Title: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Cast: Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill)
Director: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
The Basics: Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with Steve Rogers (aka the eponymous Captain America) still struggling to adjust to the modern world after being awoken from a frozen state that he remained in since the 1940s. His sense of unfamiliarity in this colder, bleaker world is made worse by his growing sense of distrust for S.H.I.E.L.D., the government intelligence and defense agency he’s a part of. Steve’s suspicions turn out to be more than just unfounded fears; a faction within S.H.I.E.L.D. is planning to use advanced surveillance methods to kill millions in the name of the greater good. Steve—along with Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow) and Sam Wilson (aka Falcon)—must confront old and new enemies, but one new enemy (the mysterious Winter Soldier) might not be so new after all. Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds not just as a highly entertaining superhero blockbuster; it also feels darker and more thematically complex than any Marvel Cinematic Universe film that came before it, while still being driven by the sharp writing, strong character development, and charismatic performances that have made Marvel films huge box-office draws season after season.
M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Like all superhero movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier could sink or swim based on the performance of its central hero. Thankfully, this film is once again in the capable hands of Chris Evans. This film allows Evans to balance Steve’s genuine sense of patriotism and his innocent charm with something deeper that was only hinted at in The Avengers. This Steve Rogers is a man disillusioned by the changes brought by the passage of time; there’s a heaviness to him that Evans subtly brings to the surface in powerful moments, such as a walk through a Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian and a moment of reflection as he watches a group of young veterans talk about the burdens they’ve brought home with them. Evans somehow manages to make you believe that he’s a 95-year-old man trapped in the body of a twenty-something super-solider; you never forget that he’s a man out of his time, but it’s only occasionally played for comedy. Often, it’s heartbreaking in a quietly powerful way because Evans makes you feel not just Steve’s sense of lost years but also his sense of lost purpose and lost innocence. However, there’s still a part of Evans that radiates the innate heroism and genuine goodness that made his performance in the first Captain America film feel so fresh. Yes, Steve may feel lost, but he still knows who he is at his core—and so do we. He’s a hero in an age of anti-heroes and morally ambiguous characters, and he makes it fun and rewarding to root for a genuinely good guy to win.
Scene Stealer: After watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I dare anyone to say that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow shouldn’t have her own movie. Black Widow was the perfect partner for Captain America in this movie, and Johansson was the perfect partner for Evans. While Evans succeeds because he makes viewers believe Steve’s innate sense of loyalty to his country, Johansson works her magic by painting a picture of a woman deeply tormented by a life that has given her no sense of loyalty to anything—until the one thing she puts her trust in (S.H.I.E.L.D.) betrays her. Of course, she kicks even more bad-guy butt than she did in The Avengers, but not enough is being said about the emotional aspects of her performance and the layers she was able to give this “supporting” character. Natasha Romanoff isn’t just another one-note, sexy, female action hero. She’s strong and she’s beautiful, but she’s also funny, calculating, and surprisingly warm. Johansson is so good at conveying Natasha’s ability to read people and situations—from using her sensuality to throw male opponents off their game to knowing exactly what actions would keep her and Steve from being spotted in a crowd. (For the record: Kissing works.) And that’s such a perfect detail to set her apart as a superspy rather than a superhero. Natasha gets her own story to tell beyond being an accessory to Steve’s journey, and Johansson hits every note of her character development perfectly.
Bring the Tissues? If you got emotional at the ending of the first Captain America film, there’s a scene in this one that will make all of those feelings of “what could have been” for Steve and Peggy come rushing back. It was a beautiful moment of closure for those characters and the audience that I don’t want to completely spoil, but I will say this: There’s a moment when Evans says “my best girl” that will turn anyone who loved Peggy and Steve’s relationship into a crying mess. Also, if you were devastated by Bucky’s fate in the first film, there are a couple of scenes in this movie that will probably have you wiping away tears. Sebastian Stan is so good at breaking hearts, and here he does it once again by making you want to plead for Bucky to remember who he is and what Steve means to him.
Should I Stay or Should I Go? Stay until the main credits are over for a scene that appears to be a setup for the next Avengers film, and stay until all the credits have rolled for another “Sebastian Stan breaks your heart” moment.
Most Memorable Scene: There are many worthy contenders—both of the flashy variety (an elaborate car chase involving Nick Fury, a Black Widow disguise no one saw coming, and lots of impressive fight sequences) and the subtle variety (a moment between Steve and Peggy, Steve and Natasha talking about trust, Sam leading a support group for veterans, Steve in the Captain America exhibit). However, my favorite moment was the revelation of who was behind the parasitic evil that had contaminated S.H.I.E.L.D. When Hydra’s connection to the story became known, I couldn’t contain my glee over such a perfect way to continue the central conflict from the first Captain America film while still making it relevant and fresh within this movie’s framework. I didn’t see it coming at all, and it was a brilliant way to further make this a personal fight for Steve. Project Insight was another kind of Holocaust waiting to happen, and I really enjoyed the way this movie—like Steve himself—reflected the past while incorporating it into the present in a way that really worked (and was also really unsettling with a scientist’s mind preserved after his body’s death in a massive computer system).
Strengths: My favorite thing about Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the way it managed to surprise me on many different levels. I’ve seen a lot of superhero movies in the last decade, and it’s easy for them to start blending together into one mass action sequence. But what I’ve enjoyed about this current group of Marvel films is the way each one—even the sequels—has its own style and tone. This film felt more like an old-school conspiracy thriller than a blockbuster action film (until it got to its big conclusion), especially with Robert Redford bringing his own mature, stoic kind of charisma to a villainous role that was much more realistic than some of the more campy villains of other superhero films. It made for a more compelling and realistic conflict because the darkness was perpetuated by men in suits who believed they were serving the greater good and not some alien baddie with an ax to grind.
Another way this film surprised me was in its handling of Steve and Natasha’s relationship. It could have easily been developed in a romantic light, but the film chose to focus on their development as partners and friends instead of potential lovers. Putting the most morally ambiguous Avenger with the most honorable Avenger was a genius move because these two characters (and actors) bring really interesting things out of each other. It’s especially true for Natasha. Her scenes with Steve revealed a more vulnerable and—dare I say it?—sweet side that never made her any less of a superspy. In fact, it made her a more human and more interesting character.
The women of Captain America: The Winter Soldier were handled so well—from Natasha’s character development and her continued fighting prowess to Peggy’s past leadership of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Maria Hill’s important role in the story. Maria’s appearance in the film and her inclusion in the final mission made me so happy; I thought she was a fantastic part of The Avengers, and it was such a fun moment to see her back on the screen and proving to be even more impressive as an action hero than I’d remembered.
The characters in this film were generally written with a deft touch for real relationships. I enjoyed Steve and Sam’s friendship because it felt genuine and came from a real place: two veterans bonding over the transition to life back home after everything’s changed. The dynamic between those two and Natasha was a lot of fun to watch.
All of the characters got more than a few sharp lines of dialogue that have come to define the sense of humor in this Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it was the poignant writing of Steve’s sense of devotion to his best friend Bucky and Bucky’s fight to break free of his Winter Soldier conditioning to find out who this man was that stuck with more than any quips. I was surprised by how much Stan made me care about Bucky’s inner turmoil. The whole cast made me want to reach through the screen at points and hug these characters, which is not an emotion I usually associate with viewing a superhero film.
Weaknesses: Despite its surprising tone, Captain America: The Winter Soldier had some predictable elements. After Coulson’s non-death in The Avengers, I had a feeling that Fury wasn’t going to stay dead despite his emotional surgery scene, which made the impact of his “death” less powerful. And some of the action sequences—especially the final one—could have been shorter. If I’ve seen one helicopter blow up in an action film, I’ve seen them all; there’s no need to drag out action scenes in a film that is entertaining enough without 100 explosions in a five-minute period.
Final Verdict: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the most pure fun I’ve had watching a movie in a long time. It’s not quite as entertaining as The Avengers, but I think it comes closer than any other Marvel film has to reaching that pinnacle of achievement. And I actually felt more emotionally connected to this film than I did with The Avengers. With a strong script, confident tone, and some great surprises along the way, this film is the perfect way to kick off blockbuster season. As soon as it ended, I would have gone back in and watched it again right away.