Captain America: The First Avenger wasn’t so “super” in my opinion, thanks to a goofy period atmosphere that turned Chris Evans into a schlocky cartoon instead of time-warped superhero. Patriotic montages sped past Cap’s most exciting moments, paving the way for gags, lady troubles, and Evans’ PSA-inspired performance – a Marvel blemish that Captain America: The Winter Soldier made me forget almost instantaneously. This new-and-improved, jaded, conflicted Cap replaces said old-timey performer, surpassing previous levels of intensity in mere minutes by delivering justice like any red-blooded superhuman would – with a technologically impeccable shield to the face.
The Russo brothers get dark, nasty, and gritty with their Captain America follow up, but all the carnage looks damn good on our fearless leader. Evans is given more room to impress as both charming idol and bonafide action star, characters like The Falcon are modernized with ease, and Marvel fans are given a Captain America sequel that balances unflinching patriotism, marred trust, corruption, and a false sense of safety with social implications – much more than some hoo-rah propaganda.
In the aftermath of The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D – led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) – develops a triangulated helicarrier defense system that runs on satellite programming. Essentially, the world will be a safer place having these ships patrolling the skies, eliminating threats before they even present themselves – that’s if the system doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. When Fury suspects foul play, he warns Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) not to trust anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D, even fellow agent Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). With no one to turn to, Steve enlists retired military “pilot” Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to help weed out any possible rats hiding in S.H.I.E.L.D, preventing something meant for protection from annihilating those lives expecting constant safety – finding a foe in The Winter Soldier.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier starts off with an invigorated bang, pacing comedy with bone-crunching seafaring action. Joe Johnston struggled to maintain a consistently enjoyable tone between action sequences and Cap’s shy demeanor around women, but the Russo brothers strike that necessary balance swiftly with a pirating scenario that Cap and his special forces team (led by another soon-to-be superhero) are forced to fight through. Cap hits the ground running, bowling through henchmen like a ‘roided out rhino, then taking out multiple enemies with a nifty shield ricochet move. These henchmen don’t just fall down though, they fly back with a jolt of speed to seriously display Rogers’ serum strength, an emphasis on his heightened powers. Then we get true toe-to-toe combat when Cap encounters the lead pirate, a trained ass-kicker, and the Russo brothers introduce choreographed, formulaic fighting that Johnston’s original so desperately missed. In no time at all Cap evolves from punny caricature into punny pulverizer – a raw, exciting transformation that I applaud the Russo brothers for capturing.
While I was skeptical about how the team behind You, Me and Dupree would adapt to Marvel’s universe, credit the Russo brothers with building quite possibly the grandest spectacle in the Marvel Origin catalog (Whedon’s The Avengers is incomparable). Cinematography captures these gigantic flying helicarriers for all their behemoth glory, establishing a massive, grandiose scale sporting astonishing technological detail for an exhilarating finale.
Costumed superheroes fighting a mid-air naval battle while artillery blows up all around them? Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a visually stunning Marvel structure that follows in the footsteps of equally ambitions events, like Tony Stark’s Iron Man army, but advances one step further by establishing a monumental S.H.I.E.L.D base, planetary vehicles with the population of a small town, and jaw-dropping scenery. Thor may have traveled to separate universes, The Hulk may have leveled cities, but Captain America’s helicarrier adventure brings a momentous quality that overshadows most Marvel showstoppers.
The introduction of the Winter Solider himself also amps up levels of excitement, providing a formidable adversary along with emotional depth. Equalizing Captain America with an unstoppable metal arm, the Winter Soldier makes Captain America’s typically disastrous shield look puny at times, and creates confusion inside Steve Rogers. Chris Evans’ performance benefits greatly from squaring off against who the Winter Soldier really is (I’m keeping my mouth shut for those people with no Marvel knowledge), and said actor’s presence provides palpable rivalling tension between the two, but Evans is given a heart-wrenching truth to deal with as Steve Rodgers. As an actor, Evans channels this disparity into a more aggressive Cap – and therefore a more intriguing character.
Commenting on civilian damage, the Russo brothers actually do their part to display supplemental destruction as the Winter Soldier tears through city streets launching grenades and throwing S.H.I.E.L.D pilots directly into whirring helicopter blades, but it’s still intriguing to watch aircrafts destroy themselves without showing debris and errant shots causing chaos below. As the credits roll, a proud, commanding song sings Captain America’s praises, like we’re supposed to forget all the lives sacrificed for freedom – a somewhat curious fact these movies always tend to ignore. With a PG-13 rating, don’t expect that to change either. It’s an ongoing issue that certain people will always highlight.
The Russo’s struggles aren’t new to Marvel, as Captain America: The Winter Soldier runs past the two hour mark yet still undersells supporting characters. The addition of Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce adds the iconic status that the actor’s name brings, so points there, but once again Scarlett Johansson proves why she needs her own film, or a larger part in some S.H.I.E.L.D movie (subject to future Marvel plotlines), as Black Widow shows physical prowess, stealth spying, snappy dialogue, and internal conflict unlike any other hero. She’s utilized here more as comic relief than anything else, suggesting future dating possibilities to Steve Rogers mid-fight, but her checkered past absolutely begs for Origin treatment. Such a mysterious character, and yes, the skin-tight costume doesn’t hurt either, but Scarlett has turned Black Widow into one of my favorite Marvel characters merely by being a glorified sidekick – be fair and let the widow prey.
Additionally, I’m super excited to see Anthony Mackie continue his journey as Falcon, even though I would have loved to see him dudded out as per his comic character’s ridiculous outfit (possibly a hilarious Easter Egg further down the line?). Likewise, Frank Grillo seems to sport quite the mean streak, something I can’t wait to see embodied in his future villain, Crossbones. Pair these future stars with the Winter Soldier himself, and the Russo brothers establish viable characters who improve Marvel’s always growing universe. Personally, the darker characters interest me more, so Crossbones tops my list of “Marvel’s Most Wanted” thanks to Grillo’s black ops mentality.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier can be considered a major success for one very simple reason – I care about Steve Rogers again. What once was lost can now be found, as the Russo brothers redefine a patriotic hero deserving of ticker tape parades historical museums. Any actor can bulk up, tighten their abs, and don the red, white, and blue costume, but properly balancing Captain America’s squeaky clean persona with comic book style action takes finesse. The Avengers was far too cluttered a movie to let Cap blossom singularly, so this task rested heavily on our filmmaking brothers – a task they accomplish with herculean strength. Captain America: The First Avenger is easily my least favorite Marvel Origin story (Phase One), but Captain America: The Winter Soldier stands proudly as my favorite Origin sequel, learning from the mistakes of superheroes past.
As far as sequels besting original titles go, Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes The First Avenger look like that silly Cap adaptation from 1990.