Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the Best Marvel Film to Date and One of the Best Action Thrillers in Years.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is unlike any comic book movie you’ve seen. It’s not even really a comic book movie. It’s an action thriller that happens to have comic book characters in it. It’s intelligent, gripping and boasts some truly heart stopping set pieces. It’s comfortably Marvel Studios’ best film, it’s the best “comic book” movie since The Dark Knight and it’s one of the best action films I’ve seen in years.
After the events of The Avengers Steve Rogers is adjusting to life in the 21st century. A full time operative of SHIELD, he lives in Washington, keeps a journal of things he missed (The Beatles, Star Wars) and completes covert missions to ensure the continued safety of the US. When a mysterious assassin rears his head and starts wreaking havoc Rogers begins to question who to trust and what freedom means in 2014.
From the outset The Winter Soldier feels like a response to the people who scoffed at the idea of making a Captain America movie in this day and age. A guy dressed like the American Flag is a tough sell. Making the first film a period piece was the only real way to make the character work without resorting to irony and eye winking cynicism. It allowed Joe Johnston to make an earnest and sincere story about a good man who wants to do his part to put an end to an evil regime. The innocence of Captain America: The First Avenger informs this film. It directly addresses how that same man would react to the world as it exists today. This is an honest to God political thriller. The nature of freedom and how much trust we should put in our government isn’t just given lip service, it’s the driving point of the story. We live in a world where the NSA spying on millions of Americans is no longer the ramblings of a conspiracy theorists. In fact we live in a world where such news barely gets a reaction. We weren’t surprised.
Once again Marvel’s out of the box thinking landed them the perfect directors for this film in Joe and Anthony Russo. What other studio would hand over a sequel like this to the directors of You, Me and Dupree? Even taking into account their brilliant work on Arrested Development or community nothing they’ve done screams ‘espionage thriller’ but they clearly understand the genre. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have written a very sharp, very tight film and the Russos ring every ounce of tension and excitement from it. The Winter Soldier works in the grand tradition of paranoid conspiracy films like The Manchurian Candidate and All the President’s Men.
It just so happens to feature lots of explosions and a guy who can punch a man out of his shoes.
The action in this trumps everything from Marvel’s solo films and rivals the final act of The Avengers. The first set piece, a rescue mission on a terrorist boat, prepares you for what’s to come. This film is brutal. Rogers has a mission and he will crack a few ribs if he has to. This, more than the previous installments, puts the Super into Super Soldier. The Captain crashes through walls but scales buildings with the agility of an acrobat. The Russos have their fun choreographing mayhem with a superhero but the action scenes are always dictated by the story and it always feels fresh and diverse.
As excellent as the set pieces are it’s the heart and the characters that keeps the film afloat and propels it forward. Chris Evans is magnificent as Rogers. Even three films later I still believe he is the same tiny man who doesn’t like bullies. It’s an amazing accomplishment considering this is a very different Cap to what we’ve seen. Rogers was dangerously placid, here he’s angry. He’s formidable but his moral compass never wavers. I’m almost embarrassed writing that. It sounds insufferably cheesy but it’s a testament to Evans as a performer that it never comes across that way. You believe in Rogers because you believe in Evans.
He’s surrounded by a cast of actors giving their A-Game. I’ve never been overly fussed on Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, as much as I love the guy, but he does his best work here. He finally feels like a man who is playing five moves ahead of everyone. He finally feels dangerous. Jackson doesn’t phone this in like it’s just another pay cheque, this is the best he’s been in these films. Equally, Scarlett Johansson continues to develop The Black Widow in amazing ways. The work she does here is a million miles away from the nothing character from Iron Man 2. Romanoff is damaged and the film deftly touches on the devastation that war has on the people doing the fighting.
One of the great surprises is how easily Anthony Mackie slots into the franchise as Sam ‘Falcon’ Wilson. Again, his inclusion feels organic and not just an excuse to get another character in this mix. He has a natural and playful chemistry with Evans. I really hope he gets to stick around because he’s great in the role and The Falcon in flight is outrageously cool.
Finally, the titular Winter Soldier. With barely a word Sebastian Stan is brilliant as the one armed uber assassin. He oozes menance as he stalks Rogers like a masked Terminator. He looks incredible. Credit needs to go to Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s amazing design, (beautifully interpreted here) but Stan brings the required presence and an impressive physicality. We’ve seen in these films how a weak villain can scupper the whole thing, but Stan ensures the Soldier is a threat right until the end.
I mentioned The Dark Knight earlier which was probably ill advised but it’s honestly an appropriate comparison. I’m always banging on about how Hollywood learned all the wrong lessons from Nolan’s film. Like The Dark Knight, though, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a straight thriller set in a comic book world. I daresay that The Winter Soldier even manages to balance a very serious subject matter with the more pulpy elements of the source material. Something Nolan was never really able to manage.
Maybe after a few viewings my enthusiasm for this film will dim (Thor: The Dark World doesn’t hold up that well) but for now Marvel Studios have made a statement with this film. Phase 1 was practice, Phase 2 is where things get serious.