Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier improves on its predecessor in every way

Because they're essentially telling one large story consisting of smaller interconnected adventures, every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to have a certain house style.  The goal is to have the viewer be able to classify any of them as recognizably Marvel, so they tend to employ a general visual palette, which favors splashy colors that are topped off with a glossy sheen.  They even follow similar tonal guidelines: save the world from some seemingly insurmountable force, while making quips along the way.  It's impressive then that each of the individual films manage to add a specific flavor while staying within that Marvel house style.  With so many films coming out in a short amount of time, it could get monotonous, but they manage to avoid that by having the Thor films draw from Shakespeare, Captain America: The First Avenger embrace its World War II pulp, and essentially making Iron Man 3 a Shane Black film that happens to be starring Tony Stark.

The milieu in which Captain America: The Winter Soldier is steeped is the 70s spy movie/conspiracy thriller.  You can see this from the opening scene, which picks up two years after the events of The Avengers and plants us in the middle of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) helming an infiltration mission at the behest of S.H.I.E.L.D.  The scene focuses on the stealth nature of the objective, and the slickness with which it's executed is the exact opposite of what we've come to expect from Marvel movies.  Directors Joe and Anthony Russo (who made their name directing single-camera television comedies like Arrested Development and Community) infuse The Winter Soldier with so many trappings of the conspiracy thriller genre that it's the closest any movie has come to falling outside of the franchise brand.  It's a refreshing change of pace.  The film explores matters of truth, deception, and paranoia regarding authority as Rogers finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy plot that leaves him public enemy number one, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) forced to go on the run with him, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in critical condition.  On top of that, they've got a mysterious man who goes by The Winter Soldier hunting them down.

Along the way, the film quickly introduces senior S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and ex-soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to the proceedings, adding to the dizzying mix of moving parts in the first two acts.  The story moves along with laser-sight precision, not a single thread poking out as Rogers tries to figure out what's causing S.H.I.E.L.D. to implode.  Most importantly, there's a real danger to the incidents in The Winter Soldier.  Where Captain America and Black Widow might have seemed unimpressive when paired with their flashier compatriots in The Avengers, there are actual stakes in their confrontation with The Winter Soldier in the streets of Washington D.C. near the middle of the film.  There's nothing to match the dazzling tracking shot in The Avengers, but the action scenes here rise above the level of mere competency because of their immediacy.

When the scope begins to widen is when the film gets a bit less interesting.  Things start heading toward the requisite Marvel third act, which ultimately amounts to a big boss battle, and feels a little perfunctory because of it.  It manages to sneak some of the whiz-bang spycraft and intrigue that made the first two acts so engrossing in there, but for the most part, you can chart the course of the film's conclusion with a small margin of error.  Still, it's one of the most successful entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, using its thriller influences to deliver an experience that separates it from the pack enough to make a deep impression.  The Winter Soldier is at its best when it's embracing the new instead of retreating back to past successes, and it opens up an exciting new avenue for the series to explore in the future.


  1. Julia and I saw this last night and we enjoyed it.

    Frankly I think the subtitle of the film was a mistake, as clearly it should have referred to S.H.I.E.L.D. somehow more than The Winter Soldier. Really this is a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie featuring Captain America in my opinion, and it's all the better for it.

    Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson have bigger roles here than they have in any of the other Marvel films (Their roles in Iron Man 2 were a joke compared to this), with Black Widow being a particular standout this time around (THAT REVEAL!). I'm a little confused why Hawkeye wasn't incorporated in this though, since him and Natasha seemed to be a thing in Avengers, which makes her relationship with Rogers all the more confusing throughout this film (maybe she just gets around...).

    Falcon was a pretty cool addition (I wonder if we're going to be seeing Don Cheadle or Anthony Mackie in Avengers: Age of Ultron?), and I enjoyed the banter him and Steve had throughout the film.

    Overall definitely the strongest individual Marvel entry since the original Iron Man, and by far the best post-Avengers Marvel film.

    1. I think Jeremy Renner wasn't too happy with Hawkeye's role in The Avengers, so that's probably why he didn't appear in this.

      And I'm guessing the studios decided to call it "The Winter Soldier" in hopes of getting people who liked Ed Brubaker's Winter Soldier story in the comics excited. But the first movie didn't do enough of a good job at establishing Bucky as a character, so it was hard to care about him and Steve fighting in the 3rd act of this one (not to mention the fact that the 3rd act is just generally kind of lousy all around).

      My rankings for the Marvel films are weird because I think Iron Man 3 is the best Iron Man movie and I don't really hate Iron Man 2. So I'd probably go:

      1. The Avengers
      2. Captain America 2
      3. Iron Man 3
      4. Thor 2
      5. Iron Man (this movie has not aged very well)
      6. Iron Man 2
      7. Captain America
      8. Thor
      9. The Incredible Hulk