I haven't been a huge fan of the Marvel standalone films post-Avengers. I thought Iron Man 3 was fun, but silly. I found Thor: The Dark World to be drab and boring. They arrived in theaters white hot with the momentum of a colossally successful (in all regards) movie (The Avengers), and I think the films struggled to find a way to "come down" from a movie with such giant scope. Having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though, I feel reinvigorated and excited for Marvel's cinematic future.
At this point, Marvel Studios can more or less coast. They can play it safe and take it easy because the sheer power of the brand means that it will make money and sell a ton of merchandise. But it would appear that Kevin Feige and co refuse to just rest on their laurels and milk the characters for all they're worth. This Captain America sequel felt like a game changer that's going to have a ripple effect that is going to be felt in every Marvel film to come.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, best known for directing comedies like Arrested Development and Community, show that they are beyond capable of handling more serious fair. While I walked in worried that the film would be full of meta, tongue-in-cheek "look how ridiculous this is" jokes that undermine the potential drama, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Captain America: The Winter Soldier plays it straight. There are a handful of little one-liners sprinkled throughout but, by and large, there's nothing here that's going to pull you out of the movie. In fact, this is probably the least jokey Marvel movie to date.
The plot of the film is bold, and it maneuvers these characters in exciting new directions- which is no easy feat since this is the third time we're seeing Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and the fifth appearance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The status quo for these characters has been thrown out the window, in a story that finds our heroes on the run, betrayed by a trusted entity, and fighting for their lives.
Right off the bat, the film also makes one thing very clear: Captain America is a bad ass.
Anyone who thought the first film portrayed him too soft and nice and earnest is in for a surprise this time around. The character's ideals haven't changed, but his ability to kick ass and take names has never been put on display quite like this. The cinematography, choreography, and overall execution of Cap's various action scenes are all exhilarating. Watching him- with stealth, efficient, strategic brutality- take down a dozen armed guards while working his way across a ship at sea in the dead of night is just incredibly cool. Then seeing him remove his helmet and put away the shield, so that he can go toe-to-toe with Batroc (MMA superstar George St. Pierre) serves to hammer home that this is not your grandfather's Captain America.
The way he's portrayed in this film, Cap is Superman and Batman rolled into one character. He has the former's morals and commitment to heroism, and the latter's take-no-prisoners sense of "you did wrong, so now you're going to pay." Evans turns in an inspired performance here, playing up the "man out of time" elements that were touched on in his earlier films, while also giving the character more of an edge. He's also given an emotional arc that sees him confronting the loss (and possible return) of his best friend, accepting he'll never get "that dance" with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and struggling to find a normal life in a world he barely understands anymore.
Speaking of that lost friend, this film is very bromantic. More than any previous film in the series, themes of friendship and brotherhood play a significant role here. While the setup for Cap's friendship with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) is a little rushed, their onscreen connection feels real. Mackie, in general, does a very nice job as Wilson- aka Falcon- bringing great pathos to the role of a veteran soldier struggling to find his place back in civilian life after serving two tours in the hell of war.
The rest of the main cast does a great job as well. Johannson and Jackson are given much more to do here than they have in any of the other Marvel films, and hiring such high-profile actors for these roles has finally paid off. They bring the goods, being given their first real chances to spread their wings and dive into the characters of Black Widow and Nick Fury. Then you've got Robert Redford, who brings enough gravitas and integrity to his role as Alexander Pierce that you almost don't need to give the character much backstory. His eyes are the backstory. Frank Grillo also gets an honorable mention here, too, bringing just the right amount of ruthless menace to Brock Rumlow. But the biggest standout here is Sebastian Stan as The Winter Soldier, himself. A star has been born. Loki finally has a rival in terms of the most fascinating villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He's brutal, he's tormented, he's calculating, and the dude is flat out scary.
Back to the movie, though, what really makes it rise above the other standalone films, and maybe even The Avengers, is that it has something to say. It has a point of view, and- as comic books have done for decades now- uses a colorful medium to tell a very real story. There are socio-political undertones woven into this story that, if you choose to explore them in your mind, will make you want to ask some questions about the world you live in. Without ever getting didactic or preachy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier asks you what price you're willing to pay for freedom. What would you sacrifice for the illusion of safety? Do the people at the top of the food chain really have your best interests in mind?
It touches on all of these things, but keeps such a brisk pace and never loses its sense of adventure, so it more or less gives you- the audience- the option to think about the headier issues, or to just sit their drooling at the beautiful action. And the action is beautiful. The visual effects here are fantastic. I never cringed, or had to force myself to suspend disbelief with regard to the visuals. It's a powerhouse for the eyes.
Now for the bad, which there really isn't much of. One gripe that I've had for the other post-Avengers films remains frustratingly alive here. "Where is everybody?!" with a plot that could destroy life as we know it, giant airships falling out of the sky, major characters potentially biting the dust, and others becoming fugitives it doesn't make sense- in the cinematic landscape that Marvel has created- that Iron Man, or even Hawkeye, wouldn't so much as pop their head in and say, "Hey Steve and Natasha, need a hand?" The ambitious scale of this story just draws too much attention to their explanation-less absence. I've said from the beginning that the one true way to address this issue is to make the stories more localized. Have the threats our heroes face be more personal, more intimate. But as soon as you launch a story that's going to involve the death of 20 million around the world, you make it impossible to ignore that there's a certain team we've met that was put together for instances just like these.
Aside from that, I can say that the first few appearances of Wilson in his Falcon wings looked a little silly to me. In a movie so filled with macho, bad ass imagery, there's something about the visual of a guy gliding around in bird wings that's a little groan-inducing. Other than these two gripes, though, I'm actually sitting here struggling to find something else I disliked. So that says something.
On a final, fanboy note, after the last two Marvel standalone films had completely underwhelming post-credit sequences, this one gets them back on track. It's related to the plot, and it plants seeds for the sequel- which is what these sequences did during Phase One but have seemingly forgotten to do since The Avengers.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is exciting, character-evolving, stage-resetting, and dynamic. If you've been battling with any Marvel fatigue, this movie is sure to give you a shot in the arm and get you excited for what's to come.