Phase 2 of the Marvel movie machine keeps moving right along, this time bringing the sequel to 2011’s “Captain America”, the most obligatory of all Avengers.
No longer is he in the pulp inspired era of the 1940s. After being frozen (and an alien invasion), he’s adjusting to the modern world as best he can, mostly doing covert ops, working with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and S.H.I.E.L.D. directly under the command of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is starting to feel a disconnect with the modern age, though not so much through technology, but in values. The peacekeeping organization he serves is one built upon secrets and operating within the morally grey. He’s a black and white soldier of WWII, so he doesn’t fully accept the idea of compromise when it comes to doing what’s right. This is only made worse when S.H.I.E.L.D. turns out to be so deeply entrenched in secrets and lies that their own people aren’t all what they seem.
This is a strong entry in the Marvel canon, placing a heavier emphasis on the darker tone and subject matter. It relies far less on the comic humor of the other movies to play up the espionage thriller angle. For this it plays less like a superhero flick than the Thor and Iron Man movies, which is certainly not a bad thing. It’s a comic-style spy movie, using a heightened world for genre tropes. There’s also a semi-topical aspect to it, pitting the Captain against an exaggerated version of government wire tapping and a very proactive plan to combat terror and other deemed threats before they arise.
There’s a strong story arc for the characters and this feels like the Marvel movie of this Phase that actually needs to be seen. Any ties Thor and Iron Man will have with the next Avengers movie is probably minimal, but this one has clear and potentially long lasting ramifications on the state of the Marvel Universe as well as the next movies (set on earth, at least). It’s made better with a tight script and strong acting from the main cast.
Chris Evans has settled into his role, giving his most convincing performance as the star-spangled avenger. Black Widow is also given her best written role, actually showing potential as a character and not merely a function of the plot. The weakest character in the movie is actually the titular character, namely the Winter Soldier himself. It’s not the fault of the actor, who can certainly look the part, but he’s just not in it that much and when he is, he has very little to say.
Surprising turns come from Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, a winged jetpack superhero who befriends Captain America, and Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the more political head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Anthony Mackie has a lot of charisma and screen presence, turning what could have easily been a throw away side character into a memorable role. What’s great about Robert Redford in this is just how straight he plays it. He takes the material completely seriously, giving no mind to the fact that it’s a comic book movie. The more serious approach to the story makes the action scenes more intense and meaningful as a result.
Speaking of which, the reliance on more practical stunt work (Captain America can’t fly or shoot lasers) makes for a refreshing change of pace in terms of action sequences. There’re car chases, martial arts fighting, and a lot of shield throwing as Captain America and Black Widow pummel any threats that come their way. While the directing is fine overall, where Anthony and Joe Russo show some weaknesses is in the handling of these action scenes. That’s not to say they aren’t well staged and exciting, because they often are, but they suffer from a trend that populates nearly all action movies in a post Paul Greengrass/Bourne world. It’s a light imitation of the handheld cam for action, where the screen shakes with the character movements and anytime an aircraft flies by the screen we get one of those tired quick zooms. It’s an amateur technique at this point (it plagued the action of “Man of Steel” and is visible in the recent “Star Trek” films as well), and it’s disappointing to see it here.
As with nearly all superhero movies, especially the Marvel ones since “The Avengers”, “The Winter Soldier” does end with a big action finale with more CGI than the previous scenes relied on. It’s loud and crazy, but not nearly as numbing as the finale of “Man of Steel”, for the sake of comparison. They keep the focus on the characters, which helps to center the action a bit, since it revolves around three massive helicarriers spinning around and crashing into one another.
All said, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a good superhero movie, scaling the action down a bit for the sake of genre splicing. It has solid action scenes, likeable heroes, relevance to the Marvel franchise, and takes a more serious approach for some needed variety. It’s an improvement over the first film, and the shift in style and tone makes this particular movie series stand out against some of the others. All I can say is, go Captain America.