Marvel’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” is arguably the best movie to come out of the superhero franchise-specialist studio. In many ways it provided the most hurdles for a follow-up. Fast-paced, engaging and sometimes even surprising, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a thoroughly satisfying sequel.
Marvel Studios’ Phase I movies, “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man 2,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” which all deliberately led to “Marvel’s The Avengers,” were all entertaining and boasted a through-the-roof gee-whiz factor. “Captain America” stood out as the best-designed and most visually interesting, owing in large part to its World War II period setting (cheerfully augmented with some deliberate “Flash Gordon” flourishes). “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is both a paean to seventies’ political thrillers, and a contemporary spy movie in which some of the characters wear tights or jet packs.
Chris Evans again plays Steve Rogers, the 95-pound weakling who was turned into a super soldier by science in World War II. Evans continues to play the part with absolute sincerity, which is the key to making this character not only accessible but likeable to modern audiences. Captain America is the only major Marvel Comics character to predate Stan Lee’s influence, and at his core there’s nothing edgy or ironic about him. Like Superman, he really is here to fight for truth, justice and the American way, and you have to like that or lump it. Evans gets it, and as a direct result, so does the audience.
The question with the Captain America character was whether he would continue to stand out in follow-ups with a contemporary setting. The billion dollar box office of “Marvel’s The Avengers” provided a hint that the answer would be yes, but in the team-up movie, Cap didn’t have to carry the ball alone. “Avengers” also didn’t address the nagging question of the supporting cast. Superheroes tend to have sidekicks, girlfriends and other assorted recurring characters who are often much-loved by the audiences. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman all appear in each of Nolan’s Batman movies. To date, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jon Favreau have been in all three stand-alone “Iron Man” movies. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has a host of Earthbound and Asgardian hangers-on who have been featured in both “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World.”
In “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers had a best friend (Bucky Barnes, played Sebastian Stan) and a love interest (Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell). Samuel L. Jackson, as Col. Nick Fury, appeared briefly in a transitional epilogue to the first movie, and had a major supporting role in “Marvel’s The Avengers.” In a deftly-accomplished bit of cinematic legerdemain, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” manages to weave strands from both movies together, not just to provide a TV sitcom-style recurring cast, but to develop the main character in ways that are new to the genre. Sebastian Stan and Hayley Atwell both reappear, with the question of age during the passage of time being handled in vastly different ways.
Fan favorite Scarlett Johansson makes her third appearance as The Black Widow, a character who could carry her own movie. To date she simply steals scenes in everyone else’s. Anthony Mackie is featured as The Falcon, a character long-associated with Captain America in the comic books, and used to good effect here. Samuel L. Jackson again plays Col. Nick Fury, Director of superhero spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., which takes center stage here and far less benevolently than on Marvel’s current weekly series. Cobie Smulders, fresh from wrapping up a long run on TV’s “How I Met Your Mother,” reprises her role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill from “Marvel’s The Avengers,” and gets more to do this time around. Georges St-Pierre appears briefly as vintage bad guy Batroc, and long-time fans of the comic may wish he’d gotten more to do.
Robert Redford, who turned down the role of Superman back in the seventies, finally makes an appearance in a superhero movie, and it’s memorable. As the enigmatic Alexander Pierce, a shadowy figure high up in the superhero intelligence community, the seventies movie icon effectively keeps the audience guessing about his character’s intentions and motives. And although Redford has generally eschewed genre movies, superhero movies in particular, the star of “Three Days of the Condor” and “All the President’s Men” is an icon of the seventies political thriller. (One scene in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” particularly recalls “Three Days of the Condor.”)
There is some political messaging going on in this movie. The military/industrial establishment is not to be trusted. It's hard to argue with Captain America though, and few will be offended.
But while “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” does try to provide some new depth to its main main character, this is still a Marvel Comics adaptation and action remains the bottom line. The movie delivers in spades, though it might be noted that co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo (“You, Me and Dupree”) err a little on the side of freneticism. A certain amount of Bourne envy is evident in the close quarters hand-to-hand scenes, which they don’t pull off as well as Paul Greengrass. The special effects are at least par for the genre, generally better, and the movie offers some big ticket property damage rivaling “Marvel’s The Avengers.”
In one sense, it is a little difficult to fathom why it took Hollywood so long to embrace the comic book superhero genre. Comic books, after all, with their recurrent, high concept characters and collateral marketing possibilities, are inherently, and almost uniquely, franchise-friendly. And initially, to be sure, many industry observers assumed the comic book superhero adaptation was simply a passing fad. Fourteen years after the release of “X-Men,” the movie that actually started the current trend, the superhero movie has clearly emerged as a legitimate genre in its own right, with a potential for adult drama that rivals the western. (Christopher Nolan’s DC Comics-based “Dark Knight” Batman trilogy gets much of the credit for this.) In point of fact, the superhero movie now actually appears to be the new western. Naysayers have been predicting the death of the superhero for years. This won’t be the movie that does it.
The 3D post-conversion is one of the better offered to date by Marvel Studios. The IMAX presentation is very, very loud. Regular fans of Marvel movies know this, but it bears noting again: stay for the end credits. All of them. There is one scene during the credit sequence, which is itself an artful homage to sixties’ thrillers. There is another scene at the very end, after all the credits have rolled. [Spoiler alert: that scene is actually directed by “Avengers” director Joss Whedon.]