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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

DIRECTOR: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

CAST: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo

REVIEW:

Captain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-Steve-Rogers-and-Natasha-RomanoffAfter a series of underwhelming Marvel comic book flicks in the Avengers’ universe (Captain America, Iron Man 3, Thor 2), Captain America: The Winter Soldier manages to rise above the mediocrity and provide a worthwhile adventure, surpassing the Captain’s introductory outing by leaps and bounds and surpassing the first Iron Man and the first Thor as the best solo installment the Avengers have yet produced.  In fact, it might be the best comic book movie since The Dark Knightsupplying satisfyingly spectacular summer comic book entertainment that mixes high-octane action with a little character development and a little political intrigue and manages to stand on its own apart from the behemoth Marvel has created with The Avengers series.

When we catch up with revived, superhumanly strong and fast WWII hero Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) after his awakening in the first Captain America and his team-up with fellow superheroes in The Avengershe’s still adjusting to life in the modern world.  Along with Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), he’s also made some new compatriots like Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), but is growing disillusioned with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrecy and moral ambiguity and that of its leaders, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and head honcho Secretary Pierce (Robert Redford).  When an assassination attempt is made on Fury, Steve and Natasha get drawn into a conspiracy from within S.H.I.E.L.D. to launch weapons of mass destruction at targets across the globe.  And the conspirators have their own superhuman agent in their corner: a mysterious masked assassin called The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), whose strength and skills are a match for Steve.  And the deeper Steve and Natasha are caught up in the plot, the more secrets they uncover, bringing Steve face-to-face with blasts from the past.

captain-america-winter-soldier-wsknifeBased on my less-than-stellar opinion of the first Captain America, I was lukewarm on this one, but this is a case where I am happy to have been proven wrong.  Captain America: The First Avenger wallowed in mediocrity.  Everything in The Winter Soldier is bigger, bolder, and better.  The directing duo of brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, primarily known for television work, handle big-budget special effects and large-scale action sequences adeptly.  The visual effects are sometimes spectacular, and there are numerous action sequences any one of which are more memorable than anything in the first installment, including an opening raid on a pirate ship, the assassination attempt on Fury opening up one of the most fast-and-furious street battles since the shootout in Heat, Steve’s escape from S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, a hand-to-hand fight between Steve and The Winter Soldier, and the climactic battle royale.  The third act in The First Avenger was ho-hum and underwhelming.  The climax here is the biggest since the all-out alien assault in The Avengers, and achieves more tension, with multiple dangerous situations playing out simultaneously, and the Russos smoothly balancing the large-scale action extravaganza with a smaller, more personal one-on-one confrontation that lends the climax here a stronger emotional component.  The action has a weight and a kinetic impact that was lacking in the first movie’s gee-whiz whiz-bang action sequences; of course, it helps that The Winter Soldier himself provides Steve with an adversary who can go toe-to-toe with him on equal footing and whom Steve can’t just effortlessly toss aside like a rag doll like scores of lesser henchmen.  Also, while well-paced with steady injections of action, the movie takes time out for just enough character moments to give Steve more depth than he’s possessed previously.  The movie takes time for character interaction that actually means something in a way we don’t always get in these kinds of movies, including Steve’s poignant visit with his now elderly lost love Peggy (Hayley Atwell in a heavily made-up cameo), and a road trip interlude where he and Natasha have a little heart-to-heart.  The action-to-character balance is well-handled, with the character moments not slowing down the pace enough for things to get sluggish, but adding just enough depth to make us feel a flicker of emotion toward the people running around onscreen.  A little of that in this kind of movie can go a long way.

With the change in directors and the markedly different approach, it’s clear that Marvel was going for something different with this sequel.  A major reason for The First Avenger‘s being underwhelming was that it followed the generic superhero origin story formula to the letter, in Point A to Point B fashion, with no surprises to be found.  The Winter Soldier proves it’s not afraid to shake things up and go in unpredictable directions.  The revelation of the head villain isn’t especially shocking, but some other twists are more surprising and also take things in darker directions.  It doesn’t dare to get as dark and grim as The Dark Knight  (and pulls a punch on at least one occasion) but this is darker, more downbeat stuff than anywhere the first one or the Iron Man films ever went.  In fact, I read one review that called The Winter Soldier a political thriller that happens to feature superhero characters, and indeed aspects of the film feel more like a Cold War-era espionage thriller than a conventional superhero narrative.  There’s also some less-than-subtle political commentary about launching preemptive strikes to eliminate perceived future threats, and whether it’s worth sacrificing freedom to maintain “order”.  None of this is a criticism.  The different tone is more refreshing and less repetitive and generic than a more standard-issue plot trajectory would have been.

Chris Evans plays Steve with the same straightforward, square-jawed, morally stalwart heroism that he’s imbued him with all along, but he has touches of more substantive material here.  Steve is a torn man, feeling out of place in the modern world and finding that his stalwart black-and-white morality might not be a good fit for S.H.I.E.L.D., nothing terribly complex but enough character development to make him feel like a fuller individual.  Scarlett Johansson returns in the co-star’s seat as his partner-in-butt-kicking with whom he develops a little sexual tension.  Black Widow isn’t necessarily the kind of character who can or should carry her own movie, but she serves her purpose well as a sidekick/partner here, and Johansson displays effective back-and-forth chemistry with Evans.  Samuel L. Jackson gets the most to do here out of any installment besides The Avengers, and gets to join in some of the action.  Anthony Mackie is a welcome addition as Falcon, who’s basically Captain America’s equivalent of Iron Man’s Rhodey.  Sebastian Stan provides a bad-ass (sometimes downright Terminator-esque) adversary who comes with a surprise twist about his real identity, albeit not a surprise to fans of the comics, or to those who remember who Stan played in the first Captain America.  A few old friends from other installments pop up, including Cobie Smulders’ Agent Maria Hill, and there are also cameos from Toby Jones, Garry Shandling’s obnoxious Senator Stern, and Hayley Atwell, buried under age makeup.  SPOILER WARNING  And Robert Redford, making a rare villainous appearance, is not an over-the-top scenery-chewing bad guy, but cool, matter-of-fact, and dryly sly.  Actually, he’s a lot like a more villainous version of Redford’s character from 2001’s Spy Game.

As in Iron Man 3, the inescapable credibility problem in post-Avengers solo adventures is asking where the other Avengers are (surely a phone call to Tony Stark could have been helpful here, and where’s Hawkeye?), but The Winter Soldier is more successful at being a worthwhile solo outing in its own right.  The first film might have raised some questions about whether earnest do-gooder Steve Rogers is too personality-deprived and blandly heroic to carry his own films, but this one proves he can do so if given good enough material.  The climax leaves things shaken up bigtime from the status quo and our heroes facing uncertain futures, while also providing a direct “to be continued”-style lead-in to Captain America 3 (and, less directly, The Avengers 2).  After this second installment with the Captain, I’ll be more optimistic about that than I was after the first.

* * * 1/2

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