Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review

(3.5 STARS)

It’s been a long time since a Marvel movie totally worked. When Iron Man premiered in 2008, it was so tonally unique and such a breath of fresh air. But The Incredible Hulk was dull and overly moody. Iron Man 2 proverbially shot first and asked questions later. Thor, Thor: The Dark World, The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy all got lost in a haze of glowing, world-ending MacGuffin mumbo jumbo. Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The First Avenger were passable, but the latter’s sequel is nothing short of fantastic—an us-against-the-world paranoid thriller disguised as a superhero movie that raises the stakes within this “cinematic universe” in irreversible and consistently surprsing ways.

Following the events of The Avengers (because we’re still doing that), Captain America Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is struggling to find his place. He’s lonely and misses the friends he left behind in the 1940s, and the thought of catching up on almost 70 years of history and culture overwhelms him. He’ll always be a relic, he believes, and that makes living in the present extremely difficult.

SHIELD head Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) comes calling once again with a request for Cap to stop some pirates who’ve hijacked a cargo ship. He’s joined by Natasha Romanov a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), but the true objective of the mission is compartmentalized, i.e. Captain is left in the dark until the job is complete, and when he’s home, he expresses his frustration with Fury. But the man has his reasons—SHIELD is rotting from within. The true nature of the threat doesn’t reveal itself until tragedy strikes the heroes’s camp, but in its wake, Captain, Black Widow, and their new friend Sam (Anthony Mackie) are three against many trying to uncover and reveal the truth.

The Winter Soldier does three big things to differentiate itself among its far less successful brother films. The first is introducting the villain of the film’s title. Without getting too much into what the Winter Soldier represents for our hero, he’s a genuine physical threat to our heroes and enough of an enigma that a chill will run down your spine when he pops up out of nowhere. There’s no equal to him in the Marvel canon, and he isn’t even this film’s chief villain.

The character work in the film is also aces. There’s Rogers—the ultimate fish out of water, who’s obviously a more relatable protagonist than an alien warrior with daddy issues or a prickly playboy billionaire with daddy issues. Black Widow, meanwhile, has phenomenal chemistry with her SHIELD counterpart, and Johansson continues to exhibit why her character deserves her own film. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo give Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury more to do than he’s had in any other Marvel film besides The Avengers. And Anthony Mackie is an absolutely perfect sidekick.

Finally, there’s the film’s sense of self-containment. Obviously, there are repercussions in the film’s conclusion that will reverberate throughout the universe and into Age of Ultron. But this film ultimately doesn’t hinge on things that happen in other series, nor does it make the viewer wonder why the other Avengers haven’t shown up. Contextually, it all makes sense, and thankfully, it can be enjoyed independent of other Marvel movies—a first.

Yes, the film becomes awfully “Marvely” in its final third, but the action is fairly good, and by then, you’re already hooked. Chris Evans makes Captain America a wonderful underdog who’s so easy to root for, and the pervasive and relatively believable nature of this film’s threat actually make you care about the potential destruction that’s imminent should our guy not succeed. The upcoming Avengers sequel will likely be much more like its predecessor and Guardians of the Galaxy than this stand-alone gem, but wherever the world’s biggest movie franchise goes in its next “phase,” at least we’ll have a Captain America 3 to look forward to.

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