Cast: Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce)
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Before I saw Captain America: The Winter Solider, I was so done with superheroes. So. DONE. And not even because I didn’t enjoy the most recent installments in Marvel’s (attempt to take over the) Cinematic Universe. Rather, I felt constantly bombarded with superhero-related news — Batman vs. Superman casting freakouts, Ant-Man announcements, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series, inescapable Spidey 2 promotions, and so on. It was too much.
So as I settled in for CA:TWS, I prepared to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes watching the next chapter of Steve Rogers’ life unfold in a comfortably predictable way. I counted on at least a few sarcastic one-liners from supporting characters, knew that Nick Fury would continue to be as pissed off as ever, figured there’d be at least one big twist plus an over-the-top “battle sequence” finale, and of course planned to stick around during the closing credits. I was right on all accounts, but there were a few things I didn’t see coming. Like the intense sadness I felt for the title character and what he represents. Or how my attention could still be held rapt by old-school hand-to-hand combat . . . in an elevator, of all places. Or that some of the scenes I’d remember most were the quiet, reflective ones. Yes, this film is still a sequel and it’s still a superhero movie. But it’s also part character study and part conspiracy thriller, which makes it superior to its by-the-numbers brethren such as Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, and Thor: The Dark World.
We’re reintroduced to Steve Rogers/Captain America through a bird’s-eye view of his daily supersoldier-fast runs around our nation’s capital, during which he repeatedly shouts “On your left!” to an exasperated fellow jogger who will soon become one of his only friends. I’ve always found Anthony Mackie a welcome presence in any film, no matter the genre, and here he lived up to my expectations as Sam Wilson, an Afghanistan war veteran who has a high-level understanding of what Rogers is going through. I mean, no one can really relate to being a World War II hero who’s frozen for decades and then reanimated in the present day, but Wilson does know a thing or two about the overwhelming loneliness soldiers can feel upon returning home from the front lines, and that shared experience helps him to quickly form a bond with Cap that becomes crucial when the you-know-what hits the fan.
But it takes director-brothers Anthony and Joe Russo a little too long to get to that part, and like in so many other action movies, the final reveal of What Exactly Is Going On is unnecessarily convoluted and involves too many bit characters. After Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow) zips Rogers away from the park and onto a pirated S.H.I.E.L.D. ship in need of rescue, it seems as though there’s a clear group of bad guys to be taken down, as well as the possibility of a sketchy side mission. But then when Cap reunites with the perpetually “not having it” Fury, he gets a glimpse at something much bigger: a project designed to preemptively take out “hostiles” (as in, people) before they’ve done anything wrong. Think Minority Report with millions of lives at stake. And this is all being run by S.H.I.E.L.D.? Something about that doesn’t sit right with Cap. But Cap is admittedly confused, as evidenced by his hilarious list of things he needs to catch up on, which includes everything from Thai food to Nirvana. Yes, the world has changed a lot since World War II, and Cap is not sure of his place anymore. He’s also not sure if he can continue to trust his gut or his moral compass. So when his own organization turns on him and he discovers his very personal connection to the real enemy, he’s understandably shaken.
This sense of dread, this undercurrent of sadness and displacement, is what I liked most about The Winter Soldier. Perhaps it’s because only days prior to seeing the film, I interviewed my grandmother on her 90th birthday. I was fascinated by her memories of the ’40s. “How did people feel when certain supplies were rationed?” “What was it like to have almost all of the men gone?” “Were you constantly scared?” “Do you think something like that could ever happen again?” I asked. (Side note on that last question: her prediction is something not far off from the plot of the TV series Revolution.) So I guess I was feeling a heightened sense of empathy when I watched Steve Rogers visit the last of his friends from back in the day and search for meaning in the Smithsonian exhibit dedicated to his life.
What took me out of the moment, however, were the several other S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives that popped up again and again. I kept wondering if I was supposed to remember who all these people were, or if some characters were from the TV show I don’t watch, or if I was missing something because I don’t keep up with the Marvel comics. In other words, to me it seemed obvious that the Russos — as well as screenwriters Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely — felt obligated to include certain scenes and characters because they were part of Marvel’s Master Plan instead of actually being necessary for the story at hand. Thankfully I didn’t get that sense too often. And Robert Redford’s mere presence (he plays a S.H.I.E.L.D. executive and World Security Council member) helped make The Winter Solider feel less like a Marvel superhero movie and more like a high-stakes thriller.
So the majority of the time I ping-ponged between being impressed by the film’s more soulful scenes and wowed by its action sequences. Steve Rogers and Captain America will never be as effortlessly cool as, say, Tony Stark and Iron Man. But once you get past those alarmingly sized pecs and airbrushed-looking pretty-boy face, you’ll find a surprising amount of depth. A superhero in the truest sense of the word, who just wants to do the right thing because it’s the right thing. That the Russos (and, of course, Evans) were able to capture such virtuousness on the screen and sustain it throughout the film is what both elevated Captain America: The Winter Solider and saved it from being another fun to watch yet ultimately forgettable and interchangeable superhero movie. Instead, it’s my favorite of the Marvel films since the original Iron Man.
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