is still going to give you too much information if you are hoping to see the film with as little information as possible. I've avoided ALL the trailers so I'm in good shape.

I really liked IM3.

So far I have enjoyed every single film in the Marvel Cinema Universe apart from The Incredible Hulk. I don't understand the hate for Iron Man 3 as I had a blast with that one and probably my favourite of the 3 IM films. Thor: The Dark World was great and I can't wait to see this...

Loved Iron Man 3

I'm not sure what you think is a spoiler, but I'm pretty confident I didn't give anything away!

Also, instead of a review; can we just an image of a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down? This reading lark is too much like hard work.

Think he probably means mentioning the unexpected return of a villain....

I like what you did there.....marvellous haha

Perhaps, but I'd say that's no more a spoiler than mentioning that there are new heroes and villains in it. Saying who the character is would definitely be a spoiler, but I'm comfortable that saying "there is an unannounced character return in this film" is acceptably vague.

DoG in good review shocker!

Just got back from seeing the film, have to completely disagree with the review, it was so much better than iron man 3 and some of the scenes where better than the avengers, the winter solider wasn't an underused villain, he was meant to be a weapon taken out of the box when nothing else would get the job done plus be kept secret, great marvel film and the best one of phase 2 so far!

Just back from the preview and felt a bit more positive - four stars easy. Imagine a really good series episode of 24 but with Captain America, 8 million bullets and a minigun in it, and you ain't far off. Cracking physical action sequences, real heft to them, probably better than The Avengers in places..

Also pleased that trailers haven't really given away the real meat of the film. Strong ensemble cast, with a few surprise faces showing up from the Marvel Universe make a strong impact. Evans natural in the role now and changing the character up from the original nicely, best use of Black Widow so far as well.

Downsides - about 20 minutes of early exposition, and not enough Winter Soldier, 3D ain't needed (too fast in the action scenes to keep up) but other than that, a really good ride and good to Marvel doing something a bit different again.

Apologies,if you consider my comment regarding your article to be too revealing.Hope all the new characters introduced into the story are not detrimental to the amount of character work on Captain America and are well utilised in the story.

I think because we only have one Cap film that saying someone returns is quite a narrow field to pick from so kind of steps into spoiler territory. Depends how sensitive you are to it but if you are then eh don't read reviews

But even then, do you KNOW who I was talking about from what I've said? If there's room to speculate (and I think there is here) I don't think it can be called a spoiler.

Ironman3 was a steaming pile of crap. It's bound to be better than that.

Wow, such a great insightful comment. Please direct me to your blog or newsletter.

Hey! It's nearly like your working for S.H.I.E.L.D or something with these debates about secrecy and what might or might not be true.

The first one depicts Cap and Bucky working together for years...?

And me, I thought it was fantastic. I've written this before but I believe Dark Knight Rises and Iron man 3 were out around a similar time? I saw both, Iron man 3 first though as im more a Marvel fan. Both had plot holes which bothered me to start with but I have been more forgiving of IM3 because its just so much fun and doesnt take itself too seriously, I can't say I feel the same way about DKR which I now only watch for Tom Hardy's Bane - arguably the best thing about the film.

Excellent review! I am a fan of the comic series and knowing that you get to know more of the Cap's character instead of CGI is a huge help!!

I wasn't a big fan of the first Cap America film - I wondered if the 'first avenger' tag was added to make sure that Marvel completists didn't miss it out. Something about Chris Evans' head superimposed onto puny body slightly freaked me out, plus I just found the plot a bit dull and obvious - a necessary exercise in backstory in advance of the Avengers movies. As one of those completists though I will be seeing this. I hope I'm pleasantly surprised.

I attended the regional premiere in Nottingham last night and thought it was fantastic.

Review was fair but I think I enjoyed it more than James, action was brilliantly staged and felt quite brutal at times.

I thought Anthony Mackie has found his breakout role and Robert Redford added gravitas to the ensemble.

Bottom line, great start to the blockbuster action movie season and my only real problem with the three star rating is that is pegs this film the same as Need for Speed, which frankly is a joke.

So 4.276 stars from me!

Some of us have seen it smart ass

Thanks for that comment McMac, gave me a good chuckle!!

I don't know what to expect anymore after Thor: The Dark World was generally given favourable reviews... I thought it was pretty terrible.

I loved it. Whilst all the points raised above are valid (and how slow are SHIELD's lifts!! Honestly, you could read a book between floors!) it didn't take away from the movie at all. Exposition is set out so you know what's at risk, and then the movie moves on.
An easy 4 star reveiw and personally, my favorate Marvel movie so far.
I'm looking forward to hear what everyone else thinks once they've seen it.

I'm actually looking forward to this. The Capt America film was way better than Thor and I cannot bring myself to watch Thor 2.

Me too. My girlfriend loved it and she isn't a comic book fan at all. I think some of the fanboys sometimes forget that these films have to reach a much wider audience than the fans of that particular comic.

definitely on the low end. On a mild spoiler to bruce willis is dead scale it is definitely mild but I can only think of two villain characters from cap 1 so I have a good idea who is returning.

As I said though if you read reviews that is fair enough. I could easily not read tem :-)

You're right. Reading is so 90's since there is the Internet. Pictures will do fine. ;)

Thor: The Dark World was a disappointment. I loved Thor and Avengers... but the middle section of T:TDW dragged so badly tears formed in the corners of my eyes.

Hi James,

I've not seen it yet, so I might be way off the mark. I just have a theory about how the plot is going to unfold, and I think there was something in there that confirmed it. I might be misinterpreting what you said though, so think I will shut up until I've actually seen the film :)

Only in a very brief montage sequence though,it's pretty impossible for the audience to properly appreciate that they were a team during the war and invest in his loss.

Bookmarking now, reading in 2 weeks. 2 weeks. 2 weeks! Hope you've enjoyed the ride, ha HA!

Yet the only two comments before yours were from people who had seen it, making your comment completely pointless.

Good call naffgeek. Mackie was very good - role could have been just sidekick, but felt like he got more to do than Hawkeye in The Avengers. And, yep, brutal - and all the better for it.

Don't sweat it. In the future, there will be no need for film critics at
all. Instead, everyone will be fitted at aged sixteen with a device to
send signals to a master CritBot(TM) computer. These signals are "green"
if they expect the film to be good and "red" if they think it will be
terrible. They can be sent at any time based on any arbitrary set of
data collected regarding the film. Depending on the overall response,
each film will flash either a green or red light directly into the
retina of a prospective viewer (or a murky brown one if no one has any
strong opinions) as they go to buy their ticket from the RoboBooth(TM).
If the viewer receives a red light flash and still buys a ticket, they
will be added to a Thought Crime blacklist of people whose opinions are
spurious and they will probably never work in this town again. Also,
anyone responsible for producing a film that receives an overall red
light will be sent to the Marvel sponsored work camps where they will
live out their days rendering pixels for educational animation for
schools (the only films exempt from the system). The future's bright. The future's red and green.

I always remember a frame in the spiderman maximum carnage run that shows spiderman and his allies at their lowest ebb and then out of nowhere up turns Cap and utters 'need a hand son?'. The fascinating thing about Cap is that he's essentially an old man in a young mans body and people will follow his lead all the way. I remember in the Avengers when he started issuing out orders and the rest of the team followed them without question. That's Cap's charm, not his super abilities but that he's a born soldier and leader. If they capture that essence in this film then I'll be more than happy. PS I hope the returning villians means red skull pops up :)

Well, we absolutely loved it! Perhaps we don't get out enough, but this is hugely enjoyable, pitch-perfect stuff with a fantastic cast and the crunchiest fight sequences we can remember in a long while. A rare 5-star review from the picky FT team – and we're looking forward to seeing it again very soon.

So Divergent review is a bad film gets 2 stars. This is a good film and gets 3 stars. You will have to explain the scoring system to me when the hallucinogenic's wear off.

Lol. It was though. I turned it off half way through.

"That's not necessarily a problem. We wouldn't be here if we didn't love
superhero fluff. The strangest thing is that despite a 136-minute
running time and a plot that barely stands still, the movie somehow
can't make time for everything it wants to
do."

"It's occasionally meandering, and if it lost 20 minutes almost anywhere it'd come out vastly improved."

Isn't there a contradiction between these two points?

Not really - the problem is that it tries to cram in too much, and if it dropped some of that altogether for a shorter run-time overall, it'd be a better film. You certainly wouldn't want it to be longer.

Broadly speaking: 0, 1 or 2 stars means a film is bad. 3, 4 or 5 stars means it's good. Within those groups it's just varying degrees of good or bad.

Okay, my question; post credit scenes. Is their one? How many? Serious or comedy?

I must admit I had a 'huh' moment when watching Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D tonight and the specially filmed Captain America: The Winter Soldier Sky TV web filter advert came on with Nick Fury.

Will be repeated in the 21:45 advert break on C4+1 later on Friday.

It WAS terrible. The biggest disappointment yet from Marvel. It was so dull and clunky I didn't get past the first 30 minutes. To follow the Avengers with that tripe was underwhelming. This sounds much better (hopefully).

FYI: Marvel added "The First Avenger" subtitle for overseas marketing purposes. At least that's my understanding.
Surprisingly, Americans aren't beloved in many overseas locales. In these countries, advertising emphasized the First Avenger moniker more.

To be fair, Cap is generally not a polarizing or antagonistic character; it's just the "America" part that leads to issues.
Ironically, he's a remnant of a time when the United States was just entering it's Golden Era, and warmly received by much of the world.

"...a Cap fanboy-turned-sidekick."

Son-of-a...! The Falcon is a hero BY HIMSELF. He's not a sidekick. Or at least, he's not supposed to be. If they screwed that up I'm gonna be pissed.

damn now I can't decide if I want to see the movie. congratulations on the blockbuster season opening you guys.

Spoiler much???

Actually,everything in my comment was only reacting to the review,i haven't had an opportunity to enjoy the movie myself yet but i'm looking forward to watching it soon.So not that much,really.

Pretty strange to see probably the worst rating review I've seen coming from Den of Geek (UK version, US was much more kind), this movie is being heralded by practically every section of the media, it has currently 92% rating on Rotten tomatoes, My tickets are booked for Wed opening release and if its better than "3 stars" which I fully expect it will be I'm going to return and issue you my wrath for what looks to me like a Judas move, your opinion be damned.

Yes two, serious with some one liners, well worth a watch considering the press are saying its top 2, at worst top 3 of best Marvel movies to date.

After seeing an advanced screening last night, I am a very happy MCU fan. This for me had everything. After Thor TDW laugh-fest it was nice to watch something with a slightly more serious tone. The action scenes, especially the fights are terrific. Cap's slightly less flashy power set really works in the films favour, with fights often being more organic than the usual "robots hitting each other" that we tend to get with superhero movies.
I guess it has a couple of flaws (most notably the light-loss in 3d..... very bad for the first 20 minutes) but I'm rating it as up there with the best of the Marvel movies. Certainly as a fan of this genre and as a DoG'er I would be trying to find ways of giving it 5 stars and ultimately having to settle on 4. Honestly folks.... 3 paltry stars just doesn't get close!

I knew it, DoG (uk) gives it less stars than the Guardian Newspaper for gods sake? what is up here I don't know.

Okay, but what's the story with post credit scenes? I don't want spoilery details, just how many there are and when the happen.

Yep. It was a bit to much by the numbers 70s political thriller mixed with the state of the art Superhero action we seem to want nowadays. All the standards of a big conspiracy thriller were there. If you have seen a few, you will likely know where the story is heading. But with Superheroes. Bold move, Marvel. I liked the tone and the plotting. The action was PG13 as it gets, but that was okay. But still, I like the DC darkness as in The Dark Knight trilogy or Man of Steel and the opposing fun stuff like in the Iron Man movies, Thor 2 and Avengers better. A mixture of both is very hard to do. As Fox failed with the new Spider-Man reboot.

This one won't be regarded as a genre classic. But it was entertaining. More thrills, but the over the top action took some impact from it. Like a Jason Bourne movie with Superheroes. I should get used to it. It seems the to be the way to go. Hopefully the fun gaga that seems to be Guardians of the Galaxy will be more right up my alley. It was a bit like watching Wild Wild West. A Western mixed with fantasy comic book elements. Although it was better done. Like in Cowboys vs. Aliens. 70s polit thriller with Superheroes. Okay then.

Great review, as always. Keep it up. Three stars is fine with me.

Thor 2 had a sequence that reminded me of the Star Wars prequels, but it was better. And it had Natalie Portman as well! Fun movie. Not more, not less. Funniest entrance in the MCU yet. Check it out.

Dude, The Falcon was a Sidekick since his inception. Just go back and check the comics, he was a sidekick and has been promoted to a hero since.

(P.S. Movie Falcon is awesome, I think you'll like him.)

Well I watched it tonight and its well worth 4 stars, the fact that this article author rates Iron Man 3 so highly just shows his taste (Not so good, at least say Iron Man 1!), this movie has the best script and is the most accomplished film Marvel has done so far, as far as actual comic book movies my no1 is still The Avengers but this is certainly top 3, the plot is great and if your looking for a DC style darker more mature comic book movie you'll love it, hats off to Marvel for giving us a different tone, makes you appreciate all the different flavor genres the Marvel hero's solo movies offer all the more.

Even more so: here in Germany the name has changed to "The Return of the First Avenger"! No mention of Captain America...
Saw the premiere yesterday in the biggest cinema in town, but it wasn't half full. I guess Cap is not the fan favourite here...

I have the read the comics, thank you. And while Falcon couldn't be the star in Captain America's series, he never felt like a sidekick. Now, Bucky? He was a sidekick, with the lame name, costume, and faithful puppy personality to back it up.

Falcon was always more of a partner, who made his own choices. And truth be told, if racial inequalities weren't a thing back in the day, Falcon would definitely have had his own series a lot sooner. Props to Marvel for taking the first steps in that regard.

And as for sidekicks...that's just another thing I love about Marvel. There really aren't that many sidekicks running around, trying to prove that they matter. That's more DC's thing.

I owe you an apology James. I was wrong, it wasn't what I thought it was.

Simon Brew dropped a bit of a stonker on the front page the other day though

It was a solid 4 stars from me. Much, much better than The First Avenger, and quite possibly the best of all the solo Avenger outings.

I agree and I think the approach here has been wrong. I saw the winter soldier as something of a macguffin, the story belongs to Captain America. I didn't watch Indiana Jones because I need more ark in my life.

We need to organise a search party. One of the stars has gone missing from the review. I did not expect such a great sequel after the so-so first one with the most vanilla character of the Avengers team. The 70s conspiracy movie vibe (very Mission Impossible, De Palma would approve), the set pieces, Jim from Neighbours, the set up for Cap' 3, Avengers 2 and a Black Widow spin off and an unexpected fist fight starring someone I never thought I'd ever see in one. All cinematic gold dust.

Did anyone notice the inscription on Nick Fury's fake gravestone? 'The path of the righteous man...'? Which is the beginning of the Biblical quote Sam Jackson famously recites as Jules in Pulp Fiction. Loved that bit :)

The walker from Cuba has just watched this movie. He has commanded all 8 previous MCU films that occupy 1st to 8th place to move to 2nd to 9th place, for this is the best Marvel movie yet. As you were, survivors. 15 stars.

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