Captain America is back, and has broken April box office records in just a few days. For those of you worried that the positive chatter about the film is nothing more than Marvel fanboy excitement – think again, and believe the hype. The Winter Soldier isn’t just Marvel’s best Phase Two film, it may just be their best movie. Period.
The film opens with Steve Rogers still adjusting to life in the 21st century, filling his time with workout routines and special ops missions for SHIELD. However, the longer he works for the organization the more he begins to doubt its integrity and mission. In a post-Avengers world, SHIELD has taken a more prominent and aggressive stance against possible threats, resulting in increased secrecy and a new global initiative that uses the promise of fear instead of the promise of freedom.
The Winter Soldier is, at its core, a political thriller that just-so-happens to feature a superhero. What directors Anthony and Joe Russo have managed to do here is craft an exciting and engaging sequel that transcends the superhero genre and gives us the kind of cinematic universe-defining film we’ve been waiting for since Iron Man.
TWS is far from perfect, but finally shows that Marvel is maturing. All too often I feel like their films stick too close to safe and predictable popcorn-flick territory, rather than venturing into character studies. Iron Man was a deeply personal movie that focused heavily on Tony Stark as a man with real struggles and obstacles. What we’ve gotten since then is a cartoon version of Tony; sharp witted and sarcastic, but missing the heart and soul that Jon Favreau got us so invested in back in 2008.
What TWS manages to do is tell us a character-driven Captain America adventure, fleshing out aspects of his story that were temporarily set aside in The Avengers and never fully explored in The First Avenger. While TFA is a fun period piece in the same vein as an Indiana Jones adventure, it wasn’t one I found too memorable. TWS, on the other hand, is a great sequel that expands on the ideas explored in the first film and gives us a reason to believe in a man like Steve Rogers, while telling a story that also succeeds in exploring the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe as well.
TWS succeeds where I feel Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World did not. Iron Man 3 felt too enclosed, almost a direct response to the SHIELD-heavy Iron Man 2. Instead of finding a balance between the SHIELD story and the Tony Stark story, they decided not to focus on SHIELD at all. Big mistake. The Dark World had a better excuse for focusing mostly on Thor: he doesn’t fight his battles here on Earth. He’s got eight other realms to protect, and SHIELD has no place in a world like Asgard.
What the Russo brothers did with TWS was take a SHIELD story and balance it perfectly with a Steve Rogers story. The two are interconnected and completely depend on each other. TWS is what a Phase 2 Marvel film should be. It manages to give our hero a solo adventure while also servicing the greater MCU. After all, the MCU is a character in and of itself, and has gotten so massive that it’s impossible to ignore. The Russo brothers were smart enough to see that, and decided instead to put it front and center.
What they made was an entertaining and action-packed spy drama, with plenty of character moments that made me care about Steve Rogers in a way that his previous two appearances didn’t. We really see him struggle with living in our contemporary world, where the battles aren’t as black and white as they were during WWII. The enemies no longer wear swastikas or openly fight for world domination. They’re hidden, sometimes under our very noses, thus making the battlefield more mysterious and unpredictable.
The political intrigue not only creates some interesting tie-ins to the MCU, but to our own real-world problems. The film acts as a social commentary for the ongoing debates about national security, thus making the film’s revelations all the more poignant and intriguing. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing, and enough of a focus on Steve Rogers out of the star spangled costume as in it. What we get are intimate looks at his personal doubts, values, and desires. What does he do when he’s not off saving the world? Even he doesn’t know, and is clearly still looking for where he fits in today’s society.
The sequel also makes good use of its supporting cast. I finally didn’t loathe Black Widow, as Scarlett Johansson finally has an actual character to play this time around. Nick Fury also gets more to do, no longer sitting on the sidelines and yelling at everyone. Their characters have served as mere plot devices in the past, and I was glad to see the Russo brothers treat them as actual people here.
Anthony Mackie completely steals the show as Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon, bringing some of the Marvel franchise’s best humor and well-rounded characterization we’ve seen thus far. He’s a welcome addition to the MCU, and not just for his incredibly exciting and downright awesome flight suit that makes the third act’s overblown action set pieces even more exciting to watch. Anyone who doubts his character’s place in the film will be sold within the first three minutes of the movie.
Robert Redford is great as SHIELD higher-up Alexander Pierce, a role that could have easily been mishandled by a scene-chewing portrayal (see: Tommy Lee Jones in The First Avenger). Rather than being some one-note and flashy bit of stunt casting, Redford adds weight to the proceedings and helps TWS feel like a good movie, rather than just a good superhero movie.
Sebastian Stan isn’t given as much to do as the titular Winter Soldier as I’m sure fans will like, but he’s still a standout in the intense and perfectly choreographed action sequences. He’s one of the Marvel universe’s most interesting and imposing villains to date. All of the action in this film impressed me, because of how brutally and beautifully handled it all was. The film’s opening ship rescue shows off Cap’s abilities in a way The Avengers only touched on, and people like Black Widow and some of the film’s minor villains have some eye-popping and heart-stopping fight scenes. The elevator fight teased in the trailers is especially fun to watch, and the Russo brothers manage to take what could have been an overly stimulating and numbing third act action sequence and include enough practical effects and character-driven action to keep it grounded enough to get invested in.
In the end, I highly recommend seeing The Winter Soldier. I’m someone who has never been the biggest Marvel fan, and feel that they haven’t yet tapped their full potential. What they’ve done with TWS is up their game and show that they’re serious about these characters, and interested in telling compelling stories just as much as they are in selling massive blockbusters. This is a strong sequel that builds off of the foundation built in The First Avenger, and includes some revelations and events that have some exciting repercussions on the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole.
Take a Drink: every time Cap throws his shield
Take a Drink: every time someone deflects that shield throw
Take a Drink: every time someone is thrown off the side of a boat, plane, or helicarrier
Take a Drink: Zola!
Take a Drink: for every great Anthony Mackie one-liner
Take a Drink: for every Marvel easter egg
Do a Shot: for both great post-credits sequences. Yes, there are two of them now.
Last Call: Notice the Shot above: Two post-credits teasers!