Steve Rogers AKA Captain America (Chris Evans) has settled into the modern world as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. but things are not what they seem within the government security agency as the Security Council's Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) wants to turn S.H.I.E.L.D. into a highly weaponized "Big Brother" like organization. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) seems to be okay with this decision but Rogers feels the government is going beyond their jurisdiction and soon finds himself being hunted down by S.H.I.E.L.D. as a rogue agent, as a Russian assassin, the Winter Soldier also targets him.
For Marvel Studios' third solo superhero movie following "The Avengers," they take a very different approach from their other movies, even "Captain America: The First Avenger," which set itself up as a WW2 battle movie. As much as S.H.I.E.L.D. has already played a large part in previous Marvel films, "The Winter Soldier," despite that title, really is a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie, combining previous Marvel movie favorites with new characters to create a standalone movie that effectively combines espionage and action.
After a witty scene showing Steve Rogers' first meeting with Anthony Mackie's war veteran Sam Wilson, a friendship that forms a strong undercurrent for the entire movie, we follow Cap on a S.H.I.E.L.D. mission with the Black Widow to rescue a boat that's been taken by one of Cap's sillier comic book villains, Georges Batroc "the Leaper," retooled here as an Algerian hijacker. The mission culminates in Rogers learning Nick Fury and his security agency are up to some questionable things under the guidance of the Security Council.
Just like in the "Iron Man" films, Marvel seems to be using their costumed heroes to make a commentary on what's happening in the real world, in this case the government's "Big Brother" tactics to keep an eye on its citizens, making us wonder if there may be some corollaries between Marvel learning towards the liberal left vs. DC/Warner Bros. on the corporate Republican right. (Just think about it. Warner Bros' entire superhero movie franchise is anchored on the popularity of a rich billionaire turned vigilante.)
Politics aside, as much as this is meant to be Cap's movie, what makes it such a strong addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that we get to spend time learning more about Nick Fury and Black Widow's pasts. It's a wise move because these popular characters have not been given the room to develop in previous movies. In fact, subtitling this sequel as "The Winter Soldier" might be a disservice to a character who doesn't even show up for a good chunk of time, but once he does, he proves to be more than a match for Cap with some great combat sequences. (If for whatever reason you haven't read the comic books and don't know the origins of the character, we won't spoil it for you.)
Sadly, the storytelling narrative gets convoluted and often confusing, because you spend much of the first half of the movie not really sure who the villain is. Without giving anything away, Hydra plays a large part in it, plus we get to see Arnim Zola, and of course there's the Winter Soldier and who knows where Robert Redford's Alexander Pierce falls into the mix? It takes some time before it's clear how all these characters are related and if you think about it too hard, it doesn't completely hold together, because the Winter Soldier's origin isn't quite as tight as how it was handled in the comics.
What often saves the movie is the introduction of Mackie as Sam Wilson who eventually teams with Cap and the Black Widow as the high-flying Falcon, bringing a kinetic energy to the action scenes in the second half as well as delivering some of the best one-liners to bring some levity to what could have been a pretty dark and serious movie. Overall, the dialogue by the writers of the first movie is solid, possibly of the best screenplays for a Marvel movie in terms of writing so far, and the quality of the cast brings just the right amount of gravitas with Mackie, Redford, Jackson and Johansson all bringing their A-game to their more dramatic scenes.
And then on top of that, you have so many great action set pieces, probably some of the best action scenes since "The Avengers," and further proving how Marvel Studios continue to find solid action directors in unexpected places. In this caes, the Russo Brothers, who have directed comedies like "You, Me and Dupree" and TV sitcoms ("Community"), never really have done anything to show that they can do action on this scale. Gone is the high-tech science of Iron Man and the otherworldly magic of Thor, replaced by action grounded more in the real world of car chases and hand-to-hand fight sequences without being any less exciting. That's because the action builds over the course of a movie to a last act sequence that feels like something Michael Bay might come up with, complete with all the explosions and absolutely massive destruction that comes with that territory. It's quite surprising, considering that the film feels so grounded as it opens that it's almost odd the first time we see Cap in action wearing his full costume and mask because it almost feels out of place. Wisely, Chris Evans spends much of the rest of the movie wielding his shield while in street clothes, which generally works and looks better.
The last act brings a finality to some of what has been set-up in the so-called "Marvel Phase 1," but it also leaves things open for another movie because the Winter Soldier's story clearly isn't over. Like some of last year's better sequels, Marvel have guaranteed themselves an audience for a third movie.
The Bottom Line:
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" may not be the perfect representation of the comic books but that's actually a good thing. Instead, it gains huge points by working as a standalone movie set in the world of espionage and world politics that's different enough from previous Marvel movies to be more accessible for non-comic fans than anything Marvel's done thus far.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo