Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a taut, tense spy thriller that makes the Bourne movies look like the work of an amateur. Filled with twists and turns and a still all-too-timely message that takes a critical look at our security culture and just what we are willing to sacrifice in order to keep ourselves safe, this is a film that is far more intelligent than the action-packed extravaganza that the advertising has been selling thus far, and easily among the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and certainly the smartest.
Oh, and it is also a phenomenal superhero action movie, taking the above plot and rendering it larger than life with all the explosions, helicarrier battles, fight scenes, and sci-fi technology one could want from a Marvel movie without losing its heart and soul in the heat of it all. With a great cast, great direction, fire-breathing action, and tight writing, Captain America: The Winter Soldier rings in the summer movie season early with a film that will be very hard to top.
The plot here is, fortunately, a lot less reliant on the established mythology of the Marvel movies thus far, avoiding the chief problem that Thor: The Dark World suffered from last year. It's a more straightforward spy thriller that requires you to only have the bare-strokes knowledge of the first Captain America movie, filling the viewer in for the most important stuff; while you'll undoubtedly get more out of this film if you've seen the first one, with all manner of fun (and in one case, downright emotional) nods to that film, you'll still have everything you need to understand what's happening if you're going in blind. The basics are that there is a plot within S.H.I.E.L.D., the spy agency at the core of these films, that might threaten American security, and two agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), aka Captain America and Black Widow (because this is still a superhero movie), are fighting to expose it. The two of them also seek to clear the name of their boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in all his BAMF glory), who has been implicated in the plot but who they know isn't part of it. Oh, and the Winter Soldier, a cyborg super-spy with a robotic arm, is running around on the orders of our nebulous villains, causing mayhem and frustrating Steve and Natasha at every turn.
To say more would be spoilers, so suffice it to say, it's awesome. As I noted before, themes of surveillance and security taking precedence over freedom are a major part of this story. Right at the beginning, we see that S.H.I.E.L.D. is constructing three massive helicarriers -- flying aircraft carriers powered by sci-fi technology capable of bombarding the ever-loving crap out of anything in a hundred-mile radius -- and two characters debate whether or not the fact that America is building such machines is a sign of paranoia. The fact that the main character here is meant to be literally the personification of everything that America stands for makes this film particularly well-suited to tackling such prospects. The way it plays out is almost like a response to The Dark Knight, a film that famously climaxed with Batman using cell phone surveillance technology to hunt down the Joker, with this film going out of its way to denounce such activities. It ain't subtle about it -- without spoiling anything, Godwin's Law is invoked here -- but the way it puts that message forward, in both the skill of the production and the earnestness of what it is saying, makes it resonate that much more.
Of course, this movie isn't just about preaching the evils of the NSA; it also has a story to tell and stuff to blow up. Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo were a strange pick to helm a big-budget superhero movie given their background in TV comedy (having directed episodes of Community and Arrested Development), but for most of this film's runtime, they pull it off spectacularly. While the story here is darker than other Marvel movies, it avoids becoming outright grim, the Russo brothers frequently bringing an air of levity and optimism that put a smile on my face. They and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely keep to the tradition established by Iron Man and The Avengers of characters who aren't afraid to crack wise about their circumstances, and it helps that pretty much everyone in the cast here is game for their brand of action. Some of the action scenes were a bit hard to follow, but for the most part, the Russo brothers are surprisingly adept at knocking my ass to the floor given that they've never directed an action movie in their lives before this. Outside of the finale, there's less spectacle than there was in past Marvel movies, with not only quite a bit more "talky" moments but a lot of the action being fought with guns and fists, as befitting the sort of films that this one is trying to evoke. Still, said action is no less thrilling to watch, thanks largely to the directors' surprising skill at shooting it.
As for the cast, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson are all as good as they've been in past films, with all three of them getting moments to shine and kick ass, while Robert Redford makes for a suitably slimy (if obvious) bad guy. Evans and Johansson in particular have great chemistry together, with Black Widow being almost a second protagonist alongside Captain America; after three movies, I'm willing to bet that the calls to give Black Widow her own movie are louder than ever. The true standout here, however, is newcomer Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon, a former pararescueman turned VA counselor who gets his hands on a jetpack. Mackie not only looks absolutely jacked, but has the chops to pull it off and make his character more than just a one-note badass. If anyone is going to come out of this film with a massive boost to his career, it's Mackie.
The problems I had with this film were all fairly minor. I didn't understand the purpose of Emily VanCamp's character, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent assigned to protect Steve Rogers; she does a good job and gets a nice arc here, but it barely ties into the main story at all. (Maybe she's being set up for the sequel? If so, she impressed me enough here that I wouldn't mind seeing her return.) Also, the giant glass bubbles on the undersides of the helicarriers, where the targeting computers are located? Easy targets for anyone on the ground with a rocket launcher, and a major oversight on the part of whoever built the things.
Score: 5 out of 5
Again, what few complaints I had were all pretty much nitpicking in the broader scheme of things. After slipping with Thor: The Dark World, Marvel is once again in top form here with their best movie since The Avengers. It's Marvel meets James Bond, and whether you're a fan of superhero movies or espionage movies, you'll find something to love here.