‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ Review: It’s Marvel’s Universe, We’re Just Living In It
When the first Captain America movie came out in 2011, the character seemed like a tough sell. His earnest patriotism felt dated to many and was alienating to some.
Marvel Studios has made a habit of landing tough sells. Neither Iron Man nor Thor were the obvious calls that they look like in retrospect, while the plan to tie the characters together in The Avengers was an ambitious gamble. Yet if Marvel ever has any doubts, it never shows in their movies. As Captain America returns to the screen in The Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios has never looked more confident.
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, from a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier may be Marvel’s most robust movie to date, and the movie that most feels like it inhabits the Marvel Universe. Resurrections, betrayals, scale; villains and henchmen; conspiracies and theatrics; characters wandering in with their own secret origin stories in their back pockets. It’s superhero comics writ large.
This is an immersive Marvel Universe, one where a character can mention in passing a name from the comics – one that the movies never mentioned before – and fans will be both reassured by the familiarity and thrilled by the promise. As fans, we know this universe. And we’re excited to be here.
Let me be clear; this is a review from the point of view of someone who is excited to be here. I’ve read a lot of reviews in the past few years from critics who want this whole superhero thing to be over. These criitics watch these movies with a sketched article already in their heads about how the superhero trend is over, and they’re just waiting for a reason to print it. (It’s a find-and-replace version of the article about how the “young adult novel” movie trend is over – these trend pieces are an easy paycheck.)
I’m not someone who wants the superhero movie trend to be over. Not yet, and not ever. I’ve been reading Marvel superhero stories for about as long as I could read; it makes me giddy to go see a Captain America movie and see trailers for X-Men and Spider-Man films in front of it. I want these movies to succeed, so much so that it almost seems like a conflict of interest to write a review. (I think I’ve shown, though, that I can call out a failure even in something I want to be good.)
So this is a review for people like me who have no interest in the “how many superhero movies?” hand-wringing. This is a review for people who want to know if Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a satisfying addition to the expanding canon of movies we never thought we’d actually get to see in a million years.
The answer is yes. A most assured yes. Captain America; The Winter Soldier leaps with both feet into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the experience is exhilarating. This movie commits to its own truth, confident in the knowledge that one doesn’t need to apologize for the genre or make excuses. People paid to see amazing fights, weird science, beautiful people, and grand ideas; so that’s what they get. (On two occasions characters commit break-ins off-screen, because break-ins are now too mundane a concept for a superhero universe!)
I should stress that the fights are amazing – possibly the best we’ve seen in a superhero movie to date. Of course, the camera whips around at relentless speed like it’s trying to shake the audience off, but even in spite of that, there is a surprising clarity about how the characters position themselves; how each of them moves and fights in his or her own way. Time and again the movie presents dynamic poses that could have been torn from a comics page. The fight choreography is strikingly inventive, and the movie achieves an impressive balance between showing us characters with unnatural strength and speed and still making the impact of their movement feel weighty and real. Every punch lands.
This is a movie about fighting. After the events of Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, Steve Rogers/Captain America has settled into life as a soldier working for the security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. – though he’s also something of a celebrity and a curiosity. He doesn’t have a secret identity. He doesn’t need one. He’s always Captain America, in or out of the costume.
Like Cap himself, almost everyone he encounters is a veteran. This includes Scarlet Johannson’s Black Widow and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, both comfortable in these roles. Johansson still feels young for someone burdened by a lifetime of guilt, but this is the first time I’ve really been convinced by her as a hyper-capable secret agent. Both she and Jackson get plenty of opportunity to show off their super-fu; The Winter Soldier is almost as much an ensemble movie as The Avengers was before it, and it does a laudable job of balancing its cast.
Best among the newcomers is Sam Wilson/Falcon, played with abundant charm by Anthony Mackie. Wilson’s work at the Veteran’s Administration provides a direct connection to Caps problem assimilating to the modern world. Cap fights out of duty, but he also fights because it’s almost the only continuity he has to the world he came from. He doesn’t have much of a life, let alone a love life. When the movie takes away the certainty of what Cap is fighting for, he comes untethered.
The character of the Winter Soldier is also a veteran, and if you know the comics (or paid any attention to the movie’s publicity) you know the twist here, but I’ll politely avoid dwelling on it except to say that the Winter Soldier represents the man who keeps on fighting while believing in nothing. He is all soldier and no principle, and the years have worn him down, while Captain America’s principles were perfectly preserved in ice.
This is also a movie about the corrosive effects of power, and specifically American power. Captain America is a hard sell internationally because he represents American exceptionalism, a pseudo-religious idea that tastes like ash in the mouths of everyone else. This movie subverts that pious notion and treats American power as a danger. America is an all-knowing eye-in-the-sky, with all-powerful ability to smite un-American infidels. Captain America is no longer just protecting American freedom, but also its soul, and in doing that he must protect the world from America.
There are some compelling ideas here about fear and freedom that ultimately give way to genre convention. In an otherwise wonderful cameo, a secondary supervillain delivers a monologue of clunky exposition that places all the cynicism of the movie in the hands of pantomime bad guys when it really belongs in the hands of real human failure. But this is a superhero story, and superhero stories always pick a side.
Thankfully in Chris Evans Marvel has a man who can embody the idealism of its central character without making him tiresome or naive. Evans continues to impress as the square-jawed, broad-shouldered hero archetype with sincere heart and humor. Captain America will never be suave, but Chris Evans makes wholesome look good.
Evans also has tremendous chemistry with the rest of the cast – refreshingly non-sexual with Johansson’s Black Widow, and Tumblr will argue at least a little sexual with Sebastian Stan’s Bucky or Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. But it’s a pleasant change — to me, and no doubt to many — to see a superhero movie that’s more bromantic than romantic.
This is also a movie with more than one heroic woman, and more than one heroic black man, and nothing is lost because of these choices, and a tremendous amount is gained.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes the case very plainly that these character could support their own films, with Black Widow specifically supporting a good chunk of this one. She’s a hero here, not a love interest or a sidekick or an incidental piece of eye candy. The movie even ends with a set-up that could easily propel a Black Widow solo story.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier sets up quite a few changes for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which further speaks to Marvel’s confidence. The movie has its own rock solid arc, but it’s part of a longer narrative, and at this point anyone still arguing that movies should never be episodic is clinging to a paradigm that Marvel has turned on its head. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a series, and acknowledging that allows the studio to build its universe in ways that are incredibly fun their intended audience.
In a sense, Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels like we’ve hit “peak Marvel Universe.” Everything is in place now. The Marvel Universe exists on screen as its own complex entity; a source of infinite stories; a place where any character we know from the comics might plausibly be introduced without too much trouble.
Maybe that means we’ve reached a plateau. Maybe the superhero movie can only go downhill from here. Maybe it’s time for all those critics to dust off their thought pieces about how the superhero trends is over.
But it’s not going to be over any time soon, and anyone who doesn’t see that is still catching up to the scale of Marvel’s accomplishment. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not a trend. It’s an industry.
PS. There are two post-credit scenes. The first is clunky, but will tickle some nerd itches. The second is redundant and disappointing.
Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The movie features characters and concepts created by Dick Ayers, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Gene Colan, Kieron Dwyer, Steve Epting, David Finch, Mark Gruenwald, Bob Harras, Don Heck, Stan Lee, Paul Neary, and Don Rico.