With the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’re now past the midway point in Phase Two of Marvel’s (up-till-now) highlight reel of cinematic victories. For those keeping score at home, Phase Two consists of four sequels (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Avengers) and one new property (Guardians of the Galaxy, arriving in August). But though plenty of questions remain regarding the viability of other Marvel characters on the Big Screen (besides Guardians, there’s an Ant-Man film coming next year), and the success of efforts in other visual mediums (the consistently frustrating Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the four upcoming Netflix original series), it’s probably safe to call Phase Two an unqualified success. After all, even if Guardians falters, it’s difficult to imagine Josh Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron ending anywhere but north of a billion in box office.
For the non-comic book fan curious as to how exactly, after decades of missteps and, at best, hit-or-miss efforts, Marvel is on such a roll, let Captain America: The Winter Soldier serve as your primer.The newest Marvel blockbuster-to-be boasts an array of well-cast leads and supporting characters; a crisply paced, sensible plot; and above-average dialogue. Even more importantly, every scene and every character interaction prove that the movie’s creative team truly understands the core appeal of Cap himself—the tone of not just the character, but the comic book series from which he springs. (That last part might seem easy, especially when the company responsible for the comic is leading the effort, but check out Warner Bros./DC’s Man of Steel again if you want to see how tone-deaf and distracted a creative team can get with an iconic character.)
Directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up post Avengers with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) in the modern day trying to be that quaint relic from his earlier life during World War Two—the good soldier. But the black-and-white ethical landscape of that time has been displaced by countless shades of gray. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and S.H.I.E.L.D. itself are all embodiments of a more complex present than that to which Cap is accustomed. To their credit, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely suggest early and often that no matter how much simpler the age from which Captain America has sprung, he’s not stupid. They also suggest—and this is something Captain America has had in common with Superman almost from the beginning—that one of Cap’s unofficial and less showy superpowers may just be a keen, correct sense of what’s right and wrong.
Lest you worry Captain America: The Winter Soldier consists solely of moral quandaries and Steve Rogers sending discerning or suspicious looks in the direction of those around him, the brothers Russo have made, first and foremost, a thrilling action film. Starting with a perfectly paced rescue mission nicely leavened with relationship banter between Evans and Johansson’s characters, the film has little down time. This is especially true once the titular bad guy (Sebastian Stan) enters the picture (in an effort to erase Fury from it), but in truth, the movie is filled with enjoyable moments, both quiet and action-packed, throughout, and that brings us back to the casting.
It’s easy and obvious (and deserved) to give Robert Downey Jr. the lion’s share of the credit for his work making Tony Stark/Iron Man an engaging character. But let’s not forget, Downey Jr. basically just transplanted his own charming, powerful personality onto the role, evicting the somewhat boring Tony Stark of the comics. It’s undoubtedly a super-charged and enjoyable performance, but I’m not so sure it’s the better job of acting. At the very least, Evans deserves credit for making the most vanilla of Marvel’s superheroes a living, breathing (dare I say, realistic?) character. He inhabits the Steve Rogers persona completely, and makes Cap someone it seems like it would be cool to know—and not just because he’s a living legend/super-soldier with mad shield-tossing skills. (Chris Hemsworth deserves similar kudos for his Thor—these guys will not be easy to replace when age, contracts and career preferences call for their departure.)
Perhaps more than any other superhero in the Marvel Universe, Captain America is meant to be appealing. He’s meant to be the inspiring, human ideal to which, in turn, each of us aspires. It’s one of the things that sets the feel of his comics apart from those of Thor, the Hulk, Spider-Man, etc., and the creative team behind part 2.3 of Marvel’s grand cinematic plan nails it. Yes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a great action movie—an immensely enjoyable spy-thriller-flavored film with Bond-worthy flair (and orchestral flourishes). But first and foremost, it’s also a great Captain America film. As long as Disney/Marvel’s approach to their films keeps such priorities in mind, the box office action that comes along with it will continue to be out of this world.
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo; Joss Whedon (post-credits scene)
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (screenplay); Ed Brubaker (concept and story); Joe Simon, Jack Kirby (comic book)
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Maximiliano Hernández, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell
Release Date: Apr. 4, 2014