Let’s just cut to the chase: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is awesome. While both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were solid, enjoyable affairs, they both felt like relatively smaller stories with only cursory ties to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Winter Soldier – loosely adapted from the sensational comic book arc written by Ed Brubaker – is not only a direct sequel to The Avengers, but it shakes the foundations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a big way and lays the groundwork for next year’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
When we catch up with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as The Winter Soldier begins, he is working for S.H.I.E.L.D. full-time as S.T.R.I.K.E. team leader on various covert counter-terrorism missions. He has an uneasy relationship with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as team members Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo). Those relationships are tested when the team’s latest mission at sea proves to have a hidden agenda that Fury and Romanoff kept secret from Cap, while Fury makes further revelations about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s latest initiatives that have Cap wondering if he’s playing for the right team.
But the pressure is increased dramatically by a brutal assassination attempt that brings Cap face to face with both S.H.I.E.L.D. senior exec Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and the Winter Soldier, a legendary killer who has a direct tie to Cap’s past (it’s not a huge secret, and most fans know it all too well, but we won’t mention it here for anyone who might still be surprised). With Cap suddenly on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, he must turn to the only two people he can trust – Natasha and an Army vet named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) who has access to some interesting tactical gear – as the contours of a vast and terrifying conspiracy come into focus.
I hesitate to say too much because I don’t want to ruin either the twists and turns of the main storyline or the many shout-outs to Marvel lore that populate the film. One scene in particular features the reinvention of a classic villain while another all but confirms the arrival of a major Marvel character in the studio’s Phase 3 slate of films. The plot also reaches back into the history of the world and S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, tying elements of all the Marvel films together – and don’t forget to stay for the two post-credits scenes, which bring us right up to the doors of both Age of Ultron and 2016’s Captain America 3.
But let’s get back to this movie for now. The Winter Soldier feels expansive and epic, matching the scope of The Avengers but keeping things solidly on Earth. It also raises the stakes tremendously for all the major players while adding new wrinkles to their characters. Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff are fleshed out much more than we’ve seen in their previous appearances – with both Jackson and Johansson clearly delighting in exploring new facets of each character – while Anthony Mackie immediately establishes his Falcon as a worthy addition to the team with his relatively brief introduction. Sebastian Stan brings an eerie stillness and relentless ferocity to the Winter Soldier, while Robert Redford’s gravitas and sheer presence easily calls back to the ‘70s conspiracy thrillers he starred in and which this film is patterned after.
And then there’s Captain America. In his third outing in the uniform, Chris Evans has become completely comfortable, confident and empowered in the role – and since Evans is decidedly not Steve Rogers, his transformation into Cap may be even more impressive in the long run than Robert Downey Jr.’s ongoing (but always entertaining) conversation with himself as Tony Stark. Evans deftly balances Cap’s loneliness and feelings of displacement with his unwavering sense of purpose and intense physical stamina, making Cap a more successful screen superhero than anyone might have thought possible just five years ago.
Directing team Anthony and Joe Russo guide the whole thing skillfully and with a sense of drama and power – it’s kind of hard to believe that most of their work before this has been in the TV sitcom world. They have an excellent script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to work with – it might be the tightest, most complete Marvel screenplay to date – and never let the energy level flag, even in the more expository scenes (of which there are a few). They create a sense of urgency and danger that pulsates throughout the entire film and elevates the major action sequences, including the opening gambit on the ship and especially the assassination attempt, a showstopper that is the film’s centerpiece.
I do have three quibbles with the movie: first, although the action scenes are thrilling, they could have been even more exciting if the Russos did not rely as much on the quick cutting that has become the norm for all action movies. Second, the movie’s final chain of events falls into the template of getting one thing over to another thing to stop a digital countdown – it just comes off as a little more generic after the more visceral earlier sequences. Lastly, while the visual effects are generally top notch, there are a few shots of the Falcon flying and landing that could have done with one more run through the computer but instead end up looking sketchy.
Those complaints, however, don’t detract from the overall excellence of the film. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not only woven into the fabric of the MCU in a big way, but it’s perhaps the first Marvel movie that feels relevant to today: with its plot elements of surveillance, covert action, PTSD and remote targeting, not to mention the idea of the central character – the living embodiment of patriotism – questioning his government and his leaders, the movie is tied to the cultural zeitgeist in the same way that its spiritual antecedents like Three Days of the Condor were locked into the mood of their moment.
Kudos all around to the cast, the writers, the Russos and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, who have crafted what is almost certainly one of the company’s top three movies to date. The Marvel machine is on a roll right now, and if this movie is any indication, not even the Winter Soldier himself can stop it.