Winter Soldier is not only a tremendous film featuring one of the Marvel universe's strongest characters but it's also one hell of a political thriller.
Anthony and Joe Russo have done something I wasn't sure was even possible. The directing duo (better known for their TV work on Arrested Development and Community) delivered a superhero film that not only delivers the sort of commodity we've come to expect from Marvel Studios but also one that sets the bar even higher. Dialogue is brisk and never flounders, action sequences have heft and a blessed lack of reliance on CGI. The film is one part espionage thriller mixed with the brash heroics that we know and love from the genre. It possesses a political resonance that reflects the current times quite well. And yet, it is a bit of a throwback too. I didn't think it was possible to top the First Avenger. I've never been so glad to be wrong.
(Ed. note: be sure to check out Derek's review too, just be warned it is spoiler-filled as hell)
I'm one of those nerds who trumpets Joe Johnston's stellar origin story for the First Avenger as Marvel's finest film. Steve Rogers' first adventure stands taller than even the original Iron Man (blasphemy I know) (Ed. note: nah, that's a hill we can die on). It was a rip-roarin' adventure film that had the sensibilities of a 40's war talkie that stood on it's own. It felt more like the Indiana Jones movie we deserved as opposed to the one we got. We're now well into Phase 2 of Marvel's grand scheme and connective tissue can be seen all over the place. The Captain America from the first film has since dealt with being unfrozen and made a man out of time, fought against aliens and helped build S.H.I.E.L.D into a global force for good.
WWII was simple compared to the seismic shifts in global politics and the looming specter of conflict that furrows our hero's brow these days. We begin with our Rogers still trying to sort out life within the modern day. He serves as a contractor, of sorts, for S.H.I.E.L.D. but those duties come at a price. Questionable tactics, further unscrupulous means of achieving safety and peace worry him. Chris Evans, while good in the first film, is far more comfortable within the Marvel world now and loses himself in the role. He is struggling, still, with his accidental quantum leap forward in time while also questioning (for the first time) whether or not such due diligence is the right move when nothing is truly black or white anymore. That paranoia and fear wriggles its way into every nook and crevice that screenwriters Joseph Markus and Stephen McFeely have crafted.
Don't get me wrong, there are some much needed moments of levity sprinkled throughout and plenty hints at and nods to a larger Marvel Universe spread throughout the film's 136 minute run-time. There are definitely some Whedon-esque qualities to the scripting as Black Widow's (Scarlett Johansson) presence is very strong, Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) plays a pivotal role, and even a rather surprising death along the way. Thankfully they don't crib too much from the Whedon playbook and draw heavily from the ethos of 70's era political intrigue of pictures like Three Days of the Condor. Who better than Robert Redford to lend some gravitas to these proceedings?
The casting of the Sundance Kid was a bit strange at first glance. This blockbuster fare was the sort he had avoided most of his storied career. It is, however, a blessing for the overall weight of the film and when he and Samuel L. Jackson share the screen together there is a resonance to this silly superhero film that is severely deficient most of the time. Nick Fury, when given more time to be on-screen other than just delivering orders, proves to be quite a match for Redford's Senator Pierce. Are they the most multi-dimensional roles the two have played? Hardly but they're invested and it makes the film all the more watchable for it.
The antagonist of the film, the Winter Soldier, is similar to our boy Cap, though on the other side of the coin. I won't spoil anything regarding his identity, but the revelation of who is behind the ski mask and face paint is quite a bombshell if you aren't in the know. He is the equal of Captain America and then some, and Sebastian Stan does far more with the character saying very little than he should have been able to. Good villains can be both talkative and speak through kicking ass. He does the latter. Lots of it.
The real gem of the film might just be Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson (AKA: Falcon). He, too, is a veteran just trying to make his way in the normal world like Cap. The camaraderie between Rogers and Wilson that works so well in the panels of the original comics translated famously onto the big screen. He, much like in Pain and Gain (another film written by the same scripting duo here) steals nearly every scene he's in.
I think, perhaps, the biggest achievement of this sequel is the fact that is a clear signal from Marvel Studios that Phase 2 isn't just about barreling towards another Avengers team-up movie or peppering in a new origin story here and there. When Bryan Singer really kicked off the caped renaissance in 2000 with X-Men and Raimi a few years later with the first Spider-Man trilogy we got what amounted to the greatest hits. Translations of the four-color stories to the screen that were technically proficient but were clear cut heroes versus villains stories. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but Marvel figured out how to build towards getting a mainstream audience to accept a movie in which everything is happening (The Avengers) but now things have to change. It can't just be the same thing time and time again.
The formula also has to change somewhat to keep audiences engaged. Winter Soldier is a clear sign that vital tonal shift is also happening. Chris Nolan really started it by redefining what we could expect from a Batman film, giving us a gritty pulp crime drama with a dash of superheroics. But now Marvel is redrawing the boundaries of the superhero subgenre as a whole instead of limiting their scope to a single character. Big difference. It highlights the rather large gap between DC and Marvel in regards to their respective cinematic efforts. DC is still trying to nail down the superhero film outside of Batman. Marvel? They've moved past that point. The type of capes and cowls we'll be getting from Marvel in the years to come will be different from what we got even two to three years ago. They hire Alan Taylor (of Game of Thrones fame) to direct a medieval war movie that just happens to feature Thor, tapped Edgar Wright for a heist movie (Ant-Man) and even brought in James Gunn to give us a space western (Guardians of the Galaxy). The Russos, steeped in the world of TV seemed an odd choice for Captain America but made the transition well and stepped up. Calculated risk and it continues to pay off. Blockbuster films like these are no longer the same as they once were and that is really exciting.
The film in question, though, does have a few small problems. The action, while hard-hitting and much more practical in its execution still suffers from the Russos trying to outdo Paul Green-Grass. The action, while deftly choreographed, feels as though it was chopped up and put into a blender and set to puree at times. If not for Captain America's bright colors I would have had a harder time discerning who was punching the crap out of who. It didn't deter enough to not enjoy the action, though, as other sequences such as the car chase with Nick Fury are done with aplomb.
The use of CGI is just, well, how you do things when it comes to this genre and the Russos wisely scaled it back where they could. Once the climax is ramping up, however, it starts bombarding the viewer fast and furious. It gets a little muddled and, honestly, exhausting but it is par for the course with superhero flicks.
Some of the great character moments from earlier in the film fade away once the gears start turning full-bore. I understand the necessity for the shift in focus, though, as the plot zips on and does what it needs to, setting up future films and so forth. I wouldn't have minded seeing more of the struggles Rogers had regarding his place in the current era when all he knows is 70+ years in the past. Minor complaints though as the script itself is quite tight and makes use of every minute of that run-time.