Over the past couple years, partially thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and partially due to delving into the excellent comics with the character (including the excellent current ongoing series), Captain America has slowly become one of my favorite superheroes. There’s something so refreshing in his earnestness and hope about the American Experience, and his desire to protect it and fight for it when all goes wrong, that gets to me, a person living in this age of cynicism.
So naturally, when Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out three weeks ago, I was expecting to be the first in line to see it. BUT nobody wanted to see it with me and I didn’t have enough time to do so, but yesterday after the joy and the rapture that was Free Comic Book Day (which I’ll write about on Friday, don’t you worry), I managed to get to a screening, although bus delays and stops meant I missed the first few minutes. But what I got was still a great film, easily the best Marvel Studios film yet and probably my favorite superhero film next to Superman. It’s that good; if you can’t tell from this space, I know and love superheroes and it takes a lot for me to truly embrace a particular story. But this is one of them, offering a taut spy thriller that just so happens to be a star vehicle for Anthony Mackie, a reminder of why Samuel L. Jackson is one of the greats, further proof that this whole shared universe concept is here to stay, and just a damn entertaining movie that has some insight into current politics.
Two years after the Battle of New York and The Avengers, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) is living in Washington D.C. working for the super-spy agency SHIELD under Director Nick Fury (Jackson) and with fellow Avenger Natasha Romanov aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). He’s also trying to adjust to contemporary life (he keeps a to-do list of all the modern culture he needs to catch up on, a list that it turns out is different in every country) and it’s while feeling a bit down that he meets Sam Wilson (Mackie), a veteran of Iraq who now runs support meetings for other vets who immediately empathizes because he knows what it’s like to feel adrift after combat.
Cap, Widow and SHIELD’s counterterrorism team STRIKE, led by Agent Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), are sent to rescue hostages aboard a SHIELD-affliated ship that’s been hijacked by a group of Algerian terrorists led by Georges Batroc (known in the comics as the much sillier Batroc the Leaper and played by MMA champ Georges St-Pierre) and includes prominent agents like Jaspar Sitwell (Maximilliano Hernandez, reprising his role from Agents of SHIELD). They succeed but Cap discovers that Black Widow was also told to extract relevant SHIELD data from the ship’s computers.
Back in DC, he grills Fury as to just why this is happening and is told about Project: Insight, a plan involving three state-of-the-art helicarriers that will remain permanently airborne at all times and are equipped with an array of weapons to neutralize any threat instantly. “This isn’t freedom,” Cap says indignantly. “This is fear.” Later, concerned that he can’t decrypt the data Black Widow found, Fury becomes suspicious and asks senior SHIELD agent Alexander Pierce (the great Robert Redford) to delay Project: Insight.
Shortly thereafter, Fury is ambushed while driving, after a brief scene where he confronts police officers in a funny, smart way, by a group of assassins disguised as cops and SWAT officers led by the mysterious, robot-armed Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a seemingly unstoppable killing machine. He’s severely injured and dies on the operating table, leading an angry Cap and Widow to team up with Wilson, who actually has a flying jetpack from his days as the USAF’s Falcon, to figure out what’s going on in a conspiracy that will lead them right to the heart of SHIELD itself.
Right off the bat, the film does not miss a beat. We’ve been inundated with a cavalcade of taut government thrillers and beat-em-up secret agent stuff since The Bourne Identity, but here, it actually manages to blend both things together seamlessly while still keeping a superhero sheen to the proceedings.
A huge part of the modern Captain America, particularly the 2000s era of Ed Brubaker (who created the Winter Soldier and makes a small cameo in the film) revolves around superspy, political shenanigans and this film demonstrates why this works for the character. Not only is Rogers literally the strongest guy in the room, he’s also sometimes the smartest, and meshing up his idealism with political skullduggery is always masterfully entertaining. The script by returning writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely knows this and uses it to its advantage, taking full scope of the many, many years of this stuff while crafting an exciting, original story that takes aim at drone warfare, the NSA and other such topics but not in such a way that one ever feels lectured at or preached to. It also perfectly splices its ample and complex plot (not as complex as some of the films that inspired this, grant you, but still) with perfect action sequences. Unlike the first film, this movie doesn’t sound like its script was given a once-over by Joss Whedon, but that’s fine. Dude can’t be everywhere at once.
That’s the biggest surprise for this film: I don’t think anyone knew just how much great action filmmaking the brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, best known for TV work on sitcoms like Arrested Development and Community, had in them. Sure, they directed the stellar paintball two-parter that closes out the second season of Community, but stuff like the elevator fight sequence you’ve all seen in the trailers and all the hand-to-hand combat stuff? Unexpected and unbelievable. Considering that Fast & Furious head director Justin Lin has helmed a couple of episodes of Community, the brothers must’ve been taking notes.
The cast sells it. Evans is the heart and soul of the film and even if he’s tired of acting, this is a hell of a part to go out on. Johansson with her perfect rapport and unabashed appeal proves more than ever that we need that Black Widow movie that’s supposedly in development. Redford is great in his first mainstream role in quite some time and Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan, both returning from the first film, find new notes to hit with their characters, particularly Atwell. But the true standouts are Jackson and Mackie.
Much has been made of the fact that because Sam Jackson is so often playing an expository part with Fury, this is his concession that he’s too old for action scenes anymore. He refutes that here, going all out when confronting the Winter Soldier and showing an unbelievable amount of panache and skill throughout. He’s earned his place as an actor, no doubt. And Mackie, who has long waited in the wings (pardon the pun), for his chance at megastardom, totally earns it. The way he breathes life into the compassionate Wilson is astonishing and he better become a big name off of this.
Bottom line: if you like superheroes, you’re gonna love this. If you like Captain America, you’re gonna love this. If you like action, you’ll love this. If you like political thrillers with commentary, you’ll love this. This is a great, great film and I look forward to rewatching it on Blu-Ray for years and years to come.
P.S. I stayed through the end credits and was gratified to see that the Russos credited not just Cap creators Joe Simon & Jack Kirby and Brubaker, but also people who had a significant run on Cap, like Gene Colan and Steve Englehart. If you care about old comics like I do, it’s immensely gratifying.