It’s easy to get lost among the huge and larger than life Marvel movie properties such as Thor, Iron Man, and The Avengers. Such was the case with Captain America and his 2011 film “The First Avenger”. Now don’t misunderstand me, Cap’s first solo movie project was still a hit and it raked in just over $370 million at the box office. But it is rarely mentioned in the conversations about Marvel’s growing cinematic landscape. Personally I loved “The First Avenger” and its distinct and unique flavor. Well obviously its success means a second film will follow, but unlike many sequels Cap’s new chapter legitimately excited me.
“The Winter Soldier” was an amazing storyline that ran through the Captain America comics starting in 2005. It was written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by the amazing Steve Epting. The two developed an engrossing story that has become one of my favorite comic book storylines ever put to print. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely desperately wanted to adapt Brubaker’s story. They ended up taking key elements of it, added a few slick and interesting twists, and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was born.
The first Cap film carved out its own little spot among the Marvel movies. It took place predominantly in the past, namely during World War II. While those connections are still present, this film is a modern day story. Chris Evans reprises his straight-laced Steve Rogers persona. He is still very much a man from the past struggling to find his place in the modern world. Whether it’s technology and pop culture or the complex attitudes towards global crisis and geopolitics, Rogers often finds himself at odds with the situations around him. The film does take some time with that but ultimately this is an old-school action flick that hearkens back to the old espionage pictures of old.
Cap is still working for S.H.E.I.L.D. under director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and alongside Natasha (a.k.a. Black Widow) played by Scarlett Johansson. The relationships between these three characters remain compelling. The contrasts between Steve and Natasha are sharp and always evident. Natasha and Fury have a relationship shrouded in secrecy. Steve and Fury are on the same side but are often at odds over what is the right approach. All of these things are stressed more when S.H.E.I.L.D. is compromised by a rogue force led by a mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Several twists and turns follow, threats come around every corner, and the stakes shoot through the roof.
Director Joe Johnston did a fine job with the first film but I was blown away by what directors Anthony and Joe Russo give us in the sequel. The brothers, mostly know for their work in television, rarely take their feet off the accelerator yet they never let their film become a deluge of pointless, mind-numbing action. The battles always feel important and the consequences are dire. But they also look amazing. I can’t tell you how many times I shuffled in my seat with excitement over what I was seeing on the screen. The camera constantly grabs one beautiful angle or presents one breathtaking sweeping shot. It’s some of the best filmed action I have seen in years. And it’s also a case where the 3-D works pretty well. I wouldn’t go as far as to say you must see it in 3-D, but I certainly didn’t mind that I did.
The action also goes back to days when we weren’t beholden to CGI. Now obviously there is plenty of CGI in this picture, but where it separates itself from most other Marvel movies is in its lack of dependence on the technology. Much of the action focuses on great hand-to-hand combat, some amazing high-speed chases, and a lot of classic-styled stunt work. The entire visual presentation is stunning and it matches or exceeds anything Marvel has done to this point.
But the looks of the film would amount to little if not for Markus and McFeely’s addictive story. They frame all of their action around cool spy movie and conspiracy thriller angles instead of the basic superhero formulas we are used to seeing. Equally surprising is the richness of character development which provides more depth to everyone on screen. Even more, the Winter Soldier is a fantastic villain. Not only is he incredibly cool and a perfect visual representation of his comic book counterpart, he also isn’t a faceless enemy. He may steal scenes with his physical presence, but he also brings a gravity to the situation that amps things up. The pacing is crisp, fluid, and never lulls. The tone is more serious, yet the sprinkles of humor are funny and well timed. It’s simply a well-oiled and well-conceived script that dramatically changes the landscape for upcoming Marvel films.
Then there is the acting. Over time Evans has clearly gotten better as an actor and he completely embodies the role of Steve Rogers. Jackson and Johansson have also fallen right into their characters and their comfort level is obvious. It was great to see them both in bigger and more expanded roles. As I mentioned, Sebastian Stan is a scene stealer and my excitement level rose whenever he would appear. Also new to the franchise is Robert Redford who plays a S.H.E.I.L.D. senior head. Redford starred in a number of conspiracy films back in the 1970s so this is familiar territory for him. Anthony Mackie is also a lot of fun playing Sam Wilson who Cap fans know as Falcon. There were several other small supporting characters that caused my inner comic book fanboy to smile.
It may be easy for some people to dismiss this film but to do so would be criminal. Sure it’s a big, loud popcorn picture but I don’t mind that at all especially when the film is this exciting and entertaining. I was expecting big things from this movie, but I didn’t expect to be blown away by its craftsmanship and its storytelling. It takes what we love about superhero films, tosses in loads of bods to comic fans, and mixes it all with good old-fashioned filmmaking and the results are impeccable. I love this movie and it very well may be Marvel’s best film to date. More than that, It’s one of the most exhilarating action pictures I’ve seen in a long time.