Captain America: The Winter Soldier is nearly everything a comic book movie should be: exciting, surprising, dazzling, and above all, entertaining. It’s a shade below a **** film–I guess that extra oomph that inspires that rating from me–but make no mistake, it’s a great time at the movies, thanks in no small part to a sharp script which owes as much to the paranoid thrillers of the 70’s as it does to its immediate predecessors. If it’s not the best Marvel film yet, it’s very close, and Captain America might just have the best solo batting average of any Marvel hero.
I was going to synopsize the film in detail, but I realized that not only would this require a great deal of time and typing to do a job Wikipedia has already done, but that much of the effect of this film lies in its revelations, and I would rather not spoil them. So I’ll be brief.
Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is assigned to rescue a SHIELD-owned ship which has been taken over by Algerian pirates. In the process, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) procures a flash drive which is given to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who is unable to access it–and is informed that he himself set up the information’s security protocols. He asks his superior, World Security Council member Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), to delay the launch of SHIELD’s latest project, Operation Insight, which has created several enormous helicarriers that can neutralize enemy threats before they strike–the revelation of which dismays Rogers, who finds himself at odds with Fury’s secretive nature.
Fury is ambushed while driving, and manages to escape, seeking refuge at Rogers’ apartment. He gives Rogers the mysterious flash drive and tells him to trust no one, before he is shot, seemingly fatally. When Rogers evades Pierce’s questioning regarding Fury’s murder, Pierce has SHIELD operatives attempt to arrest him, but Rogers escapes and, meeting up with Romanoff, attempts to discover who killed Fury, why, and what exactly is on the flash drive. It is discovered that the clandestine organization HYDRA has infiltrated SHIELD and plans to use Operation Insight to its own ends, killing 20 million future “threats”. Rogers and Romanoff, along with pararescue veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), seek to stop Insight before it’s too late.
Meanwhile, a mysterious figure known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) has been committing assassinations on HYDRA’s behalf for decades, but when Rogers encounters him, he realizes that the Soldier is actually his long-lost friend, Bucky Barnes…
Fury’s mantra in the film is “Trust no one”, and that idea extends to the film as a whole. I mentioned before that the film echoes 70’s paranoia, and while this film certainly isn’t as bleak as, say, The Parallax View (haven’t seen it, but I know what happens), the sheer number of betrayals and revelations of villainy make it distinctly unsettling. And the film doesn’t hit the reset button at the end, either; the very nature of SHIELD is totally changed by film’s end, and in a way that the Avengers films to come can’t overlook, not without plunging into absurdity. I’m really intrigued to see how this will affect Age of Ultron.
As noted, the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is solidly effective; at times, I found the plot rather convoluted and murky, but I think this was deliberate, to reinforce the film’s mysterious, shadowy nature. There is one fake-out that I won’t spoil; it’s predictable enough that it didn’t upset me too much, but it still feels a bit cheap. Otherwise, it’s pretty damn well written, with some fine monologues (Dr. Zola’s and Fury’s (about his grandfather) are particularly good), and a minimum of campy bullshit.
I should note, though, the title is kind of misleading, since Barnes/the Winter Soldier is only one part of the film’s ensemble; HYDRA itself is the principal menace, and Barnes, for most of the running time, is just its legman–he doesn’t really drive the plot or anything. It’d be like calling Goldfinger Oddjob. Clearly, W.S. will be a larger part of films to come, so why they used the title here is a little strange. Hail Hydra…that’s a little more like it.
The direction by Anthony and Joe Russo is also worth mention. There are some great little touches here (one scene with Redford is an obvious reference to All the President’s Men, which I really liked), and overall the film, aside from a few moments that betray its overlength (it didn’t need to be 136 minutes) feels very clean and crisp. And even if the outcome is relatively assured, the tension here remains high. It doesn’t have the retro touches Joe Johnston brought to the first film (and no musical numbers, sadly), but it does well for itself.
The acting is just fine; most of the cast have eased comfortably into their roles, and enjoy themselves without breaking a sweat. Evans is maybe a bit less charismatic here than he was in the first film and The Avengers; he has less of an arc here, and as a result his performance is maybe a touch flat. I’m not sure. Johansson, though, is great (she’s been on a roll as of late); tough, smart, assured, and utterly believable. There’s even a hint here that she has feelings for the Cap, which she plays subtly and effectively. I really hope we get a full-on Black Widow film at some point, because she deserves it.
Robert Redford has had a little late-career renaissance of his own, but his work here couldn’t be more different from his work in All is Lost; he has more dialogue in any given scene here than he did in that entire film. He uses his low-key charisma here to fine effect, contrasting his genial, grandfatherly nature with the true nature of his character. Samuel L. Jackson’s Fury is as smooth as ever, always showing the contrast between the secretive director and the concerned leader. Sebastian Stan doesn’t really do a whole lot here besides fight and look bewildered (he has little or no memory of being Bucky Barnes), and he sometimes looks more addled than fierce, but I’m willing to see where he takes the character.
Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon is a most welcome addition to the universe, a tough, determined fighter who isn’t a one-dimensional badass. We see that Wilson is battling with some demons (we see him at one point leading a veteran’s support group), and we see his human concern for Rogers–the film doesn’t force three-dimensionality on him, but gives him just enough material and trusts Mackie to hold up his end. And he does. Lastly, Toby Jones’ monologue as the mysterious Dr. Zola is a highlight of the film. A Nazi scientist brought over by Operation Paperclip, he advanced the goals of HYDRA and wrote an algorithm to predict future threats (the foundation of Operation Insight), and when he died, he was able to transfer his consciousness into a massive computer (comprising a few thousand tape banks), and live on to explain HYDRA’s villainy to Rogers and Romanoff. Jones has a blast, hamming it up in style and making a great impression in his only scene.
What can I say about the production values? The special effects are excellent, as you’d expect, and the production design, cinematography, editing, stunts, and sound all do precisely what they need to. Nothing exactly outstanding here, but nothing that lets the film down. It’s really the story that carries this one.
The Winter Soldier might not have the extra resonance that makes a truly great film, but I was quite satisfied with what it was. Maybe it’s been a tiny bit overrated (though I could conceivably bump this up a point or two on future viewing), but I’d recommend it to anyone who’s at all interested. And yes, there are scenes during and after the credits.