Although directors Joe and Anthony Russo are best known for TV comedies, there’s little that’s not cinematic about Captain America: the Winter Soldier…save, perhaps, the inevitable knowledge that this movie is but one episode in a continuum that aims to keep going, non-stop, for as long as possible, just like a network series. But that just makes it an accurate adaptation of a Marvel comic, where most larger “event” stories require you to stay up on the ongoing exploits of multiple heroes.
In any case, while it helps to already know who Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Sanuel L. Jackson) are, and to have seen the first Captain America for background on Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and a couple of his old acquaintances who resurface, it’s not that necessary. The film catches you up in ways that thankfully aren’t heinously redundant (Cap visits a museum exhibit based on his own WWII exploits, and that part covers most of it) before doing what it must do…go about the business of being a kick-ass Captain America movie. Which it is.
The timing may be off, geopolitically speaking, for a movie that metaphorically deals with the complexity of the War on Terror versus the clarity of the Cold War – in a coincidence of timing, the movie ends with major characters heading to Ukraine – but so be it. After the morally black and white struggles leading teams against evil Nazis and invading Chitauri, Captain America now finds himself leading missions for SHIELD, many of them covert, some of them morally questionable, and plenty where he doesn’t even know the orders his other teammates have that may conflict with his own. Regardless, he gets in plenty of the shield-slinging you’ve always wanted to see him do, facing off against lesser villains like mercenary Batroc (Georges St.Pierre).
When he tries to question Fury about the morality of his actions, and why more intel isn’t being shared with him, he mostly gets met with Sam Jackson quips like: “I do share. I’m nice like that.” But when Fury is targeted for assassination by what appear to be corrupt cops and the mysterious masked super-villain Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Cap must take orders from the even more morally questionable Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and soon finds himself on the run, unable to trust anyone beyond his fellow Avenger and SHIELD teammate Black Widow, and his occasional jogging buddy Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), whose Falcon persona here is simply “guy who has access to high-tech equipment” rather than anything Red Skull-related.
Despite the Disney publicity machine’s own apparent attempts to spoil more than that via all the clips they’ve been releasing, it’s best not to reveal many more details beyond that. Marvel wants to lure older moviegoers in by comparing this to ’70s political thrillers, while neglecting the crucial point that part of the appeal of those thrillers was that the hero could sometimes lose, fail and even be dead in a ditch by the end, and it’s surely no major spoiler to say that won’t happen to Captain America. As Thor: The Dark World showed us, Marvel will sometimes make you think drastic developments in their cinematic universe have happened only to walk them back later – there’s some of that here too, but there are also significant changes to the larger continuity that will have ripple effects, especially on the Agents of SHIELD TV show.
But if you’re worried about the movie getting overly political, fear not – it’s vague enough that you can choose to read the higher forces at work here as either Bush or Obama, and it works equally well; nonpartisans sick of both sides may find they enjoy it the most. You also need not fear that big scenes of stuff blowing up while muscular men in funny costumes beat each other up will be in any way lacking – there are plenty, and they deliver (also Cap’s shield is still basically magic in that it absorbs any impact without regards to Newton’s laws). Though you might have to ask yourself what the statute of limitations is for you personally when it comes to large aircraft slamming into government buildings (I found it less bothersome than I expected, and certainly less evocative of THAT day than similar scenes in Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down).
The first Evans Captain America movie was always a little problematic for me, dramatically – by bookending it in the ice, it made the entire movie feel like backstory to get out of the way like an obligation, rather than a compelling tale I’m watching in the moment. Steve Rogers as a character worked better in The Avengers, where he played the more traditionally conservative foil to Robert Downey’s libertarian/libertine Tony Stark. Here, his foil is America as we know it, versus the America he grew up knowing, and it’s the exact right dilemma for a hero meant to stand for his-country-right-or-wrong. The only bummer, perhaps, is that the Winter Soldier isn’t as key to the story as his name’s placement in the title might suggest – it’s really only a first act for the character, with very little of his arc resolved.
Yes, a sequel is inevitable, but does that have to mean we never get closure? The implication is that the entirety of Age of Ultron will serve as a big, side-tracking distraction to a Captain trying to finish what was started herein. Still, I like this better than the certainty of knowing all along that it ends in ice. A lot better. Though steeped in the iconography of the superhero movies that have preceded it, it isn’t as beholden to the clich?s – Cap and Widow, for instance, remain in the friend-zone.
Stay tuned, as always, for two scenes during the credits: one setting up another movie, and the other delivering an essential capper to the story at hand.