Of all the Marvel heroes we’ve thus far encountered, Steve Rogers has the greatest potential. From weakling to tough guy to Captain America and now finally a man ripped from time and thrust into the unimaginable, he’s the only one to have change from within but also visited upon him that he cannot fully cope with. And with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we see that potential fulfilled with gripping themes, grounded yet attention-grabbing action, and actors that embody their franchise characters better than they ever have before.
Taking its place in the chronological order of the Marvel film universe, Cap has been dutifully working under S.H.I.E.L.D., as we see in the opening action sequence where he and Black Widow oversee a ship rescue. This opens up the complication of the film where it’s revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D., under the watchful eye (ha!) of Nick Fury and senior official Alexander Pierce, has been building three massive helicarriers. Acting largely as drones, they aim to be the greatest deterrent to terrorism with NSA-style oversight.
From the get-go, you can tell this is a much more mature version of our previously bubbly, cartoony Captain America: The First Avenger. In that one, we have a bad guy that pretty much looks like the devil while the patriotism dial is turned all the way up to Fuck Yeah. Here, we have a much more complex look at a very complicated man.
A visual nod towards this idea is Cap’s revised uniform, looking less like the stars and stripes interwoven with Kevlar and more like moderately zealous tactical gear. The whole film has a much more tempered flair to it, grounding the modern themes and making them much easier to take in. With NSA drama still in the news and the name Snowden still fresh on our tongues, it’s easy for this all to hit just a bit too close to home with its questions on security, freedom, and sacrifice.
This does lead to one of the few disappointments with the film, however. In the early parts of the film where The Winter Soldier is introduced, it appears that Cap is addressing both his physical and philosophical limitations. It’s an interesting thought because as an Avenger, he is one of the least physically capable while one of the more strategically viable. And in his own microcosm, he is the sole savior through both might and mind.
Now, as he encounters a metal-armed fellow who not only stops his signature shield throw and sends him reeling with a counterattack, could it be that he is now both irrelevant as a fighter and a leader? He potentially has found his match in a domain he should have secured and his ability to lead is already proven to be undermined with Fury’s own ostensibly personal agenda.
This would have been a deliciously gritty theme for the movie to tackle, but instead it choice relevancy, which isn’t a bad choice, but it certainly highlights a failure to fulfill tangible potential. And then, towards the last half hour, it seems as if it remembered that, as a movie, it has to be a summer blockbuster. It eschews its nuanced and personalized characterization of freedom versus security and replaces it with explosions and general technofear.
Those explosions, however, are pretty damn great. In fact, as a direct consequence of the more subdued appeal of the film (along with directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s desire to infuse the movie with the sensibilities of a 1970s conspiracy thriller), the action feels more dire than ever before. Of any Marvel film thus far, the threats in The Winter Soldier feel dangerously real.
The first major fight on that opening ship sequence feels like serious trouble largely because you don’t see bombastic reaction shots and thrown bodies but because you see hits being taken and dished out with a balance of skill and savagery. It’s pretty fantastic. Part of it is also the incredible sound design. I don’t know what a vibranium shield would sound like getting stuck in concrete, but I imagine they got pretty close with this.
You combine that with very real, non-digitized action and you get terrific sequences of head-rattling shenanigans. There’s a scene where Fury gets to shine on his own and the entire thing feels dramatic on a level that is pretty much sweat-inducing. Real cars getting blown up sans fireworks and a character who, without any sort of supernatural predilection to staying alive, is getting worked. The danger is real.
Of course, that can also be greatly attributed to the actors being thrown into these predicaments. Chris Evans as Captain America really pulls off the look of a man fully confident in his own abilities (that elevator scene, jeez) but unsure of where he sits in the world with them. And Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow continues to bring a great blend of snark, seduction, and kicking ass.
Anthony Mackie is introduced as Falcon, and though his past is shamefully but understandably glossed over, Mackie manages to make just about everything he says the funniest thing in the movie while maintaining a gravitas greatly needed by a fellow counseling at the VA for PTSD. Of course Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce is great, bringing to mind his past political thriller in Three Days of the Condor.
The Winter Soldier, though, is somewhat of a letdown. Naming his actor would be a spoiler, but comic fans already know what’s up, and they’re probably excited. Unfortunately, he’s mostly a conduit through which Cap has a more interesting physical match when really the backstory and implications thereof, while hinted at, are almost altogether missing. It’s understandable since it’s quite a dense bit of drama and history, but if you’re a comics fan, know going into this that you won’t be seeing the complications and resolution you would probably hope for. The portrayal, however, is quite menacing and well done.
In fact, there’s a general sense here that is unfortunately pervasive in all Marvel Cinematic Universe films have, which is that certain things are brought in and let go or squashed down in service of the greater goal, which is The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Characters are introduced for little to no reason and it has to bow to a canon not entirely its own while working towards one it will eventually be a part of. It doesn’t ruin anything here, but it certainly gives an oddly…strategic sheen to the proceedings.
It just can’t overtake the growth the film has imbued into our genial, ripped Captain. Matured to the point of addressing real, genuinely interesting themes and not simply clashing two action figures together to see if good can once again trump evil, this is an unseen but absolutely essential turn for the character. With incredible, slap-you-in-the-face action and a taut, darker story, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is definitely a movie worth seeing.
+ Addresses modern concerns with a character made to embody and challenge our ideals
+ Real, gritty action that feels genuinely dangerous and full of consequence
+ Actors that understand how to highlight their character’s strengths and utility
+ Sound design during the action (and out of the action) is fantastic
– Disappointing follow-through on the concept of limitations and leadership
Final Score: 9 out of 10