Apart from some disorienting editing in its action sequences from the school of Paul Greengrass and an uninspiring, CGI-riddled climax virtually at odds with the rest of the film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a strong improvement from the surprisingly good The First Avenger. In fact, The Winter Soldier stacks up as one of Marvel’s best installments.
After the events of The Avengers, Cap (Chris Evans) has seemingly found his fit as a globetrotting weapon of S.H.I.E.L.D., but finding his place among modern society continues to be a challenge. If getting caught up on “I Love Lucy” and other items on his pop culture list wasn’t enough, modern warfare has changed drastically since the first time he ever stepped on a battlefield. The enemy is much harder to identify, and with sophisticated surveillance methods and weaponized drones, America the beautiful looks more like the land of the naïve and the home of the afraid. At one point Cap’s untrusting boss, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), states, “S.H.E.I.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be.”
Like some of the great Captain America storylines in the comics, The Winter Soldier works on multiple levels: as a lament for the “greatest generation” era in which Cap was born while pushing on the hot-button topics in a post-9/11 world; the weight of which rests mostly on our hero. It is telling that the figure with whom we identify most in the Marvel universe is not the narcissistic Tony Stark, but the conflicted Steve Rogers, whose star-spangled costume may be as dated as his ideals, wearing them both on his sleeve with pride. Undoubtedly attributable to the casting of Evans, it is not hard for him to wear the do-gooder hat, but it is matched by an intellectual acuteness that allows him to keep pace with his S.H.I.E.L.D. counterparts. When asked by new S.H.I.E.L.D. teammate Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) how to discern the good guys from the bad guys, Cap replies, “If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad.”
It’s this black-and-white determinism that sets Cap apart when the betrayals and twists paint the narrative in various shades of grey—providing satisfying payoffs for both avid fanboys and less involved viewers. Yes, Captain America may represent an ideal closely intertwined with the American Dream, but at the very heart of him is a notion he expressed in The First Avenger that is perhaps even more American, “I don’t like bullies.”
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo elevate the superhero genre with an infusion of 1970s espionage thriller sensibilities much to the same effect as Joe Johnston gave The First Avenger a classic war movie slant. The commitment to practical effects—including an impressive opening action set piece—is even more admirable when the film loses momentum during its bloated, CGI-fueled finale (perhaps the best action sequence of all takes place inside an elevator). Scarlett Johansson continues to build a case for her own movie as the cryptic-yet-alluring Black Widow, and Robert Redford is a welcome addition as an old-world bureaucrat with new-world motives. The titular character of the Winter Soldier may be underutilized in this installment, be he will no doubt be involved in Captain America 3. After all, there are now three sure-things in life: death, taxes, and a Marvel movie coming to your local multiplex this summer.