If you read my article earlier this week ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU for short, you might have been able to tell that Phase Two, thus far, hasn’t exactly shaped up as well as I hoped it would. That’s not to say the films have been bad; in fact, Iron Man 3 was a fun, energetic close to the Iron Man trilogy and Thor: The Dark World surprised me in ways that I didn’t think it would. However, eight films deep into the MCU and no Marvel solo film has ever come even close to being as gripping as the original Iron Man (I would include The Avengers, but that’s just really not fair). And to be completely honest, I wasn’t really expecting the second entry in the Captain America series, entitled Captain America: The Winter Solider, to be that film. Other than The Incredible Hulk, the Captain’s first entry was the weakest installment in the Universe and none of the promotional material was indicating it would rank any higher than the middle tier. And yet, walking out of the press screening there was nothing more I wanted to do than slap my past self right in the face because, boy, I WAS SO WRONG!
Captain America: The Winter Soldier follows everyone’s favorite patriot from the Marvel Cinematic Universe as he continues to struggle with fitting into the modern world. His will and trust are tested as he begins to debate with Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. on the true meaning of freedom vs. fear and when a new threat, the Soviet soldier known as The Winter Soldier, emerges.
In a world where superhero movies are beginning to place style over substance (Man of Steel, The Amazing Spider-Man, and even The Avengers falls under this category), The Winter Soldier bursts through the crowd by capitalizing on both aspects expertly. Through its twisty plot development and carefully executed action scenes, the film briskly plods along as a spy thriller rather than a standard comic book film. As Steve Rodgers is trying to figure out where his ideals fit into this new world, he is simultaneously tossed into a web of deceit in which he learns very quickly that not everyone is who they say they are and trust is a concept that’s dwindling fast (sound like emotional themes for the 21st Century? You bet!). From there we get disguises, covert ops, and a highly complex socio-political message about terrorism, separating this film from the rest of the pact in a very great way.
However, that’s not to discourage the action scenes placed throughout the film because they are absolutely breathtaking as well. Focusing on the super soldier side of Captain America more than any other film to date, what follows is fantastically coordinated hand-to-hand combat fight scenes as well as giant scope action set pieces too. The fights between Rogers and the Winter Soldier are visceral and leave the audience with sense of danger; from scene one it’s very clear that this enemy means business and is not going down without a fight. The other stand out here is Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who absolutely commands the screen every time he’s flying around and kicking ass.
Unlike in previous MCU films, where the lead seems to turn in a fantastic performance while everyone else is left at the wayside (looking at you, Iron Man), The Winter Soldier stays consistent in the fact that everyone is really fantastic in their respective roles, from lead Chris Evans to supporting players Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, and Scarlett Johansson. This is partially due to the fantastic writing, in which each character is given many more opportunities to evolve and expand on than they were in previous films in which they appeared, especially Johansson’s Black Widow. We see Rodgers continuing with his struggle to fit in with this new world, now focusing on the idea of what it means to be free in the modern age. Nick Fury and Black Widow get more opportunities to show their talent, and the film dives farther into their respective backstories and both pull it off flawlessly. Newcomers Anthony Mackie and the legend Robert Redford fit into their respective roles with ease, generating an all around fantastic cast. Without spoiling anything, even The Winter Soldier, played by Sebastian Stan, hits some emotionally complex notes with expert precision.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier inarguably shines as the first truly fantastic Phase Two film in the MCU. Action packed, very well written in terms of plot and character development, and featuring some major twists and turns along the way, The Winter Soldier is the perfect example of a superhero sequel. I can confidently say this is the BEST solo film in the Marvel canon so far. Tony Stark just met his match.
Review by Nicholas Franco