Get ready for action sequences in overdrive! Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a competent, not exceptional, superhero film in the Marvel canon…but it’s an even better action thriller that provides enough character growth to make all the explosions and shield-slinging worth the ride. Free of alien threats this time around, directors Anthony and Joe Russo know how to draw our eyes into the domestic mayhem without the need for sci-fi bedazzlement. Thanks to the complexity of the fight choreography, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and S.H.I.E.L.D. spy Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) show us just how deadly they are with some lightning-fast punches, kicks, and the occasional triangle choke. The gun shootouts, however, are a bit of a letdown when compared to the film’s stellar close-quarter-combat fights, as are the two main villains whose identities as such are best left undisclosed in this review (you’ll understand why when you watch the movie). While Captain America: The Winter Soldier has a good mixture of geeky fun and essential drama, it isn’t memorable enough to stand out as one of the stronger entries in the Marvel superhero filmography. It’s a good thing, then, that its three main cast members have both the chemistry and star charisma to make this standalone adventure more enjoyable than its mildly derivative plot would suggest.
The setting for destruction this go-around is Washington D.C., and immediately Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes it known that this outing is all about resolving domestic issues, so sayonara alien monsters…for at least one film! Without delay, we are thrust right into the thick of crisis as our titular star — alongside the very capable Black Widow — rescues hostages stowed aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel that’s been taken over by Algerian pirates. When Black Widow’s mission splinters off from Captain America’s own mid-operation, the mighty defender of justice wonders whether he can trust both her and S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). As it turns out, Captain America foolishly decides to trust the wrong team and ends up on the opposite side of the law after a successful assassination attempt implicates him in the wrongdoing. It’s at this point that the film turns into Enemy of the State and Robert Redford — not Jon Voight — leads the hunt against this wrongly accused superhero.
The real assassin is The Winter Soldier, a ninja-like warrior whose mysterious agenda and identity aren’t fully revealed until further along in the film, although part of the problem with Captain America: The Winter Soldier is how predictable all the unfolding events are. Every villainous turn or major twist is fairly transparent from the get-go, and the ones you weren’t expecting undermine some of the more unexpectedly emotional moments that occur early on. On a more positive note, Captain America: The Winter Soldier does a nice job of continuing Steve Roger’s story from The First Avenger, demonstrating that while seventy years have passed since the “death” of Captain America in the Arctic ocean, Rogers’ “past” is still very much an active presence. Without going into too much detail, all I’ll say is that this fictitious universe has a very different view concerning which world faction won WWII.
New additions to the Marvel movie universe include Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon, Emily VanCamp as Sharon Cater/Agent 13, Frank Grillo as Brock Rumlow/Crossbones, and the aforementioned Robert Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D. senior officer and World Security Council member, Alexander Pierce. Of the four new additions, only Mackie rises to the occasion, and that’s not solely based on his flying abilities. Mackie is incredibly convincing as an ex-military retiree who is still young and wants to continue serving his country from the home front. Although his character isn’t given a large amount of back story, directors Anthony and John Russo give Mackie plenty of screen-time to shine as Marvel’s first African-American superhero (1969 was the character’s landmark comic debut).
Unfortunately, VanCamp and Grillo are relegated to the background most of the time and seem to be in The Winter Soldier only as a means of introduction. Hardcore Marvel fans know that their characters’ roles are much bigger in the comics, so I can only imagine subsequent films will build upon their initial extended cameos, a la Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. As for Redford as Alexander Pierce, I get why Disney decided to cast the legendary star in The Winter Soldier (the inclusion of a 70s’ espionage star is a nice touch), but his stiff, bureaucratic-old-man role felt awkward and out of place when entangled with Marvel’s silly yet fun tone. I don’t think I’ve cringed more during a line-read this year than when Redford’s Pierce uttered a salute of particular importance. Let’s just say it wasn’t one of the lauded thespians finest moments, but I guess a “hooray” is in order for being forever linked to the Marvel universe!
As Nick Fury, Samuel L. Jackson is as expected: quotable and full of bad-ass moments. Fury’s arc isn’t exactly the direction I would have gone had I been in control of the script, but kudos to the writers for at least giving this high-level operative more to do than just sit in a chair and yell at superheroes. The true stars of the film are of course Chris Evans and Scarlett Johannson. Building upon their incredible chemistry from The Avengers, the two flirt with the idea of romance but don’t fall prey to Hollywood demands and audience expectations, which is actually a refreshing course of action. Sometimes restraint makes the eventual romance all the more satisfying. Johannson proves that Angelina Jolie isn’t the only A-list actress who can kick butt on-screen (I’m dying in anticipation for the Black Widow spin-off film, if indeed Marvel/Disney decides to make one), plus she can also compete with her Avengers colleagues in the humor department. I love that Johannson doesn’t take herself too seriously and is totally aware of what fans both want and deserve.
Evans, meanwhile, is a bit more personable than your average actor who plays the often bland Superman, and funnier to boot. I still feel like the character needs to break out of his shell just a tad more, but I guess that will come in time. From a dramatic perspective, Evans shows nice range in The Winter Solider, particularly in an emotionally-heavy scene involving him and former flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Here we witness what Evans can do outside of the Marvel bubble, and it’s a shame we won’t see such a diverse skill-set if those retirement rumors come true. Regardless, Chris Evans is still the kind, courageous and inspirational Captain America we’ve always asked for and have at last. It’ll be our privilege to see what dramatic and supernatural heights he’ll reach in future Marvel films.
All in all, Captain America: The Winter Solider is weighed down by some predictable narrative maneuvering and a slew of underwritten characters, but its two lead performances and exceptionally executed action sequences keep us totally invested in the silly mayhem. Another solid entry under its belt, Marvel’s superhero franchise continues to successfully hold us over until Avengers: Age of Ultron. Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens nationwide this Friday, April 4th. Be sure to check it out and also have a look at the trailer below!