The Marvel Studios movie machine just keeps rolling without a single stumble on the path, as evidenced by CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, an immensely satisfying film that is not only true to its characters and the source material, but turns over the tables on the world-building they’ve so successfully done over the course of the previous eight films. And to talk about it in any real depth, we’re going to have to make with the requisite SPOILER ALERT:
If you haven’t seen THE WINTER SOLDIER yet, stop reading this. Go see it, and then we’ll meet back here and continue.
Everybody back? Good. Now, then.
Holy crap. I did not see that coming.
The way Marvel Studios has handled their inter-movie continuity has gotten lots of attention in the last few years, and rightly so. By replicating the connected-universe dynamic of Marvel comics into the films, they’ve created an excitement about them that surely accounts in part for the steadily escalating box office for these films, with each sequel generally out performing the last, whether it’s IRON MAN, THOR or now CAPTAIN AMERICA. And the cornerstone of this strategy, from the very beginning, has been SHIELD, the super-spy agency that shows up in some way, shape or form in nearly all the films.
Looks like they’re going to need a new strategy.
THE WINTER SOLDIER sets Cap and his allies the Black Widow and the Falcon against their own allies, as an assassination leads to conspiracy and the uncovering of secrets that lay hidden for decades. On the run from SHIELD while tracking down the mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers struggles with a world no longer as black and white as he remembers it, only to find his own past coming back to haunt him in a very real sense.
This is great stuff, expertly building on the world Marvel Studios has built while not being afraid to tear it down in the service of the story. The script is tight and smart, with great revelations that totally catch the viewer off guard, plenty of surprises and Easter eggs for the longtime comics fans, and a genuine sense of humor that keeps things from getting too gloomy (a lesson that Warner Brothers should really take to heart as they gear up on their superhero universe).
The action scenes here are the best we’ve seen in any of the Marvel films, with the hand-to-hand combat being vicious and brutal, while the big effect-driven third-act climax is a rollercoaster-ride, a mix of aerial battles, Falcon’s acrobatics and really big stuff getting blown to hell. We also see Cap using his shield to the best effect ever, capturing for the first time the frenetic ricochet attacks so familiar from the comic books.
As great as the action is, the performances are even better. Chris Evans proves once again what an incredible asset he is to these films, managing to portray the necessary morality and goodness of Steve Rogers without ever making him seem weak or sanctimonious. Scarlett Johansson also delivers her best performance yet as the Widow, both in her quieter scenes bonding with Steve and in the action sequences, more ruthless and vicious than ever. New arrival the Falcon fits in perfectly, feeling like a partner to Cap almost immediately, not a subordinate or sidekick, thanks to Anthony Mackie’s likable but still formidable portrayal. And the flight scenes are first-rate. With these three in action, it really does at times feel more like an AVENGERS film than a CAPTAIN AMERICA film. Which is just fine.
But the heart of the film still belongs to Cap, there’s no question, whether it’s his heartbreaking bedside reunion with an old friend or his melancholy visit to the Smithsonian where he finds that he’s already become a museum exhibit. The film doesn’t stress Steve Rogers as a self-pitying man out of step with the times, but instead shows him as an inspiration and example of a better, more honorable time, as Cap realizes that the world he’s returned to is different, but necessarily better.
With a year to go before AVENGERS 2, and the unpredictable GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY five months away, THE WINTER SOLDIER was just the shot in the arm the Marvel films needed to keep their momentum going. These are films I never expected to see, and they keep getting better and better.