A nifty little spy thriller wrapped up in a $175 million Marvel Superhero extravaganza, Captain America: The Winter Soldier bests the first Captain America film in most storytelling regards – including plot, pacing, and story development – but misses that movie’s nostalgic comic book vibe; this is a first-rate Marvel adaptation, even though it’s never quite as fun as it ought to be.
As with the past couple Marvel follow-ups (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World), the film takes place at some time after the alien invasion of New York City in The Avengers, with that monumental event only briefly mentioned in passing as the filmmakers attempt to re-adjust to some level of relative normalcy.
Chris Evans returns as Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, who finally gets a full film to himself to adjust to modern-day life after being unfrozen after 60 years and pulling together a team of fellow superheroes to battle aliens when we last saw him.
But the fish-out-of-water stuff is kept to a minimum; “Just listen to Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man,” war veteran and budding buddy Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) tells him. “Tells you everything you need to know.” Rogers jots it down in his pocket notebook, below Moon Landing, Berlin Wall, Disco, and Steve Jobs (Star Wars, meanwhile, has already been crossed out. He’s gotten to the important stuff.)
Minutes into the film, we’re already into our first big action sequence as the Captain and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), along with a team of SHIELD agents, attempts to retrieve a ship that has been hijacked by pirates; thoughts of Captain Phillips are quickly dashed as Cap races across the deck, silently knocking baddies overboard without missing a step.
This is the first of four big action set pieces that punctuate the otherwise low-key proceedings, each of which gets bigger and louder until an explosive, debris-filled climax lights up the screen. At that point, as starships explode around him, Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce glances out the window and mutters “what a waste…” Hah! My sentiments exactly.
Each of these blockbuster films has been trying to out-do the last when it comes to all-out action climaxes, and while Winter Soldier is no slouch (it beats Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 in that regard), what’s the point? How much bigger and louder and more sustained can these sequences get and still not matter when it comes to overall film quality? Transformers 3 is still the gold standard for big action finales, but I’d never recommend sitting through the rest of that film to get to it.
There’s also a pretty neat little plotline in Captain America 2, involving shady goings-on at SHIELD, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who gets a little more to do in this film than usual, and Redford’s corporate-minded government official Pierce. We all know where this is going, but Redford lends the film some much-needed gravitas in an otherwise throwaway role; he may just be cashing a paycheck, but his presence alone is enough to keep you interested.
There’s also the Winter Soldier of the title, a top-level assassin with a metal arm, and a shady figure from the Captain’s past whose mystery will unravel if you scroll down the IMDb cast list. But the most menacing baddie here is the one with the least flashy role: Frank Grillo (The Grey) is wonderfully slimy as a random SHIELD agent out to bring down Cap; I was pleasantly surprised to see where the film takes his character by the end. Toby Jones also shows up, kinda, as Arnim Zola, the Nazi scientist from the first film.
But while the story is solidly and efficiently delivered, that’s not why you’ve come to see Captain America 2. Along with that all-out climax, there’s two dynamite action sequences in the middle of the film: the first an SUV assault scene (with echoes of Clear and Present Danger) as a team of faux police attempt to get to Nick Fury, entombed in his super-car, and the second a big, loud, and especially well-shot and edited highway chase & gunfight between most of the principal characters.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo were an unusual choice to helm this comic book sequel, but ultimately a successful one: while early sequences are heavy on the shaky-cam and quick-edit, they eventually find a nice groove – later action scenes are expertly delivered. And a familiar story is well-told, managing to grab and maintain attention despite being overlong; at 136 minutes long, the film is among the longest Marvel films (only the all-star assembly The Avengers tops it, at 143 minutes).
The directors previously made the forgettable Owen Wilson vehicle You, Me, and Dupree back in 2006 before turning to TV; their show Community, by the way, is one of the best comedies on US network TV (star Danny Pudi makes a cameo appearance here). You wouldn’t expect these guys to be so adept at turning in a Captain America movie, but hey, they’ve done it. Congrats.
Captain America 2 is now the ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following three Iron Man movies, two Thors, an Incredible Hulk, the first Captain film, and The Avengers. You know what you’re getting into with all of these movies, and Winter Soldier delivers the goods as expected.
Be sure to stick around both during and after the credits for two additional scenes, one of which (possibly) introduces a character that will feature in next summer’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron.