If you asked me what was among the better entries among the past decade of superhero films, 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger would be among them. While it wasn't deep like The Dark Knight or as intense with its action as the first Iron Man, it was a well-written origin story with great pacing and writing, a likable lead, and an interesting throwback feel to it thanks to its World War II-era time period and setting.
If you saw The First Avenger to its conclusion, you were probably aware that its sequel was definitely going to be a very different film in at least one way, thanks to the titular hero ending up in modern times. And while we got a small taste of his current-day adventures in 2012, thanks to his role in The Avengers, we now have a true follow-up in the form of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
While continuing to serve as an agent for the government organization S.H.I.E.L.D. in Washington D.C., Captain America, AKA Steve Rogers (Played once again by Chris Evans), learns of a plan by the agency's leader, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to launch three airships and spy on the world to stop threats before they start, which Rogers objects to. Things only get more complicated with the introduction of another S.H.I.E.L.D. higher-up with conflicting ideals named Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and recurring attacks from the titular Winter Soldier himself, a mysterious assassin with a face mask, a cybernetic arm, and a relentless drive to kill.
More so than any other Marvel movie, it's difficult to go into specifics about the plot. Because so many big things happen at such a speedy rate, it would be very easy for me to spoil the numerous surprises this movie throws at the audience. I'll just say that the setup the film soon establishes leads us into what is in many ways an action-oriented spy and suspense film - only this one happens to revolve around a superhero.
Besides the fact that this movie's genre is a complete change from the original's teamwork-focused war story, the plot and tone are noticeably darker than both its predecessor and any of the other series connected to it (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and The Avengers). While I personally did not end up viewing this as a change for the worse, because The Winter Soldier pulls off this new style with flying colors, I do fear that many general audiences used to the more lighthearted and humorous Marvel films of the past will be put off by such a drastic shift.
At the same time, I appreciate that Marvel was bold enough to take such a risk and do it as well as they did, while fixing certain issues in the process. One of the few problems I had with the original movie was the fact that other than his longtime friend Bucky, all of the numerous soldiers who joined Cap's squad were completely undeveloped. This time, we're down to just three allies for Rogers, and two of them, those being Fury and Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) have already been established and developed in earlier films, though thankfully, that doesn't stop this movie from pushing their stories forward even more.
The newcomer here is former soldier Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who Rogers befriends in a well-written opening scene. While not extremely deep, the film still takes the time to give him some backstory and motivation, and Mackie is able to deliver his dialog in a way that endears you to him. And though you've probably already seen him and his robotic wingsuit in action in the trailers, the actual film has plenty more in the way of clever moments with him to show.
Speaking of action, that's another notable improvement. While I said the original film's action was fun, but lacked elements of true intensity, pretty much every fight in this film had me on the edge of the seat. The death count of side characters and innocent bystanders alike is huge, adding a real edge and weight to each battle. And while the initial action scene on a boat made unfortunate use of the shaky-cam and quick cut techniques I dislike, things thankfully become easier to follow as the film progresses.
As far as villains go, not only is the plot's main antagonist successfully devious and easy to hate, but the Winter Soldier is genuinely terrifying whenever he shows up. His ruthlessness and near-inablity to be taken down or hindered reminded me of classic villains like the Terminator, and the revelation of who he really is successfully adds weight to the story and his character.
As far as complaints go, they're generally minor. While I thought Steve Rogers' dialog and actions in the original did a great job of endearing you to him, he felt more like a standard action hero here, though Evans' performance is still solid. Also, there are one or two moments that required some suspension of disbelief for me, but it would be hard to go into them without giving away some major plot points.
Like I said before, though Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been getting rave reviews for very good reasons, I do wonder how general audiences, especially children, are going to respond to the darker shift in tone and genre. It's very comparable to how we went from Batman Begins and its' slightly gritty take on Batman to The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises' heavier themes and plots. If you do think you can handle this departure, you're in for a real treat. I'd say this is easily on par with the first movie in terms of excellence, albeit for mostly different reasons, and if you want to see a superhero film with some real maturity and great action to boot, this is a must-see, and a great lead-in to the summer movie season. Marvel's next movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, is going to have a lot to live up to now.