After the events in New York with the alien invasion, we saw Tony Stark face even more demons of his past as he went toe to toe with The Mandarin, we saw Thor return to Asgard to reunite the realms and bring peace back to his kingdom and now we find Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) dealing with the repercussions of being a man and a soldier out of time where the rules of the world have seemingly changed overnight. His continued work with Shield and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has him questioning his loyalties to maintaining the freedoms our country stands for, his partner Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has him questioning his love life or lack thereof, his new found friendship with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) has him second guessing his life as a modern day soldier and finally, the appearance of a new threat known only as The Winter Soldier has him questioning his sanity.
Marvel has never been one to shy away when it comes to direct parallels with their stories and real world events. Take Tony Stark for instance, he is a weapon manufacturer who discovers that his weapons aren't just being used by our own military, but are also being supplied to world terrorist organizations as well, under his nose of course. Steve Rogers is likewise the perfect foil for exploring real world fears of hidden political agendas and what conspiracy theorists have been trying to tell us for years, that our own government is working against us.
The reason why Rogers is such a perfect complement for this sort of story is that his character is from a bygone era where there were no conspiracies. Everything was taken at face value with you knowing who your enemy was. They were the guys on the other side of the ditch pointing a gun at you and the only decision you had to make was when to pull your trigger. The only political agenda at that time was to prevent evil from prevailing at all costs and restore freedom to the world. It was a much simpler time in the vain of good versus evil, where the evil was easily identified and removed and it was a time where inherently good people like Steve Rogers could prevail.
Now, in the 21st Century, the world isn't quite as black and white. When Captain America is sent in to rescue some hostages, it isn't just a rescue mission but also the secret agendas of those who are calling the shots. This idea of compartmentalization that Fury informs Cap about isn't just about keeping secrets from the general public or their many enemies, it is also about keeping secrets from each other which Cap not only opposes on basic fundamental reasons, but also because he believes in a world that unfortunately for him (and us), doesn't exist anymore.
This quickly leads into a series of conspiracies and double crosses that wouldn't be out of place in your basic espionage thriller, but despite the many comic book influenced action sequences and conceits such as a man who uses metal wings to fly, actually fit together quite nicely. Better yet is the ingenious work going on with the writing teams behind all the Marvel films thus far, at least in how they seamlessly are able to connect each film together in ways that keep events from previous films still relevant. If you like the little details sprinkled in each Marvel film that helps connect them together, you are in for a real treat here.
The greatest achievement in Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn't so much in how well they integrated a comic book movie with a conspiracy thriller, nor is it how well this film stands on its own two feet while also working as a direct sequel to The Avengers and a lead up to the next Avengers film, but how it being a direct sequel to the very first Captain America movie manages to somehow keep it all grounded in this admittedly far stretched reality. The thing that ties all of this together so marvelously though is without a doubt Chris Evan's intensely charismatic (and super buff) performance as Steve "Captain America" Rogers.
In the original film he proved all naysayers (if there were any) wrong. Coming from a mostly comedic background, he showed that he could translate the integrity and valiant nature of Cap while still retaining a very human side to the larger than life figure. He was also involved in what is widely considered Marvel's best told and executed on screen love story which in turn makes him a ladies man on top of everything else. After that, it wasn't a mystery as to what else was left for Cap (and Evans) to overcome next, and that of course is the idea of him being this lost soul from an era that loved and appreciated him who now must live with the reality that he lives in a world that abuses his trust and loyalties for its own gains, as noble as they may be.
Evans finds that perfect balance once again as he bounces back and forth between being Captain America and rediscovering himself in a foreign land. Likewise, the film finds a number of interesting and surprising ways to bring Steve to the brink with the reappearance of old friends such as a very bitter sweet reunion between him and a much older Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) as well as a couple of other surprise visitors from his past. The underlying story is also chock full of mysteries that are tied to Steve's past in some very eye opening ways.
Nick Fury and Black Widow, both of whom get much more screen time than ever before, also benefit greatly from the extra exposure. Black Widow in particular no longer seems like just a gun for hire who just so happens to fit nicely into a tight leather outfit as she slowly reveals herself to be a fully three dimensional character by the time the film concludes. Sadly not everyone got to express themselves in that same manner as the return of Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) feels tacked on more than anything else but considering her limited role in Marvel's cinematic universe it wasn't all that unexpected.
As for the new faces, well they are somewhat of a mixed bag. Although the actual character of the Falcon is fleshed out and Anthony Mackie does a fine job in the role, his function as a super hero or sidekick for Cap felt more like a low-rent version of Iron Man at times and didn't really impress as much as he should have. Don't misunderstand any of this though, the action sequences involving Falcon are well done and exciting, its the character himself that never quite caught on the way you would expect. It's never a good sign when you really don't care if a particular super hero character DOESN'T show up next time.
The ace up the film's sleeve though is the casting of Robert Redford as the overseer of Shield. An actor with his stature and his screen presence adds immense amounts of credibility and class to the proceedings. His scenes are almost always in an office or a hallway, but every single time he is on screen you can bet your ass that the audience is hooked on every word he is saying. Not much more can be said without going deep into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that when the true genius behind his casting makes itself known, there isn't anyone who wouldn't agree that his casting in this film was pivotal to making any of it work.
But, this is still a comic book movie after all, and a dam good one at that. All this talk about conspiracies, character growth, casting choices and how well it all ties together is all well and fine, but at the end of the day this is still a comic book story through and through. That is this film's other great strength, when looked at through the eyes of someone just looking to have a good time watching their favorite super hero put the beat down on some unsuspecting bad guys, this flick has got the goods.
If it's action you want, well there is plenty to be had here. Interspersed throughout all the espionage thriller components and meaty dialogue scenes are spectacular action sequences which are arguably the best any Marvel movie has delivered yet. Whether it is watching Captain America fight his way out of jam after jam (look out for an extremely well executed close quarters fight inside an elevator) or seeing the sparks fly when he comes face to face with a real adversary in the Winter Soldier, there isn't a chance in hell that those looking for spectacle will be disappointed. Best of all though is that Marvel fans get a fantastically exciting action film while everyone else gets a supremely well rounded thriller that just about anyone can get into regardless of their knowledge of Marvel going in.
Is Captain America: The Winter Soldier the best comic book movie ever made? Not really, although it is definitely in the top five somewhere. There is so much going on under the hood of this thing that quite frankly it is a miracle that any of it works at all, let alone how well it all came together in the end. Let there be no doubt about it though, if you are either a comic book fanboy or just love a good thriller mixed with some fantastic action sequences, then this is the comic book movie you have been waiting for.
The stakes are higher than ever for both Captain America and Marvel in general as they lead up to next years Avengers: The Age of Ultron. Although phase two stumbled a little bit out the starting gate, it seems as though this second phase will be ending on a high note. Whether or not Guardians of the Galaxy turns out to be any good (which it most certainly should), Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the perfect lead in to the next adventure for the Avengers.