Since 2008, when the first Iron Man hit the screens, Marvel has created a tight-knit family of films, each one developed with their own unique personality. Iron Man is the kinetically pompous, yet sympathetically thoughtful older brother; Thor is the wild-eyed young teenager who wants all of the attention; and the Hulk is the family’s cousin Oliver, so desperate to fit in, but somehow disconnected from the pack. In order to keep the peace between them, however, there must be a patriarch, a grounded realist who understands how to reign in the chaos. That job falls to Captain America, who wants nothing more than to protect his fellow man from the pain of the world. To do so, he fights political corruption and deceit with nothing but integrity and honor, even when, as in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, doing so just might get him killed.
Chris Evans returns (of course) as the title character, also known as Steve Rogers, who is still attempting to fit into a world he doesn’t recognize. But when he becomes a wanted man for allegedly trying to take down S.H.I.E.L.D. and stop an extremely important project known as “Insight” from launching, he must set aside his longing for a world gone by to see truth, justice and… well, protect millions of lives. The only friends he has left after the manhunt ensues are Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a fresh from Afghanistan soldier who makes wings look cool.
Everything you’d expect from a Marvel property is here: several references to the battle of New York (and other Marvel entities), a Stan Lee cameo (a really funny one to boot), and a strong connection to the original Captain America film that, for me, felt at times a little too convenient or coincidental, but still kept me interested and engaged. Although a little more explanation as to how certain things came to pass might have helped, this is a comic-book movie, so I was a more apt to go with the flow and buy into what they were selling — which was a fun roller coaster ride of intrigue and surprises.
One of my favorite Easter eggs of the whole batch actually harkens back to Iron Man 2. Garry Shandling returns as Senator Stern, the man who tried so desperately to keep Iron Man from saving the world. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we actually get a little more insight into why that was. It’s a small reference in an otherwise grander scheme, but it closes out a story thread that’s now almost four years old, which goes to show that there’s much more going on behind the scenes than we know (or else they did it as a gag for guys like me, who take notice of these simple, subtle connections, in which case it’s still more creative than a lot of other films).
But no amount of Easter eggs matter as much as the story of Captain America himself, who proves time and again why he is to be respected. He is an honest man who stands up for his beliefs, which in turn allow his authority and conviction to hold so much influence, even Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) can’t keep a secret from him. When Fury is forced to defer all decisions to him, it shows deference to a man who only knows good, and what that symbol means to the American public (and to the world, for that matter). And once again, Chris Evans is up to the task of embodying such perfection.
Because the first film took place almost entirely in the 1940s, everything is new to Rogers, as it is to us, including the cinematography, the direction, the major players of the cast and the interactions between them all. The two major pairings in the film belong to Evans and Johansson, and Evans and Mackie, as they each partner up to take down the men seeking world domination. We were given a glimpse of the potential chemistry between Evens and Johansson (as well as Evans and Jackson) in The Avengers, but because of the mass ensemble, it was a little too little to tell how they would do on their own.
Luckily, what we saw before flows nicely into this politically-charged solo adventure. Johansson and Evans are very cute together as they continually banter for supremacy, especially when Natasha continually teases Rogers with a list of women he should shack up with — except herself, which is, of course, the most obvious choice. Anthony Mackie, on the other hand, is a fresh face in this adventure, and a pairing that needed to work just as well for the film to take flight. From where I sat, it was clear from the opening moments, when Rogers continually laps Wilson during a morning jog, that the two would get along just fine.
As you may have noticed, though, I have yet to speak a word about the other title character — the Winter Soldier. And therein lies the only flaw I found within an otherwise exceptional film. The reason I haven’t said much about him is because, when it comes down to it, he isn’t all that important to the story. Yes, he becomes a thorn in Captain America’s side in various sequences throughout the movie, but he isn’t a major player in the plot. In fact, with a few minor rewrites, you could extract the Winter Soldier from the movie altogether and still have a coherent, exciting movie.
You’d think that a character important enough to be included alongside Captain America in the title would have had an equal amount of importance in the film, wherein the Winter Soldier would be driving the narrative. Instead, the Winter Soldier is nothing but a pawn, a henchman, if you will, puppeteered by the power-hungry governmental players. There is a very important aspect to the character, at least for where Steve Rogers is concerned, but because he is relegated to a mere weapon rather than the mastermind, it reduces the redemptive roar of the climax to a mere whimper. I understand that the team probably did it this way to help set-up a much deeper journey for both characters in future outings, but they shouldn’t have done so at the expense of this particular chapter, because the weight of the emotional impact is weakened because of it.
When the action starts, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is as an enjoyable ride as any other, but with the core of the dramatic center set mostly on the sidelines, it falls just shy of the magic and pure escapist entertainment that Marvel has become known for. Nonetheless, because my main issue was in the incongruity of the title, it’s actually a minor footnote to an overall well-developed story that will have several ramifications among the rest of its extended family (including the long-lost nephew, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which I see being affected the most).
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Draft Day, Rio 2 and Oculus. If you would like to see a review of this, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.