Back when Marvel Studios was rounding off their Phase 1, Captain America: The First Avenger was the film I was least looking forward to, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. I’ve always (mistakingly) taken the character of Captain America as a bit of a one-dimensional boy scout, however I’ve been quite impressed by the gravitas and depth actor Chris Evans has brought to a roll I never thought I’d care to watch on the big screen. Thus, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier was certainly a part of Marvel Studios’ Phase 2 that I was eagerly waiting for.
It did not disappoint.
The Winter Soldier has been marketed as a “political thriller” dressed as a super hero movie and indeed it is. The plot is quite straightforward but the theme’s complex, which makes for an enjoyable movie to watch in the moment and to think about after the credits roll. In it, we find Captain America still trying to get use to his part in the political machine as both a soldier and symbol, finding that those two things mean something very different in the present day, than they did in the 40’s. After an attack on Nick Fury’s life, Steve Rogers learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. (the international security agency he serves) is corrupt from the inside and that his past is more a part of the present than he could have ever imagined. We learn, as he does, the once thought slain Nazi-rooted organization HYDRA is slithering through the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as other government agencies. “Cut off one head, two more will rise to take it’s place…”
Rogers then becomes public enemy number one in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s eyes and a fugitive. With the help of allies, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and others he under covers the sinister plans of HYDRA and must make some hard calls that will change everything for him, and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And, if being on the lamb and starring down the barrel of a gun for what one believes isn’t hard enough, Rogers must struggle with his past both figuratively and literally when he learns HYDRA’s own super agent is none other than his one time best friend and most trusted ally, Bucky Barnes, who he thought had perished in battle back in the 40’s.
That’s the plot in a nutshell, more or less. Now, let me tell you 5 reasons why I think this film works as well as it does and is the BEST film of Marvel Studios Phase 2 at this point of time…
1) The film’s pacing is on track; I didn’t feel it drag its feet at all. While there are terrific action scenes, there are also great quiet moments throughout that never feel forced and are necessary beats the film must make for us to understand the characters a little more. It’s in these moments that Roger’s relationships with Black Widow and Falcon are explored and we continue to see our heroes beyond their costumes–as flawed, complex, and human.
2) Speaking of characters, the character of Steve Rogers continues to grow on me. I’m sure this is equal parts Chris Evans’ portrayal of him as well as the writing. I can appreciate how much Rogers struggles in these films. He’s an anachronism. He’s constantly reminded of how different his surroundings are, and finds himself drawing comparisons to how clearer his understanding of things seemed in the past. My problem with Captain America as a character is that he’s never seemed relatable, however the moral dilemma he faces in terms of the world around him, is in fact quite relatable. How often do we find ourselves looking back to our own pasts, to a time when things were far simpler, and wish the world could be just like that again?
3) In my review of Thor 2: The Dark World I heavily criticized the film’s main antagonist as being incredibly flat and therefore it was hard for me to really care about the film’s narrative or its heroes’ struggle. That is not the case with Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier. While there are a handful of physical antagonists standing against Rogers and gang, the film’s biggest villain is simply an “idea.” This idea is truly what Captain America is fighting against, that freedom should not come at the cost of oppression, whether it be at the hands of a malevolent organization, or our own government “neutralizing threats before they even happen.” There is a very real debate being made by this film about events in our own world, about privacy and information, and therefore the audience can understand just how incredibly complex of a force Captain Rogers is battling. HYDRA claims they are no different than S.H.I.E.L.D, that both organizations understand that only under oppression can freedom be given, (Loki, in The Avengers, even foreshadows this sentiment: “you were made to be ruled.”) and that “idea” is more threatening a force than any super villain.
4.) The actors bring great chemistry to the table. Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie both shine in their interaction with Evan’s Captain America. There is humor and heart injected in these characters that go beyond the writing of the roles. And, Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, a man with secrets, plays his role well (of course he does, he’s Robert Redford!!!). There is something truly terrifying in his calm. He’s like that father of the girl your dating who, when he shakes your hand, you know is really just thinking about cleaning his shotgun.
5.) There are easter eggs galore for the true Marvel fan! First, I cannot believe Marvel Studios managed to make Batroc the Leaper cool and his inclusion in the film is a pleasant surprise. For those who don’t know, Batroc is a D-list super villain who, yep you guessed it, leaps!?! And is French. That’s about it. That’s all he really does. Leaps and speaks in a French accent. Well, Marvel Studios managed to make him pretty bad ass and his fight scene with Captain America at the start of the film is a kick (punned!) in the pants. Seriously, Batroc (played by Georges St-Pierre) is awesome. I can’t believe I just said that.
There’s a slew of other fun tidbits. Having Agent Sitwell, who has been popping up on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show, revealed as a HYDRA agent was a nice little crossover, as was having Garry Shandling’s Senator Stern character (from Iron Man 2) revealed as well. The mere mention of Stephen Strange a.k.a. Doctor Strange gave me a geek boner.
Seeing Black Widow’s “arrow pendant necklace” was a nice nod to her relationship with Hawkeye. So much is being done to build upon the all inclusive universe these characters live in and it’s only getting better with each film. Lastly, the post credits scene, promises Avengers: Age of Ultron will be full of “miracles.”
Now, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier is not without its flaws. I still don’t believe anyone at Marvel Studios is doing its female characters justice. Whedon did the best he could with Widow in Avengers, but here was a chance for her to really shine and I just think they dropped the ball a bit. She still comes off at times as more caricature, than character.
And while Scarlett Johansson certainly does Black Widow justice, I just don’t think the writing does. I know there’s talk of Black Widow getting her own solo movie, and that Johansson doesn’t necessarily have to be attached to it. I think that would be a mistake. Johansson has made Widow what she is despite questionable writing and directing choices; if she wants it, I think Johansson has earned the opportunity to turn Widow into a solo act. And last, the inclusion of Falcon feels more like Marvel Studios trying to flush out Captain America’s supporting cast, because that’s what is expected of them to do and it didn’t feel entirely natural. Mackie does an excellent job and makes me not mind so much.
He’s got a lot of charisma and his scenes with Evans are strong; I certainly hope their partnership dynamic gets explored much more in the third film. I can forgive his “out-of-no-where-serendipitious-introduction” in this film, if in the next he doesn’t feel so much as a marketing decision and more an integral part of the Captain America mythos, as he is in the comics.
All in all these are quibbles with the film I had that didn’t take away too much from my own enjoyment of it, but you may feel otherwise. I think directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, have given Marvel fans a winner of a film. The Winter Soldier pushes the envelope of what a super hero movie can be, showing us how the best villains can sometimes be the ones you can’t necessarily punch…but can (and should) still be stood up to all the same.