NOTE: THIS IS THE NON-SPOILER REVIEW! IF YOU WANT THE SPOILER-FILLED REVIEW, CLICK HERE.
“Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?”
As a Marvel fan, I’ve been waiting for this sequel ever since the first one came out. I initially had doubts about Chris Evans playing Captain America and about the writers’ ability to adapt him to a modern audience. I was totally wrong. Captain America: The First Avenger became one of my favorite films in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So, how does the sequel compare?
As you may know already, this movie has a very different style and tone. It’s darker and employs less humor than the first (which is odd, given the war setting of the first movie!), and has a more complex plotline. There’s an intentional juxtaposition from the first movie where the heroes and villains were obvious to this movie about secrets and lies and betrayal among friends. So don’t go into The Winter Soldier expecting a rehash of The First Avenger.
It’s also not really a Winter Soldier movie. It’s a spy movie that happens to have the Winter Soldier in it. I feel like using the subtitle is a misnomer – possibly even a bit of marketing fraud.
So, what is it, then?
It’s been compared to an international spy thriller, which could be the most accurate comparison. Steve and Natasha spend a lot of time on the road in civvies trying to hunt down secrets and ferret out traitors. There’s a mystery to solve and a big, scary organization chasing them. And the fate of the world is at stake, of course, but threatened by our own human nature.
This plotline is the most relevant and modern that Marvel has done so far, too. It debates the merits of a surveillance state, of freedom vs security, and creating an ultra-connected world. It questions the morality of the ends justifying the means while also building on Iron Man 3’s notion of accidentally creating your own enemy.
It’s also a great action film. From the opening fight scenes on board a ship to the climactic battle in the air, kudos has to be given to the stunt crew and fight coordinators. Cap is given some excellent and worthy opponents, and the fight work is brutal and amazing. Cap is a true supersoldier in these fight scenes and shines better than he did in The Avengers.
But there’s still a lot of heart in this movie. It services the aftermath of Steve being frozen for 70 years and his adjustment to a world full of grey areas. There’s a fantastic partnership between Cap and Black Widow that’s a highlight of the movie. His friendship with Sam Wilson is organic and fun.
Speaking of heart, let’s talk characters specifically.
Anthony Mackie has a bit of a tough job in this movie because he’s coming in late to the game. He’s surrounded by established MCU characters and actors with whom the audience already has an investment. But he holds himself up well and gets a fair amount of screen-time. To be sure, Black Widow and Cap are the real stars of this film, but Sam gets his moments. He provides a nice third point in their triangle of different perspectives.
Oh, and the wings totally work! Iron Man might even be jealous…
The Winter Soldier himself does a good job with a lot of action and not a huge amount of emotional screen time. I loved his fighting scenes, but he’s also good at expressing his inner turmoil without much dialogue.
Scarlett Johansson continues to rock as Black Widow. I was also hesitant about her casting, but she was given some great material in The Avengers and benefits from good writing again. This movie isn’t about her, but she and Cap are a fabulous double-act. She also proves herself worthy of having her own movie. Pretty please, Marvel?
So how does it work as both a sequel and part of the larger universe?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is both a blessing and a curse to the movies. It gives each movie a built-in audience and a built-in backstory. But, as many noticed about Iron Man 2, each movie must also serve the larger universe and tie into or lead into other films. In this movie, it ran the gamut from simple name-dropping to using other MCU characters to devoting plot time to setting up other stories.
The universe-building wasn’t particularly obnoxious, though, so I didn’t feel like the MCU was intruding too much. And on the flip side, this storyline really could not have happened without SHIELD and its characters having already been established in other movies. I think this means that, aside from The Avengers, this is the movie that has benefited most from the MCU in general. (Of course, it also has one of the biggest effects on the MCU itself, so kudos to Marvel for being willing to shake up the toybox! )
Like Steve, the movie hasn’t forgotten where it came from, either. It might be a part of the larger picture, but it’s still a sequel of The First Avenger. I’d recommend re-watching the first movie, but the sequel does provide a bit of an info-dump to bring the audience back up to date. And pay attention if you need to, because the first movie is actually very relevant to this second one.
So, what’s my final verdict?
Like its predecessor, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a solid, exciting movie on its own merits. It has some of the best action bits of all the Marvel movies so far (with a welcome focus on practical effects). The plot is complex but not overly difficult to follow, and it focuses on things our modern world is facing.
Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson make a great team and get good support from the rest of the cast. While some emotional elements might not get a lot of screen-time, we’re promised more emotional payoff in the third film.
Overall, there’s a good balance between thrilling action and character work, much like the first Cap movie as well. If you liked that movie, chances are you’ll enjoy the further adventures of Captain Rogers in the 21st Century!
PS: Stay for both the mid-credit scene and the post-credit scene. The first alludes to Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the second sets the stage for Captain America 3.
AGAIN: THIS IS THE NON-SPOILER REVIEW! IF YOU WANT THE SPOILER-FILLED REVIEW, CLICK HERE.