If there’s one thing Captain America: The First Avenger had perfectly, it was its grasp of the character. Director Joe Johnson, actor Chris Evans, and writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFreely understood exactly who Captain America is as a symbolic representation of American strength & virtue and who Steve Rogers is as an individual who stands up to bullies, looks out for the little guy, and throws himself forward without a blink of hesitation to help others before considering his own well-being. The rest of that movie isn’t very good. It’s awkwardly paced, has a messy second half, a non-threatening villain, and an underwhelming final act. 7/10 is probably how I’d score it, but a solid core enabled the creators to do better next time.
And boy, have they.
Now with notable Community & Arrested Development directors Joe & Anthony Russo at the helm, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a superior sequel to the original in nearly every way. It embodies and furthers all the strengths of the original and keeps pretty much none of the weaknesses. It treats the events of The Avengers as a global game changer, yet also as only a small part of Cap’s ice-breaker into the 21st century. It takes a major step in a new direction for Cap as well as for Nick Fury, Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a. Black Widow), & the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, & Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.). It also sets up the events that will trigger Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Some time has passed since “New York” – code for the Chitauri invasion in The Avengers. Cap is still trying to figure out this strange new world while running covert ops for Nick Fury with Black Widow. The rest of S.H.I.E.L.D., meanwhile, has been steadily upgrading its air fleet and satellite networking abilities, which have now placed it on the precipice of achieving 24/7 active global surveillance – enabling it to spy & collect privacy-breaching information on whomever it wishes and preempt any and all perceived security threats.
As defensive as he is of his dubious methods when confronted about them by Cap, it turns out Nick Fury is just as much in the dark about his own spy agency’s darker dealings. When Fury’s investigation gets sidelined, Cap goes rogue to find out what certain members of S.H.I.E.L.D. are really up to, while being hunted as a fugitive.
For the record, the trailers and info pages never made even the slightest effort to conceal the Winter Soldier’s identity, but if you don’t know who the he is, don’t look it up. The less you know, the better.
In fact, the first thing I noticed about The Winter Soldier was that you can pretty much go into it without having seen a single Marvel property and you’ll have no trouble keeping up. This film is so standalone, it would work just as well if The Avengers had never happened and “New York” was instead just a reference to 9/11. In the same way Iron Man 3 was an authentically Shane Black character-driven action/comedy but with Marvel characters, the Russo Brothers have made this film a 70s-inspired political action thriller but with Marvel characters. With consideration to the rest of the franchise, however, The Winter Soldier actually elevates both The First Avenger in terms of giving a better explanation for what Hydra was all about, and also – surprisingly – Iron Man 2.
And to those (like me) who read the comics, it’s even better – true to the spirit of Ed Brubaker’s brilliant 50-issue run on Captain America but with exactly the right kind of liberties taken with the finer details.
Structured similarly to The Avengers (though without the rushed beginning), The Winter Soldier achieves an extremely meticulous balance while advancing at a great pace. The directors understand exactly what was wrong with the first film and have made every effort to address them without trying to overcompensate. There’s a lot of information and detailed exposition, but they’re delivered in an engaging way and for the most part, the film trusts that you’ll understand what you need to when it’s important. The story isn’t complicated but if it ever feels that way, the action (which is presented in spades) clears everything up and keeps it moving.
The initial conflict of ethics that drives the first wedge between Cap and S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place, for example, is quite straightforward. Cap is still the old soldier, singlehandedly keeping youth alive in the values of our Greatest Generation, and coping with a world he does not recognize. The world knows he’s alive, but its memory of his legacy consists of a single exhibit in the Smithsonian for him, Bucky Barnes, and the Howling Commandos. And its values don’t reflect his image at all. The modern public doesn’t think twice about sacrificing freedom and privacy for safety, especially since “New York,” and thus has given S.H.I.E.L.D.’s extensive defense initiatives its tacit blessing. Cap – being the civil libertarian that he is, having seen the potential of power to corrupt, and having spent a military career fighting tenacious control-frenzied fanaticism – balks at the notion, for he cannot trust a government that operates by paranoia. And that’s what Nick Fury represents to him.
In some ways, the general conflict is making up for lost time. We’re getting the actual movie more than a decade into the post-9/11 21st century, but the general privacy/safety conflict was pretty much going to come up anyway because it connects deeply with the theme of Cap’s alienation to the modern world. The truth in general is not as cut and dry as Cap wishes it was. In both The Avengers and in The Winter Soldier, Cap’s doubts about S.H.I.E.L.D. turn out to be justified, yet Nick Fury’s fears also turn out to be true, and so much worse than previously imagined.
The conspiracy and the step-by-step chase for answers draw heavily from notable 70s thrillers like The French Connection, The Parallax View, and Three Days of the Condor, which is partially why Robert Redford was cast as Nick Fury’s counterpart and World Security Council member Alexander Pierce.
Redford rocks this movie, but what’s more interesting about him is an unstated piece of subtext. He looks like Nick Fury! Not Samuel Jackson’s Fury, the Fury of the comics. It’s quite telling when Pierce uses the same rhetoric to justify his agenda as Fury does for his. It isn’t just on the level of the shaky morality of government deception, overreach, and fear-mongering; it’s more personal – Redford’s Pierce is whom Fury could have been if Fury didn’t have a greater depth of integrity.
Pierce believes – as he states in the trailer – that to build a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down. Fury, for all of his secrets, lies, and conspiring, is still kind of an old-fashioned idealist, despite his mockery of the notion. We saw a shred of that in The Avengers when he refused to obey the Council’s orders to nuke Manhattan. Here, it’s crucial to his character in addition to what else we learn about him that may or may not be true. I don’t want to put too fine a point on the contrast, but it was a great way to flesh out the characters and contrast them, particularly when they are juxtaposed to Captain America. The Winter Soldier just gets it.
Of course, not everything works as it should. Some of the details in the beginning go amiss only to be inexplicably resolved later without a mention. Later on in the movie, the bad guys openly discuss delicate classified information (that came in a reveal) to each other while walking in a public setting in broad daylight. There’s a hand tool that burns a hole through basically anything, used twice to an incredible result but never explained. It’s impossible not to see one of the smaller twists coming from miles away, and there’s at least one detail in the story that explains an event I’m willing to bet a lot of people didn’t actually know happened just because it was so quickly glossed over in the beginning of Iron Man and was never mentioned again. I wish Emily VanCamp’s character – “Agent 13” – had more to do, especially given how the film foreshadows a greater role for her in Captain America 3. And there’s probably a deleted scene somewhere that addresses a connection she has to another character.
That said, if any of these issues are deal-breakers for you, I’d humbly submit that you’re watching the movie with the wrong attitude. In addition to a terrific script that plays to the strengths of character and setting as well as some awesome action sequences, The Winter Soldier has a lot of playful referential humor that you probably won’t fully appreciate on the first viewing. The Russo brothers are comedic directors at heart, and they like to screw around, balancing out the darker moments with some much needed levity.
If you’ve been on board with the Marvel Cinematic Universe for some time, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the strongest solo films, matched up right alongside Iron Man 3, and you’re going to have a blast. If you’re more skeptical of the franchise and haven’t fallen in love with every movie, know that this is a significantly more assured and well-crafted piece of action-thriller filmmaking than the first, and it lives up to the hype from the trailers.
As usual, stay all the way through the credits.
The Good: The script, the acting, the action sequences – particularly the use of Cap’s shield as an offensive weapon, capturing the spirit of the comics while putting a modern spin on it, the cinematography, the pacing, the care done to have the film deliver information in an engaging way, the levity, the attention to the key details, and the Falcon.
The Bad: Some occasional moments of carelessness with some of the less important details, the film forgets VanCamp’s character for a while and doesn’t give her much of a role, and that hand tool thing going unexplained.
The Cap: “On your left!”