Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is the best movie that Marvel Studios has yet produced. If that’s a familiar sounding statement coming from me, well, it’s because this studio just keeps finding a way to outdo itself.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (as it’s called) has been one of the most interesting experiments in cinema, perhaps ever. The idea of a shared universe between characters and movies isn’t something that’s ever been attempted before and certainly not on this sort of scale.
Everything’s been building since Jon Favreau’s first “Iron Man” outing in 2008, so in that sense a lot of the successes of “The Winter Soldier” comes from standing on the shoulders of its predecessors and little of what it does would either be possible or even half as effective were it not for the previous films. But with that in mind, directors Joe and Anthony Russo alongside writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deliver what is (thus far) the sharpest, most well-constructed film the MCU has yet seen.
And so much of that comes from the way it absolutely nails the character of Captain America. Robert Downey Jr. gets all the attention because his Tony Stark is a smooth operator. He cracks wise with ease, has all the cool toys and he’s just plain fun to watch. But Chris Evans as Steve Rogers delivers the heart and soul of the MCU. It takes great talent to deliver a character as earnest and honest as Steve and not have it come off as cheesy or false, but Evans nails it at every turn.
What makes “The Winter Soldier” so compelling is that it finds a way to bring out Rogers’ wholesome qualities and put them to use. They’re not put to the test, Cap’s far too sturdy for his moral fiber to ever be in question. Instead, they’re his ammunition, the weapons he uses to fight against the darkness that’s been creeping through the system for decades. His sense of right and wrong is every bit as valuable a tool as his invulnerable shield.
Given these circumstances (and I’m being purposefully vague here for the sake of not spoiling anyone), “The Winter Soldier” is as much a political conspiracy thriller as it is a colorful comic book action film. It draws from the very real situations our nation currently faces with the NSA’s spying programs and even the so-called “kill list” that the current administration has compiled. It’s not exactly pointed political commentary, but it’s the closest we’ve probably come in a comic book film of this sort. Though what’s interesting is the way this story shakes up so much of the established MCU. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been one of the major connective tissues between each film, so to see the agency shaken to its very core over the course of the movie is a bold move to say the least.
This is also the most action-packed of Marvel’s movies. Not that there’s been a dearth of action in previous films, but “The Winter Soldier” is practically wall-to-wall action beats. Thankfully, it’s some of the best-looking action Marvel has given us. Great use is made of Cap’s shield and agility and, man, I never thought I’d see a movie where the character of Sam “The Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie) ends up stealing the show.
But even with “thrill-a-minute” pacing, it always feels rooted in character. Even when some of those characters aren’t so fully developed as with Sam Wilson or Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce, the direction and acting fill in whatever gaps are left by the script. Mackie has been one of my favorite supporting actors for a while now so it made me quite happy to see him get substantial time as Sam and imbue that character with a sense of purpose. The same goes for Redford, whose presence in some of cinema’s greatest conspiracy thrillers adds a special layer of texture that no other actor could bring.
If there’s an area where “The Winter Soldier” feels thin it’s in the use of its titular character. The mileage that is gotten out of him is excellent and I love that even in his rather limited use Sebastian Stan manages to make him an interesting presence, especially in his interactions with Chris Evans. This is perhaps where the film benefits most strongly from building off the previous “Captain America” film. But given the emotional importance of him to Cap it feels like should have had a more significant presence.
Singling that out almost feels like a nitpick, though, considering how much the film does right. It’s not that there’s too little of the character as to be detrimental, but I could have definitely used a scene or two more with him.
Regardless, “The Winter Soldier” is an exceptional accomplishment for both Marvel and comic book films in general. This shows that this creative hivemind has found a way to all but perfect the art of the character-driven action movie and it makes me excited for where they take future entries