Editor’s note: This review originally was posted April 4, 2014.
‘The Winter Soldier’ a thrilling blend of tension, action
The appeal of “Captain America: The First Avenger” rested nearly entirely with our victim-turned-virtuous-hero Steve Rogers. In him, we found a man who longed to make the world a better place, who truly appreciated the great powers he was given and, more than anything, appreciated his own humanity. “A kid from Brooklyn,” he called himself, as he faced the greatest threat the world had ever known. It’s hard not to idolize the man.
In “The Winter Soldier,” the fantastically action-filled sequel and next installment in the Marvel universe until “Age of Ultron” comes out in the summer of 2015, we grapple with similar internal dilemmas, nail-biting geopolitical drama and the moral grayness that surrounds the struggle between being safe and being free. And while we may miss some of the earnest pulp that made its predecessor so enjoyable, “The Winter Soldier” has its own strengths. With thrills galore, good and bad guys readily marked, solid acting, a bit of humor, a multitude of plot twists (you’ll see most of them coming, I promise) and little in the way of complexity, the movie doesn’t disappoint.
“The Winter Soldier’s” story takes place several years after “The First Avenger,” with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) aka Captain America still acclimating to a new world after spending 70-something years in cryostatis. Most of his free time is learning about the Internet and being the most athletic 94-year-old man alive.
It doesn’t take long, though, for SHIELD head honcho Nick Fury (an eye-patch-wearing Samuel L. Jackson) to assign Rogers a new mission: This time around, he’s to reclaim a SHIELD ship overrun by hostage-taking pirates.
Captain America, with all the grace of a bulldozing elephant, rages fury on anything moving on the ship, with his partner Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) continuing to be a terrifyingly effective assassin. But she’s been assigned to this rescue operation for more than just providing backup. Fury has tasked her with securing encrypted data from the ship’s database. It seems Fury has discovered a decades-long conspiracy from the Captain’s past, threatening both SHIELD and the world itself. It seems SHIELD has been compromised at its highest levels, and you know what they say about cutting off one head of a Hydra…
To go any further would deprive you of the few twists the movie throws at you. (Though, chances are you’ve already hear/watched the more interesting tidbits by now.)
Joining the Captain in this high-octane adventure is Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former Afghan War vet who remains loyal to the Captain’s cause throughout; SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), a small but important role; and Fury’s boss, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).
And while all these new relationships aid (or detract from) the Captain’s mission, it’s seeing a face from the past that plays the most crucial role in what’s to come.
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo (“Community”), brothers known for their TV comedies, “The Winter Soldier” cleverly delves into the political zeitgeist, highlighting fears shared by all political persuasions. The Captain is no longer the underdog, the earnest 90-pound asthmatic we so eagerly rooted for in “The First Avenger.” His views on morality and the world itself, so black-and-white, fail to alert them to world of today, where we prides ourselves in our infinite shades of gray. He hasn’t found where he belongs yet.
Themes we find ourselves struggling with today — the surveillance state, government reach into our personal data — seep into every pore of this movie. It’s a darker take on a world in fear than most Marvel movies, which only adds more intrigue to the dilemma of the movie’s core question: Just how much freedom do you surrender for the price of security?
Providing yet another strong portrayal of an honorable man in a less-than-so world, Evans is solid as the All-American symbol of heroism. And it should go without saying that Johansson and Jackson portray their roles with ease and talent. Redford’s addition to the movie adds a touch of the 1970s conspiracy films he’s known for. But it’s Mackie’s rendition of Sam Wilson (the fanboys will call him by a different name) you steals the show, with quip and easy humor in each of his scenes.
The movie’s gem, though, is its action sequences. Beautifully choreographed and well-edited, they’re fluid and engaging. Combined with a thoughtful script, the directing brothers showed they have a penchant for more than just TV comedy. (There are plenty of moments of humor, too, mostly lampooning the Captain’s age.)
In the end, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is far better than it had any right to be. A superhero movie that focuses on the inner turmoil of a man “out of time,” “A Winter Soldier” is suspenseful, clever, moody and even a bit sad. It pulls no punches in reaching a new level of excellence in the superhero genre. It may not convert those who don’t partake in the genre’s lore, but the story’s not for them. It’s for the Captain, who comes to view the new world with wary eyes. I hate to say it, but it’s about time.
P.S.: Stick around until the VERY end of the credits. Two extra scenes will reward your patience.
Four soul-searching stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.