“I told you… SHIELD doesn’t negotiate.”
In the two years since The Avengers saved the world (but totally wrecked Grand Central Station), everybody’s returned to their old lives. Iron Man took a vacation to Tennessee, Thor went back home, and The Hulk returned to not being in movies. For the most part, everything returned to normal. For everybody involved, the status quo was reset to square one.
Well, for almost everybody.
Trapped seventy years away from the world he fought for in WWII, Steve Rogers, Captain America (Chris Evans), takes a job as a SHIELD agent and fights freedom’s enemies… Or is it just Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) enemies? There are no Nazis to fight, no great battle of good versus evil upon which the fate of the western world hinges. Instead, there are preemptive strike plans to wipe out threats before they can even establish themselves as such (think America’s drone program on steroids). While the moral ambiguity and Machiavellian sensibilities may be perfectly within the wheelhouse of Nick Fury and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), they are not the tactics which Captain America used to defeat Hydra all those years ago. If anything, the SHIELD of the 21st century resembles Hydra, that dreaded splinter faction of Hitler’s Nazi empire, far more than Cap is comfortable with. Then, just the tension begins to mount, a shocking attempt is made on Nick Fury’s life, forcing Cap and Black Widow to embark on a mission to clear their boss’s name, kick some butt, and maybe even save the day.
This backdrop sets the stage for a film that doesn’t just break all the rules of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); it’s playing with a whole other rulebook. The CGI is mostly kept to a safe minimum, and as a result, the action hits harder than ever before. The script takes real risks with established characters, and the whole film plays more like a high-tension spy flick, a combination of Where Eagles Dare and Metal Gear Solid, than typical superhero fare. Marvel Studios has always prided itself on being a genre blender as a way to remain fresh (Cap2 is the eighth film in the Universe, after all) and The Winter Soldier has elements of literally everything that came before, coming together in a cohesive whole that feels more complete and timely than even The Avengers. That film was a classically-told story about a team coming together; The Winter Soldier is a modern and socially relevant tale about discovering that the glue that’s been holding all the pieces in place might be coming loose and the impossible question of what can be done about it. As the years pass, The Avengers’s Chitauri aliens will look less and less believable, while the comparatively under-stated effects of The Winter Soldier will better pass the test of time.
Starring several cast members from The Avengers (Jackson, Johansson, etc) and a few surprises from elsewhere in the MCU, The Winter Soldier is easily the biggest Marvel blockbuster since that 2012 masterpiece. The most publicized ‘new’ character is the titular Winter Soldier. However, apart from being mysterious and deadly, he’s not elaborated upon nearly as much as one would expect, considering his namesake being the title of the film. Instead, he’s presented as a dangerously unprecedented threat, but only a cog in the machine of what the film is really about. Also new to the series are Anthony Mackie as Falcon and Frank Grillo as Brock Rumlow (sorry True Believers, but he’s never once referred to as Crossbones) who both add a strong degree of physicality to their roles, as well as far more soul than they needed, but as much as fans know they deserve. The most prestigious new addition to the cast is Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the face of SHIELD to its Global Council of overseers. The script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, makes nearly every single character feel special, unique, and integral to the story. If there are any short straws, it’s The Winter Soldier himself, but that fits his character just perfectly, and Emily Van Camp’s Agent 13, who is supposed to be mysterious, but comes across more as a plot device whose character development was probably left on the cutting room floor.
More so than any of the other MCU films, The Winter Soldier feels grounded in a realistic world. Nobody wears a CGI suit of armor, shoots lightning from their fingertips, or can pick up a truck with one hand. Cap isn’t strong enough to toss a bad guy into orbit, but seamless stuntwork and excellent fight choreography give his fighting prowess a visceral quality that was lacking in The Avengers; we see Cap not just as a charismatic leader, but with the combat ability to back it up. His kicks send opponents flying with a powerful force, and he’s definitely been brushing up on his parkour, to say the least. CGI setpieces, while still omnipresent, are more subtle and usually sit behind the action, rather than making up the bulk of it; that being said, when the impossibly huge effects do dominate the screen, they rival and maybe even surpass anything The Avengers brought to the table. The score, by Henry Jackman (Kick-Ass) feels a little more dangerous, a lot less traditional, and is punctuated by rumbling guitars and a freshness akin to Bryan Tyler’s Iron Man 3 score.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have crafted a perfectly-paced thriller, with enough intrigue, action, humor, and heart to satisfy any fan of the MCU. The film never drags, and it uses every second to advance either the characters, the tension, or the plot. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the perfect example (the only example?) of how to make a sequel to two vastly different films of different genres in a completely different genre than either of those preceding films.