MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Superhero/ Stars: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Maximiliano Hernández, Garry Shandling, Georges St-Pierre, Callan Mulvey, Chin Han, Jenny Agutter, Alan Dale, Bernard White, Danny Pudi, DC Pierson, Stan Lee, Ed Brubaker, Joe Russo, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Thomas Kretschmann, Henry Goodman, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson; Voices of: Toby Jones, Gary Sinise/ Runtime: 136 minutes
A long time ago in the far gone year of 2008, a film helmer of some renown and talent by the name of Christopher Nolan chose to undertake quite the daunting task of changing how people viewed the distinct genre of cinema known as the comic book film. How he did this is by instead of utilizing the comics to conjure up yet another slice of cinema that had a legendary superhero front and center and seemed like a comic book come to life much in the way that Tim Burton handled his two Batman films from 1989 and 1992 respectively, Nolan instead looked to such films as Seven and Heat from 1995 and transformed his 2nd stab at the Batman mythos into a bleak, ominous, and just downright atmospheric crime saga that just so happened to include one of the most famous superheroes of all time as the lead investigator of sorts whilst also giving us a spin on his most famous nemesis that, even in the face of what Joaquin Phoenix would later bring to the part, has truly yet to be topped. Of course to say that The Dark Knight was the slice of superhero cinema that really started to make the critics finally start to take this genre seriously is a statement that has merit, but also does deter from a lot of the incredible work in the genre that had been done before it. Of course, whilst The Dark Knight turned the world of cinema on its head, there is another studio that starting that same year has managed to become a phenomenon in the world of cinema as well. That of course would be Marvel Studios. Indeed not only has this studio managed to give moviegoers superhero sagas that, much like The Dark Knight, are incredibly and delightfully novel twists on the typical superhero narrative, but they also constructed and are still building on the downright creative Marvel Cinematic Universe that manages to place every single movie and every single character introduced and place them all in the same universe. In that respect, I think I can honestly say that whilst none of the MCU is in any position to be called genuinely bad (though there are some which are heavily flawed; I’m looking at you Thor: The Dark World and Eternals), there are some that are just genuinely terrific from beginning to end with the slice of cinema I am reviewing today, 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, being one of those films. Indeed here is a slice of superhero cinema that may have the terrific cast of characters and action beats that one has come to associate with a Marvel film, but then sets these ingredients in an intriguing and riveting 1970s political thriller narrative akin to Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View albeit whilst operating with modern ties in the form of government oversight, personal responsibility, and the capability of striking before the enemy has a chance to blink to name a few examples. Suffice it to say that not only is this slice of cinema everything one has come to expect from a Marvel film, but it is also one that even to this day is still one of the finest Marvel has given us to date.
The plot is as follows: Picking up in the aftermath of the first Avengers film from 2012, Captain America: The Winter Soldier gets underway as we see the titular hero is both trying to make his way in the completely unknown world of the 21st century whilst also working as a field operative for that particularly infamous clandestine organization SHIELD who reports directly to our favorite eyepatch wearing cloak and dagger superspy Nick Fury even if there are things he is assigned that don’t always sit well with him. However things take a turn for the nightmarish when a seemingly routine mission to save a group of hostages aboard a top-secret military ship uncovers a complex web of deception and conspiracy that in turn sees Fury shortly thereafter be assaulted by a legendary assassin known only as the “Winter Soldier”. An action that we are able to see that the ensuing fallout from causes our favorite Star-Spangled Avenger to be labeled by a senior official within SHIELD known as Alexander Pierce to be a fugitive from justice. Thus with the aid of fellow Avenger/highly skilled spy Black Widow and newfound ally Sam Wilson, we see that Cap must attempt to not only figure out just who this deadly assassin is, but also stop a menacing evil that is not only set on annihilating SHIELD, but also wiping out a fair number of the population along with it…
Now even though before this slice of cinema, the bulk of the work done by the Russos was limited to quirky comedy such as the shows Arrested Development and Community, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a slice of cinema that is grim and dark and purposeful with every choice it makes during its runtime. Indeed from riveting action beats, well-thought construction of the narrative, a riveting cast of characters, fairly insightful analysis on several very real sociopolitical issues, tips of the hat to the various conspiracy thrillers from the 70s that inspired this film, comedy that is welcome but not overwhelming, and more than a fair degree of Easter eggs for the comic book fans amongst you, the Russos are able to take all these distinct components and merge them together beautifully. I mean don’t get me wrong dear reader: there are more than a few moments where this slice of cinema could easily have fallen in on itself like the most shoddily assembled house of cards ever. Yet instead of atone for the more outlandish comic book moments, this slice of cinema respects all of them even as it alters slightly things so they work better in this grounded and realistic universe (the character of Falcon for example) and just letting some of the more unique things slide (such as a character from the first Cap coming back as an A.I. with a wicked sense of humor). Indeed the fact that the skill necessary for this film to work as well as it does being so vehemently on display really does make it clear the Russos were the best fit for this film. That and the fact that they and this film’s screenwriting duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely still manage to not only concentrate on the unfurling plot whilst also making sure each character is given quite a bit in terms of characterization just serves as further proof for why this creative team was the best choice for this film, Captain America: Civil War, and the latest 2 Avengers films as well. As for the script, well it says something when you can watch a whole movie and not see one moment that feels like it was only put in to pad out the runtime even further. Suffice it to say this slice of cinema’s script does a wonderful job of letting the mystery at the heart of the film unfurl slowly but surely whilst also giving room for the characters and their various relationships to shine from a meeting between Jackson and Redford to the first scene between Cap and Falcon set during an early morning jog at the National Mall.
It’s also worth pointing out that this slice of cinema’s cast also does a wonderful job at matching the wonderful work done by the Russos and the creative team behind the camera. Indeed as the titular hero, Evans makes for such a conflicted idealist that every choice of principle that he makes is inspiring rather than groan-worthy and the scenes where goes up against Sebastian Stan are taut yet also emotional to the point that a street brawl for all intents and purposes feels more like a bout between two people with similar iron-laden will and physical power. I also feel that Johansson does such a terrific job in this at giving us more shades to her iconic heroine Black Widow that I still to this day find myself asking just why in the world it took so long for her to get her own film. This then brings us to Anthony Mackie and honestly I have enjoyed seeing him pop up in everything from 8 Mile to The Hurt Locker and here Mackie does a terrific job at giving us a character who helps to bring a bit of levity and affability to a film that is otherwise easily one of the bleakest that Marvel had given us up to that point. I also really love the work done in this slice of superhero cinema by screen icon Robert Redford, who gives such an incredible turn as Alexander Pierce that it can be quite hard to ascertain just where exactly his character manages to fit in into the grand scheme of things, but trust me when I say that this is very much the point. We also see that Sebastian Stan is absolutely chilling as the Winter Soldier who even with a limited amount of dialogue and rocking a mask for about his first half of screen time is a brutal and fairly merciless killer who in many ways acts in this as if he is Marvel’s answer to Michael Myers and I mean that in the best way possible. Meanwhile amongst the rest of the cast we see that Frank Grillo is incredibly utilized as the mass of muscle that is Brock Rumlow, Emily VanCamp does a wonderful job even if she is not utilized as much as she should be as Steve’s neighbor Sharon, and the returning Colbie Smulders as Maria Hill proves to be a wonderful addition to the cast. Heck even Samuel L. Jackson, despite being typically the head coach of sorts albeit one who looks downright intimidating at all times and rocks one heck of an eyepatch, gets the chance to finally show how much of a badass his take on Nick Fury really is with several iconic moments scattered throughout including a car chase in this that is truly riveting and taut in every sense of the word. Suffice it to say that this slice of cinema once again shows that Marvel’s track record for casting is still aces and everyone involved brings their respective A-game no matter how big or small their part may be.
All in all even in the face of a few minor flaws scattered throughout, I think it can easily be said that Marvel Studios has managed to hit another cinematic home run out of the park for comic book fans and just general movie lovers to cherish and enjoy. Indeed in case that didn’t spell it out, the slice of cinema that is Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one that manages to be an unequivocal success. Indeed not only did this slice of cinema prove to be the perfect set up for future films, but it also at the same time increases the value of its predecessors that came before it with particular regard to Cap’s first solo outing in 2011 that operated in some ways like Marvel’s answer to The Dirty Dozen and the first Avengers from 2012 respectively. Yet even with how wonderful of a chapter this slice of cinema proves to be for the MCU, this slice of cinema’s powerhouse writing team has done such a great job at molding this installment in the Star Spangled Avenger’s narrative arc that this slice of cinema also stands phenomenally well on its own merits as a riveting and truly thrilling political thriller albeit one within the world of superheroes. Yet as incredible as the cast is, as terrific as the helmsmanship is, and as taut as the action is, I still feel that the biggest delight to come out of this slice of cinema is seeing just how crucial this narrative proved to be in setting the MCU down a path that not only influenced Avengers: Age of Ultron which came out in the immediate aftermath, but also the rest of this iconic franchise now and most likely forever more. On a scale of 1-5 I give Captain America: The Winter Soldier a solid 4 out of 5.