Before I begin, I should let you know my position as a reviewer: I enjoy movies, but I love comics more. I buy single issues every week, from Marvel to DC to Dark Horse. I’m intimately familiar with Marvel continuity. I’ve read the original “Winter Soldier” story arc more times than I can remember. I named my dog Bucky. At no point in this writeup are you going to get the opinion of a “film critic” or “casual fan”—this comes from a geek, full-stop.
And here it is: I couldn’t be happier. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is my new favorite Marvel movie.
It’s funny, well-acted, well-staged, visually exciting, and emotionally satisfying. I’m not going to summarize the plot—you can find that on IMDB. It’s a spy movie; it’s an action movie; it’s full of espionage, explosions, assassinations, and sneaky officials. I will say that the film moves at a very deliberate pace, but at no time did I find myself wishing that the characters would stop talking or “get on with it”. The clever characterization is welcome in between exhilirating action scenes involving car pileups and automatic gunfire. The destruction level is high, but at no time are the stakes not matched with it. While THE AVENGERS worked on a colossal scale, you weren’t supposed to care too much about the millions of deaths. THE WINTER SOLDIER is a more focused, intense, and realistic film that never allows its audience to forget about individual people or their lives.
Best of all, Cap and Black Widow get to kick some serious ass in this film. When surrounded by superpowers, their talents can be underwhelming; but when you put Steve Rogers and his shield up against terrorist pirates or undercover agents, he’s completely unstoppable. Cap is on his own a lot, up against some major conspiracies, and you never have a problem rooting for him or knowing he’ll pull through, because that’s what he does. It’s almost more admirable than being able to blast someone with a laser or strike them with lightning. And Chris Evans plays Captain America like he was born to. I really can’t imagine anyone else in the role, at this point. He manages to tread that line between national icon and regular dude, between being a good person and willing to beat people up.
I’ve read some reports that claim that the Winter Soldier himself feels extraneous to the story, but I disagree. I actually saw more of him than I expected to. In the original comic book, most of his history is given through a file folder that Steve Rogers obtains—photographs, mission reports, and classified information. In the film, I was surprised to see an in-continuity scene depicting the process of Winter Soldier’s frequent brainwashing. There’s also an original scene involving a clandestine visit to Alexander Pierce’s kitchen that is absolutely terrifying—and more true to the original comic than if they’d lifted it straight from the pages. Sebastian Stan doesn’t even have to speak very much—his eyes do all the acting, and it’s glorious.
This film also has some of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen. Cap and Winter Soldier punch each other a lot, and it might be easy to get bored with that, but the choreography (not to mention the emotional weight) is totally spectacular, and when the Winter Soldier’s mask finally comes off and his identity is revealed, it feels earned rather than played for the twist.
I’ve often found it difficult to buy Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, but in this film she really grew on me. She’s less eye candy, more mysterious; less deadly-serious, more prone to regular human interaction (her constant suggestions of potential “dates” for Steve is one of the film’s running jokes, and it works every time). Anthony Mackie has a consistently marvelous screen presence as Sam Wilson—you are as relieved to see him as Steve Rogers is. And the supporting cast falls into their roles as naturally as a slip-on shoe: Samuel L. Jackson is a sympathetic and yet biting Nick Fury; Robert Redford is simultaneously dashing and creepy; even Emily VanCamp drums up some drama as Agent 13 (known to comic fans, of course, as Sharon Carter).
The nods and inside jokes are numerous, and I won’t list all of them here; but suffice it to say that there are enough name-drops (“Stephen Strange”), cameos (Brubaker! Garry Shandling!), and general pop culture trivia (WARGAMES, anyone?) to keep even the cynics entertained. (And Frank Grillo is going to make a damn good Crossbones.)
If I have any complaints, they are minor. Some of the dialogue is trite, and I would have liked to see more Falcon being, well, Falcon (although I’m so glad they ignored the whole “talking to birds” thing). In fact—and this is a biggie—the movie actually fixed some complaints I’ve always had about the original “Winter Soldier” comic, as much as I adore it, and that’s something I can’t say for any other comic-based movie.
I hate to keep making this point, but I must emphasize once again that I never cared for Captain America as a character until Ed Brubaker’s run began with the “Winter Soldier” story arc in 2005, and THE WINTER SOLDIER truly feels like a nod to what Brubaker did. It’s not a strict adaptation, but the tone, themes, and gravity are all there, giving dimensions to Cap’s character that hardly existed in so many flag-waving stories beforehand. And the Winter Soldier himself—teased to appear in many more movies—is a damn fine legacy to have on the Marvel world. 9.5/10