In the last decade and a half, comic book movies have taken many different forms: everything from light-hearted and colorful adventures like Spider-Man to dark and dour tales like The Dark Knight. Typically, these films either embraced comics and rejected real drama or embraced that drama at the cost of comic book roots. But Marvel Studios’ latest entry into their Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, shows that a comic book movie can be both an intensely thrilling action film and a loyal recreation of the comic book world.
Simply put, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the best comic book movies ever created.
And the reasons are almost too many to name. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, most famous for their work on TV shows Community and Arrested Development, along with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, have created an incredibly well-balanced film that excels on every front.
Inspired by Ed Brubaker’s seminal comic story, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the latest in the adventures of super soldier Steve Rogers, an ordinary man enhanced to the peak of human condition by a military experiment in the 1940s to fight Nazis and their supervillain division Hydra as Captain America. After sacrificing himself to save millions, Steve was trapped in ice for decades, waking up in the present and fighting alongside fellow heroes in The Avengers. The story picks up here with Steve working with government spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., only to find that a far-reaching conspiracy threatens everyone he cares about and the world as a whole. And on his enemies’ side is The Winter Soldier – a devastatingly powerful assassin with shocking ties to Captain America’s past.
What is clear throughout the film is that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is very much a Marvel Comics movie, but it is also a political espionage thriller. Twists and turns keep the plot churning, and the secrets revealed are actually hard-hitting, both in the context of this film alone and the Cinematic Universe as a whole. Advertisements and interviews leading up to the movie claimed that it would change this shared universe forever. And it truly does.
Besides a compelling plot, the movie is quite remarkable for the strength of its characters. With so many double-crosses and massive action set pieces, each member of the large cast is never neglected. Chris Evans’ Captain America is compelling and inspiring as a hero, yet feels consistently relatable. He’s a man out of time and his moral convictions consistently clash with the modern world. Yet he seeks to always do what is right, no matter the cost. Although he’s morally upright and physically powerful, Cap is not perfect, making him a dynamic onscreen presence thanks to Evans’ charm and sincerity. Scarlet Johansson continues to play a great Black Widow, a superspy who’s hard to get a hold on. She’s a great compliment to Cap as his partner and takes part in some amazing fights.
On the political side, Samuel L. Jackson puts in his best performance yet as Nick Fury, head of S.H.I.E.L.D. He’s a far more layered character here as he learns that even he is in over his head. And his car chase action sequence is a great showcase for the character. Robert Redford as senior S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Alexander Pierce keeps things interesting, too. To discuss much with him is to spoil the movie, but he makes a big splash, even though he’s the only character without an action scene.
Returning from the first film, actor Sebastian Stan is now The Winter Soldier – Cap’s WWII friend Bucky Barnes brainwashed and enhanced into a killing machine used across the decades. His ties to Steve keep the action character-based, and he’s Terminator-like in his tenacity. He’s a real threat, even against the unstoppable force that is Captain America. And Anthony Mackie is a stellar addition as Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon. He slips right into the role and makes for an irreplaceable member of the Captain America cast. His character-focused dialogue scenes are just as strong as his high-flying action set pieces.
Let’s focus on those action scenes. Wow. Marvel has truly topped themselves with this film. Unlike Iron Man, Thor, or The Hulk, Captain America is a realistic fighter, just augmented by Super Solider Serum. This means that his fights can be gritty hand-to-hand combat affairs with flairs of super strength and speed, and the Russos take full advantage of this. From the first fight to the last, Cap gets into some of the best fights committed to film. Not just in comic book movies, but in any film. And while The Winter Soldier is jam-packed with action, it never gets stale or repetitive.
That’s because each piece of action offers something different as the scales are upped throughout the movie. Cap’s one-on-one fist fight with martial arts terrorist Batroc starts things off in great fashion, showing how the action is going to be handled and how deadly the hero truly is. Fury’s gadget-loaded car chase across Washington, D.C. is even more thrilling, with twists and turns subverting the expectations of a chase scene. Captain America’s fight against a dozen enemies in a crowded elevator is brutal in all the right ways. But the fight with The Winter Soldier about halfway in is a real standout. Car crashes, fist fights, gun battles, and flying are all in play, with Cap and The Winter Soldier having a brutal battle in the middle of it all. The Winter Soldier is a frightening foe and the stakes really do feel high whenever he is on screen.
It also helps that most of the film is played straight, with only small doses of humor parsed throughout, and mostly coming from character interactions. Unlike Thor: The Dark World (read my review here), jokes aren’t consistently undercutting dramatic tension or the flow of action. Instead the tension is ratcheted up over The Winter Soldier’s more than two-hour runtime.
By the end, each character is flying and brawling across multiple crashing helicarriers in an awe-inspiring piece of spectacle. But even then, the focus on character is not lost. If you weren’t a fan of Captain America, Black Widow, or any other character in the film beforehand, you’ll love them by the end.
Like most Marvel Studios movies, there’s also a large portion of world building throughout. But unlike Iron Man 2, this film doesn’t sacrifice narrative strength for the sake of moving pieces into place for future films. The Winter Soldier is more like a major event that cannot help but impact the films that follow. Of course, Marvel plants seeds for future movies during the end credits, continuing the trend of having not just one, but two scenes after the film. If you’re invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, these are crucial.
For anyone wondering whether Marvel Studios was running out of steam or if their solo superhero films couldn’t match the team-up power of The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is proof that it isn’t the case. This is a truly one of the best yet.