Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
"I thought you were more than just a shield," quips one of Captain America's opponents a few minutes into Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This line is more than just a clever bit of screenwriting, as it announces quite clearly what this sequel is going to be about. Captain America has already been ripped out of his familiar world of the 1940's and into the present day, but this story goes further in peeling away many of the other things that define him before slowly reintroducing shades of his past. This is an action-packed comic-book espionage-thriller-inspired movie with all that comes with it, but it is more intelligently crafted than Cap's first adventure, with a slightly more nuanced take on the characters and plot. It strides confidently in the spotlight alongside the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and fans are sure to love it.
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For starters, it isn't as cartoonish as the more ludicrous parts of the original First Avenger, though the narrative does have a few predictably silly twists up its sleeves. It struggles to take itself seriously--and succeeds, for the most part--but it can't escape the fact that, at its heart, this is a Captain America yarn full of cheesy comic clichés and action moments that require a bit too much suspension of disbelief. As one recurring example, there's a lot of falling in this movie, and while audiences are likely to be accepting of Cap's relatively unharmed survival from just about any height, other characters also survive some pretty incredible confrontations with gravity. Probably the most egregious example comes late in the film, as one of the secondary heroes, Falcon, leaps from a high window and lands perfectly safe inside a helicopter that is several floors below him. Another example includes a never previously mentioned or adequately explained Mission: Impossible-esque technology that gets used during the climax in true deus ex machina fashion.
Still, the action in this movie is, for the most part, refreshingly well-done. There are two memorable car chases and several superpowered fist fights paving the way to a grand climax, and much of the action deals with secondary characters like Nick Fury and Black Widow. The pairing of Black Widow with Captain America seems a bit odd at first, but it makes perfect sense from a thematic point of view, as Black Widow is Cap's closest counterpoint in the Marvel Cinematic catalogue of heroes. She is shady, coy, secretive, and unrepentantly violent, seeing the world as shades of grey, whereas Cap is the crystal clean boy scout living in a black and white world. The movie never even hints at a romantic connection between the two, instead letting them form a friendship and comraderie that is more like a buddy cop odd-couple dynamic.
With both Black Widow and Nick Fury playing such a major role in this sequel, it's similar in a lot of ways to Iron Man 2. However, where the S.H.I.E.L.D. subplot in Iron Man 2 felt too much like a distraction, it is far more logical and essential as part of the main plot here. Indeed, this movie is as much about S.H.I.E.L.D. as it is Captain America, and it picks up the tension between these two that was started in The Avengers. Cap doesn't see the world the same way Nick Fury does, and this conflict is at the core of the film. It is fitting, then, that we meet a new head of the organization who seems to be even higher up the food chain than Nick Fury, Robert Redford's Alexander Pierce, and the story only toys with the is-he-a-good-guy-or-is-he-a-bad-guy question briefly, wisely answering it well before it gets too exhausting.
|All I see are Scarlett Johansson's impossible curves, and I could stare at them all day.|
The other big newcomer is Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon, a war veteran fresh from the service who bonds with Steve Rogers out of a mutual respect. Falcon's entry into the story is organic, but the fact that he just happens to be a superhero in his own right is a bit convenient. Still, he and Rogers work well together, as characters, and it's important for Captain America to have an ally he can trust, because he doesn't fully trust Black Widow. Falcon gets more screen time than you might expect, but he's awesome enough that you don't really mind.
And then there's the villain, the movie's namesake, the Winter Soldier. He only shows up a handful of times, but like any good villain, he knows how and when to make his entrance. He's clouded in mystery and I won't divulge too much about him for the five people out there who don't know his secret, but he proves early on that he can stand toe-to-toe with Captain America, swatting aside his signature shield like it's a paper airplane. He's a fast and deadly assassin both at a distance and up-close, and he is the only person aside from the Hulk who has ever elicited visible fear in Black Widow. His connection to Black Widow is a little unnecessarily convenient for plot reasons, but it's not outside the realm of believability that a bad guy who seems to have come out of Russia would have previously crossed paths with a hero who also comes from Russia.
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On the whole, this movie is a vast improvement over Captain America: The First Avenger. It's not the best M.C.U. film to date, but it is possibly the most well-written. While the Iron Man movies have taken stabs at political relevance here and there and Thor has attempted to address the cultural tension between science and myth, this is the first Marvel movie to actually be poignant. It also refuses to sit back and be content as a self-contained adventure; it will have enormous long-lasting repercussions for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, arguably just as many as The Avengers. (Also, listen carefully and you might hear Dr. Strange's name get dropped.) Marvel continues to defy the naysayers by producing quality entertainment while not hiding the things that comic book fans have grown to love, and while I doubt The Winter Soldier will convince any newcomers that comic book movies can be great, it will keep the hype train rolling for Marvel's next epic adventure.
The Winter Soldier is much better than its predecessor and, as long as you have a high tolerance for disbelief, it's one of the best M.C.U. movies yet.
-e. magill 4/4/2014