For legions of superhero fans in Fresno and all over the world today, the 2014 blockbuster season has now begun, and in a very, very big way. Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, the then-brand new Marvel Studios has laid the seeds for an unprecedented notion of a shared universe for all of their characters to inhabit together (well, the once they haven't sold to other studios at least). That same year saw the release of The Incredible Hulk, then in 2010 we got Iron Man 2, then in 2011 we got Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, until finally, after five films of build-up, 2012 saw the release of The Avengers, the biggest (and, really, the first) superhero team-up film ever made.
With the success of their first six films, which Marvel referred to as "Phase One," the bar was set very high for them to continue their success with their next string of films called "Phase Two." The first of these films, Iron Man 3, which was a solid way to kick off the series with quality action sequences and solid performances and effects, but it also was saddled with a bit too much of Marvel's signature humor and a major plot twist that, while clever, irritated myself and a lot of other fans. The second film, Thor: The Dark World, continued to deliver terrific visuals, great action set pieces, and some worthwhile performances, but was bogged down by too much humor, a flawed romantic plot line, some underutilized characters, and a poorly crafted villain. Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were also treated to a television series, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which focused of the exploits of the franchise's secret intelligence agency within a world full of super powered beings; while ratings for the premiere episode were strong, viewership took a noticeable decline amid many complaints of slow pacing and uninteresting characters, although recent episodes have improved in quality. Suffice to say, while Phase Two has so far been a success, it is till taking a major hit in terms of meeting fans expectations...until now.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the ninth film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the third film of Phase Two, in not only the best film of this run so far, but arguably the best film Marvel Studios has ever put out, save perhaps for The Avengers. Based on the popular "Winter Soldier" story line from the comics written by Ed Brubaker, the film is Marvel's attempt to created a 1970s-style political thriller in the realm of modern superhero cinema, and it succeeds very well in that task.
The film begins two years after the events of The Avengers as Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (played by Chris Evans), is working with S.H.I.E.L.D. to protect America's interests from terrorists and other high-level threats. Working alongside him are fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Avenger Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson), and an elite S.H.I.E.L.D. team called S.T.R.I.K.E., led by the brutal-but-effective agent Brock Rumlow (played by Frank Grillo). On their latest mission, Rogers, Romanoff and S.T.R.I.K.E. are sent to rescue the hostages of a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel that has been taken over by Algerian pirates led by a criminal named Georges Batroc (played by Georges St-Pierre). The mission is successful, but Rogers grows suspicious when he catches Natasha working on wiping classified S.H.I.E.L.D. Intel off the ship's hard drive instead of rescuing the hostages, something he was never briefed on. He brings his concerns to S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who reveals that the agency will soon be enacting Project: Insight, in which three of the agency's Helicarriers are linked to spy satellites and designed to preemptively eliminate threats before they ever happen. Rogers does not approve of these measures since the punishment is coming before there is even a crime; as he puts it, "This isn't freedom, this is fear."
Unable to crack the encrypted files Romanoff had brought him, Fury is later attacked on the streets of Washington D.C. by assassins disguised as police officers, led by a mysterious assassin called the Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan). Fury escapes and is able to sneak into Rogers's apartment for help as he realizes that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised, but is gunned down by the Winter Soldier; before dying, Fury gives Roger's the hard drive advising him to trust no one. Rogers gives chase, but the Winter Soldier is able to match him in combat and escapes. Fury is rushed to a hospital and apparently dies.
Afterwards, Rogers is called into a meeting with Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford), a senior leader within S.H.I.E.L.D., who inquires about why Fury was in Rogers's apartment when he was killed and what he may know, but Rogers heeds Fury's warning and withholds the information. Before long, Rogers is attacked by his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives as Pierce brands Captain America a wanted fugitive. With Black Widow at his side, the only other person they can trust may be a recent friend of Steve's, a former Pararescue war veteran and PTSD counselor named Sam Wilson (played by Anthony Mackie), as they set out to unravel a conspiracy that delves deep into the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. and which could expose many dark secrets, including the identity of the Winter Soldier, who may just be a major part of Cap's past.
The first thing that strikes this examiner about the film, as IGN also pointed out in their review, is how bold Marvel is willing to be with it. This installment not only potentially shakes-up the structure of their entire cinematic universe, but the creators do understand the political thriller enough to get that if they’re going to do one, and do it well, then they’re going to have to introduce a strong point-of-view about something that is relevant to our contemporary world. The story offers a strong perspective on something that is currently a geopolitical hot button issue...the cost and meaning of freedom. In a world where our government has cameras watching our move, can track us so easily, and strives to preemptively stop potential threats before they even happen, this film takes that way of think to the extreme. Sadly, I cannot elaborate on how because that would give away the big reveal of the villain's master plan. but this is certainly the kind to topical geopolitical rhetoric that we do not expect from most superhero films, and it does so in a way that has not been done as well save perhaps for Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. Don't worry though, if this sort of higher thinking is too distracting for some of you, Captain America: The Winter Soldier still remains an accessible, fast paced, high-octane action extravaganza as well.
Oh, in speaking of the creators for a moment, the film is co-directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, best known for television comedies like Community. This examiner has to agree with IGN that after seeing this film, no one will ever question their ability to direct action ever again. Seriously, its no wonder Marvel immediately tapped them both to direct a third Cap movie, and I personally can't wait to see it!
The film is in many ways a completely different one than the first Captain America film, and appropriately so. Captain America: The First Avenger was a fun, World War II-centered story that was taking it's cues form old forties serials and such period actions films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Rocketeer. Captain America: The Winter Solider is, like I said earlier, a political and conspiracy thriller that instead takes it's primary inspiration from such films as Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and Marathon Man. This is a stark contrast, but appropriate because while the Golden Age Captain America is indeed a product of World War II, a time when we as a country had a clear understanding of who is good and evil, the modern Captain America, especially during the run by Ed Brubaker, is a man of of time who operates on a spy mission basis and who must operate in a much more complex world filled with shades of grey. In this film Steve Rogers has no idea who he can trust, or even if S.H.I.E.L.D. itself is on the right side, which says a lot about this character who I think so many people view as a boy scout who follows all his orders without question. What I think a lot of people forget, and what this film does a terrific job reminding us, is that while Cap is a soldier who values orders and authority, he is still a man with a strong sense of what he believes is right and is willing to go against authority if he has to to do the right thing.
Throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe we have slowly but surely seen S.H.I.E.L.D. grow and unravel as this long lived, multifaceted element that underlays this entire universe. But while the started off as the mysterious men in black suits type of espionage agency in the background of things, The Avengers has showcased what comic books fans have known for years, that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a agency that keep a lot of dirty secrets. Before we learned that they had plans to use an alien cube of immense power to build weapons of mass destruction, and recent episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have cast them in an even harsher light as more a more details have slowly emerged about fan favorite character Agent Coulson's resurrection after his death in The Avengers and that someone within S.H.I.E.L.D. itself might even be a dangerous criminal called the Clairvoyant. This film, however, takes all of that to a whole other level as we learn that S.H.I.E.L.D. has secrets that it is keeping from even it highest officers like Fury. Followers of this continuity, of the first Cap film especially, will be shocked at a old enemy's return and the role S.H.I.E.L.D. has unknowingly played in their master plan this whole time. Also, much like in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, there is a new character introduced in this film who exists in the existing mythology but here is adapted just loosely enough and in such a high position of authority that he pays off in a major way when the big twist is revealed.
The action sequences in this film are utterly fantastic and really, really brutal. We have always known that Cap's shield to be a powerful weapon in his hands, but even so we still tend to see it as a mostly defensive weapon. In this film, he uses the shield in ways we have never seen before, getting thrown dynamically and fiercely; heck, there is a point where Cap has to chase the Winter Soldier and he is literally using the shield to plow straight through solid walls! The fight choreography is spectacular, especially in the fights between Cap and the Winter Soldier, which are extremely fast and viscous. But besides that, even Cap's fight scene with Batroc (called Batroc the Leaper in the comics) is well choreographed, showcasing the character's unique kickboxing technique that keeps him alive against Cap for a while, but we all know that he is no match for the super soldier regardless. There is also a car chase between Nick Fury and the Winter Soldier's men that is one of the best car chases I have seen in while, filled with one big surprise after the next and making you seriously question how Fury of going to get out of this. The climax of the film is big, has plenty going on, and and brings in a spectacular aerial dog chase element with the inclusion of Anthony Mackie's character taking on his own superhero identity, the Falcon.
Having said all of that, the film never once allows for the action to take precedence over characterization. In addition to Cap's journey of moral discovery, we also get a lot more character for Black Widow. Throughout the film she and Cap have a great chemistry which IGN has pointed out feels akin to witty early cinema romantic comedies (though, theirs is not necessarily any romantic engagement between them). Like Cap, she too is a powerhouse during the action, and she also is given a tremendous moral conflict by the ending finds herself in quite the crossroads. Also taking the stage in a big way here is Nick Fury, who by far gets his best and broadest characterization here than we have seen in any of the previous Marvel films. A rare chance to see real emotion from this character, humor, heart, and a sincere sense of fear are on display and he too is brought to an unexpected place by the film's end.
New character's added to the ensemble include Alexander Pierce, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s senior officer. Robert Redford brings air of gravitas to this role that works excellently with the '70s spy thriller feel the film is striving for. He sells this character's power and authority with merely his presence. There is also Cap's new partner, the Falcon. While the character does not get a huge arc per se, he does come across as a guy with years of experience in bar under his belt and his a Cap's friendship feel genuine. When the character finally takes to the sky's as the Falcon, it is very cool and visually eye-catching. The character of Brock Rumlow (or Crossbones as he is known in the comics) does not get a whole lot depth, and fan who know the character will not be shocked by his turn in the film, but he is an effective force to be reckoned with. Sadly, one character that is a lost opportunity is Sharon Carter, niece to Cap's WWII love interest Peggy Carter, who in the comics had her own romance with Cap as well. This character was a fitting addition, but she never gets to do that much and thinking back on in, neither her last name nor her connection to Peggy is ever acknowledged onscreen.
And then, of course, there is the film's title villain. The identity of the Winter Soldier has not been kept a secret by Marvel, even for those who have never read the original story. But is was still telling that in the audience I saw the film with there was a clear gasp when the character's mask came off. In my review of Thor: The Dark World, I had said that the biggest weakness of that film was that Malekith was not a well-developed villain and his motivations were not well fleshed out at all beyond simple one-dimensional evil. I am pleased to say that Winter Soldier is very much the opposite of this; we do not see much of him and the character rarely speaks, but even so he comes across as the scariest villain Marvel has had in their films to date, IGN even commenting in their review that he appears and attacks our heroes as this unstoppable killing machine like the Terminator. However, after the review of his true identity is made we immediately connect the dots and receive a far deeper back story to this character, both in how he related to Cap's past and in the sheer agony the one's he works for have put his through and continue to even now. This examiner can say with utter confidence that the Winter Solider is the Marvel Cinematic Universe's second most successful villain so far after Loki.
As with any great film, this one is driven by a slew of strong performances. Chris Evans delivers his best performance yet as Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, playing the role as the man out of time who finds his old fashioned idealistic morality at odds with the gritty reality of the modern world. At the same time, he also allows us to see the hard-trained, super powered soldier and fighter to an extent we've never seen before. Through this performance the character has become perhaps the franchise's most relatable character, no small feat given the immense appeal of fellow Avenger Tony Stark. Scarlett Johansson gets her most fleshed-out performance yet as well as Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow. In The Avengers, is was established that this is a woman who had done a lot of bad things in her past and saw working with S.H.I.E.L.D. as her means of making up for them, but now she must come to terms with those past sins and, ultimately, face the consequences of them for the sake of what's right. Sebastian Stan is chilling and mysterious as the Winter Soldier, again, speaking mainly through action and with very little dialogue. Nevertheless, he is able to project coldness, confusion, anger, sadness, and even some longing in this performance. Samuel L. Jackson is not in the film for terribly long as Nick Fury, but as I stated earlier, he uses the time he has to full effect and brings more layers to the character than we have seen in any of his previous appearances. Robert Redford, as stated earlier, brings so much prestige to this film as Alexander Pierce, and the surprising directions his character takes result is a lot of heavy twists and effective drama. Anthony Mackie is effectively cool as Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, playing the character very modern but not at all cliche. He is a man you completely buy would get along well with Cap and when he joins the mission you believe that he is doing it because he honestly believes in Cap himself...Plus he really sell the flying scenes. Cobie Smulders doesn't get a whole lot of major depth her as Maria Hill, but she still gets to add more layers to her character and becomes a valuable asset during the final confrontation. Frank Grillo, as stated earlier, isn't given a whole lot of depth, but he plays the character effectively as written and succeeds in not making the role a total stereotype of any kind. Emily VanCamp, sadly, does not get as much to do as I was hoping as Sharon Carter, but she still comes off as an adequate actress even as is; hopefully we can more from her in future Marvel films. In speaking of her character, Hayley Atwell returns as Peggy Carter for a powerful cameo appearance in old age makeup. Her reunion with Steve is bittersweet and even though we know she has lived a full life, seeing where she is now in comparison to her appearance in her younger years is really sad. Other performers in the film include Toby Jones, Maximiliano Hernández, Garry Shandling, Georges St-Pierre, Callan Mulvey, Chin Han, Jenny Agutter, Alan Dale, and Bernard White.
Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an exciting, thought-provoking, character driven political thriller all wrapped in the guise of a superhero film that further proves the true potential of what the sub-genre is capable of. It may be a bit plot heavy for some folks, and some of the new characters could have use just a little bit more depth, but the positives far, far outweigh the negatives. This is very likely the strongest individual installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and without contest the best installment so far of Marvel's Phase Two, doing more to advance it's universe than any of the previous individual installments have done before, and I look forward to seeing how Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers: Age of Ultron will pick up the baton from here. While it may not be quite as pure, unabashed fun as The Avengers was, it still hits the same bar and provides all the raised stakes and darkening of this universe that I have been looking for since than film, with a lot less humor. For all of these reasons, I'm giving it a low five stars.