I want to preface this with a huge, big-ass SPOILER WARNING, right up front – I can’t think of a conceivable way to discuss this film without discussing some big plot points, and if you haven’t seen the film, it will ruin some of the best surprises. This is likely the most spoiler-filled review on the internet, people, not even joking. If you’re reading this, I hope it’s because you want my opinion on a film you’ve already seen, not to check whether or not you want to see it (Ed. Note: For that, check out Jeff's spoiler-free review here) – which you totally should, because it’s completely amazing. The short version is that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the most competent, exciting and engaging Marvel movie so far, with outstanding action sequences, a solid plot that never once bores or confuses, and possibly the best ensemble cast these films have assembled (no mean feat in itself).
Spoilers from here on out, guys. Seriously, spoilers.
So not that I’m complaining, but for a movie called The Winter Soldier , supposedly taking cues from Ed Brubaker’s The Winter Soldier story, the Winter Soldier doesn’t really show up all that much, right? He certainly isn’t the main villain – but that’s also something Marvel’s been excelling at lately, baiting and switching the audience between trailer and feature in order to keep the film’s secrets safe. Sure, Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce screams “Inside Man” even in the trailer, but Pierce leading a HYDRA contingent inside a compromised SHIELD is way bigger than anything the advertising hinted at (Ed. Note: Check out Jonathan Hickman's phenomenal series Secret Warriors to see where the seeds of this developed). Losing SHIELD at this stage is a pretty ballsy move for Marvel Studios, especially considering their big prime time television property is anchored around the organization. But it also ups the stakes for all the characters, not just in this film, but in the shared cinematic universe as a whole. And it’s one of the key factors that makes Captain America: The Winter Solider one of the best films Marvel Studios has released to date. The big component that Winter Soldier borrows from Brubaker’s extended run on the character is how it puts a superhero spin on the superspy genre. HYDRA’s growth within and subversion of SHIELD’s ranks gives the whole movie an almost claustrophobic, “who do you trust” atmosphere. It also gives Scarlet Johannson’s Black Widow a real chance to shine – subterfuge is her world, and clean-cut good guy Steve Rogers needs her skills and know-how to navigate it. I’m honestly surprised Natasha (or Sam Wilson, for that matter) didn’t double-cross him at one point – not because it’s implied that such a thing would happen, but because the inevitable double-cross is such a staple of the genre.
Of course, there’s the old “villain gets recruited by heroic organization because they think they can take advantage of him, are foiled by their own hubris” trope, and a delightful extended cameo from Arnim Zola lays out the film’s exposition without dragging it to a halt in the process. Unfortunately, the film’s actual villain is more of an idealogical cult. It's spearheaded by a man of flesh and blood, of course, but not something that will shut off or go away if that one man is removed, so the Winter Soldier becomes more of a blunt instrument, a weapon to be aimed at anyone attempting to stop that group’s mission. I was afraid early on, once it was revealed the Solider wasn’t masterminding the attacks, a weapon was all the character was going to be. Thankfully that was not the case, and the Soldier’s arc was not forced into one film. And by turning Cap’s world into something more 007, the filmmaker’s have made the franchise fresh and unique among its cinematic peers. In addition, I think I’ve figured out the secret ingredient to Marvel’s continued success onscreen – these films take characters that even hardcore comics fans are only passingly interested in and give them such undeniable appeal that you can’t help but become a fan. Don’t get me wrong, Chris Evans once again captures everything I want in a Captain America – he’s direct, honest, and blunt without being offensive or rude, and he absolutely nails the fights and physicality of a man whose strength and tactical mind are at peak human. But this is absolutely ScarJo’s film. The Black Widow consistently outthinks, outwits, and outfights her opponents, and it never feels unearned or gratuitous. And it’s worth noting that there is not one ounce of sexual tension between our leads – not even when the (ridiculously gorgeous) female spy and the (chiseled, square jawed, All American) male protagonist share a kiss to avoid detection. They are coworkers, even friends, but they’re not really interested in each other sexually – which is rare as hell in a Hollywood blockbuster, much less the burgeoning superhero subgenre.
Winter Soldier made me want a solo Black Widow film in the worst way, and I will definitely be giving her new ongoing comic a read. And it was great to see Cobie Smulders return as Maria Hill, especially since she was given something to do this time around, and Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury continues to charm (even if this may end up being his last Marvel outing, as his denouement seems to suggest). I also wanted to talk about a personal favorite of mine – Sam Wilson, the Falcon. I’ve always dug on the Falcon (probably because I’ve always wanted to fly, especially if it meant I got wings) so it was a real treat to see that dude in the trailer, jumping off a Helicarrier while duel firing pistols then popping his wings to fly off. I didn’t expect to just fall in love with his character onscreen, though. His easy, believable friendship with Rogers, his military backstory (which doesn’t get harped on – you get just enough fed to you that you understand his motivations without running it into the ground), his grace under pressure on the battlefield - all combine to form a rich, complex character. If Cap 3’s title doesn’t include "and the Falcon" or involve a Madbomb, there is no justice in the world. Not only that, I feel like Anthony Mackie has given the Falcon something the comics never have – a shot as his own film.
It only seems fair that I mention the villains as well – Robert Redford is delightfully sleazy as Pierce, hamming around and chewing just enough scenery to let everyone know he’s having a good time. (And, as my friend Shelley pointed out, he keeps Newman’s Own products in his fridge. That was a sweet touch.) Sebastian Stan doesn’t get a whole lot to do other than scowl and kick six shades of ass as the Winter Soldier, but there’s enough in his body language and his eyes to let us know we haven’t seen all there is to see with him. And I mentioned it before, but it bears repeating – Toby Jones returns as Arnim Zola, and it’s totally as a Nazi head in a TV! Marvel officially can’t use the “Black Panther is too complex a concept” as an excuse for not giving him a movie anymore. Screw Rocket Raccoon, you put fucking NAZI FACE TV Arnim Zola in a movie! Now give Djimon Hounsou all the money to play T’Challa, give Chris Priest all the money left over from that to write script, and give the world a Black Panther movie! Ahem. Excuse me.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier joins Iron Man and The Avengers as one of the finest screen offerings Marvel has released to date. It has a fun and surprising plot backed by a superb cast of returning favorites and welcome newcomers, with enough wide screen action to thrill even the most jaded cinema junkie. It also sets the bar very high for the glut of this year’s superhero movie releases. If those features are nearly as entertaining as Cap’s latest outing, we are all in for a treat.