If you’re the type of person who follows hype about movies – reviews, word-of-mouth, bloggers, etc – you’ve heard amazingly good press for Marvel Studio’s newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s time to start believing it.
The movie is a certified financial smash (it has already posted the largest April opening of any film in history and strong reviews suggest that it will continue to do big business) to be sure, but that might simply imply that hundreds of thousands of fan-boys lined up to see it opening weekend and some of them (like me!) lined up to see it twice.
The public is still wanting to ride the wave of Marvel movies. That’s clear. It will pay to see any movie with any of the Avengers in it. It wants more of what it’s seen. It wants more of the same.
More of the same is far from what it got in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. No, this movie is far more than Cap 2 or Avengers 1.5. What is does is fulfill the potential suggested by a recent superhero movie – and I’m not talking about a Marvel film – The Dark Knight Rises. In his last Batman movie (and throughout the trilogy, actually) director Christopher Nolan played with the concept of the superhero in a way that illustrated why comic characters such as Batman (75 years old this year) and Captain America (73 years old this year) have been around as long as they have. Writers can do anything with them. They can put them in a gangster movie (The Dark Knight) a disaster movie (The Dark Knight Rises), a cold war movie (X-Men First Class) or anything of which they can think. The form is malleable.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is only nominally a superhero movie. It’s primarily a political potboiler touching upon the timely topics of government power run amok, overreaching surveillance and loss of freedom. It deals with truth and lies in the information age and whether or not it matters if the forces of good or evil actually have their fingers on the switch. It has something to say about these topics, something far more important than one would expect from a film whose protagonist dresses in a costume emblazoned with a star.
As Captain America, Chris Evans is highly compelling. Trading in the man-out-of-time shtick that worked so well in Avengers, Evans’ Steve Rogers is – this time – aware of the potential of his surroundings and this brave new world to work for the betterment of all or against it. Rather than trying to figure out how to use a cell phone, he’s trying to figure out who to trust and the movie takes the audience along for that ride. Evans is Captain America just as much as Robert Downey, jr. is Iron Man and Evans’ role is far harder to play. Captain America can be portrayed as an impossible do-gooder (the movie knows this and gets a great laugh when Cap is interrogating a criminal and the thug suggests that Cap is too moral to do what needs to be done to get any information out of him – the fact that the creep is right is part of the joke) and boring as drywall. Evans never lets his Steve Rogers become that. He embodies him with strength and dignity. He’s the type of guy others follow into battle which is a concept central to the character.
Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson are back as The Black Widow and Nick Fury respectively and they are in top form. Both find notes to play in their characters that we’ve not seen before and that’s as much a credit to them as it is to the script. Where these characters go from here (we assume both go, at least in part, directly to Avengers: Age of Ultron) is anyone’s guess, but the movie leaves them open to many story possibilities and that’s a good thing.
Another good thing is the introduction of Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson – The Falcon. Though I really wanted to see red-and-white spandex for his costume, Marvel does what Marvel does and updates the character in a “realistic” manner. As a pilot fresh out of combat, Mackie’s Wilson is not exactly itching to go back into the service but, when Captain America calls, he answers. Mackie and Evans have great chemistry and I couldn’t help but fondly think of the partnership of these two characters, a partnership so strong that they co-starred for years in a comic book called Captain America and the Falcon. The movie wisely makes very little of Mackie being an African-American – we like to think we’re in a post-racial America – but it’s worth noting that The Falcon was the very first African-American superhero. It’s about time he made it to the screen.
I simply loved Robert Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D honcho Alexander Pierce. Redford would have been the first choice to play Cap if this movie had gotten off the ground in the 1970s, he’s an iconic figure whose gravitas gives them film some of its potency and he really seems to be having a great time in a Marvel movie. He really gives himself over to this world and, if Redford can, can’t everyone?
It’s telling that I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the titled antagonist of the movie, The Winter Soldier. He’s a bit one-note in the movie, but meant to be and, visually, he’s stunning. He looks like he leaped off the comic book page and onto the screen. More than a match for Captain America, when he and Rogers mix it up, the movie delivers some of its best action. The Winter Soldier is a very cool concept and it might have a little mileage left in it.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the best Marvel movies of them all. Really. Is it perfect? No. Almost, but no. It would be, save for one very odd detour featuring a character from the first movie that is at once creepy and sad and really derails the movie for a few moments. Mercifully, only for a few. Beyond that, it’s just a really good movie, like everyone should see it good. It’s smart. It has a message. It’s got amazing action, wonderful performances, twists and turns and reveals. It’s got Stan Lee! And it has not one but two (stay through the credits) post ending sequences. This is one I’ll see many times.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier receives four-and-a-half Smithsonian Exhibits out of a possible five.