“The Winter Soldier is proof positive of the flexibility of the Marvel model: they’re not only able to deliver multiple movies that feel distinct and yet part of the same universe, but multiple movies in the same series that allow for dramatic shifts in tone and genre.”
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Release date: April 4, 2014 (USA)
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Redford, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson
Running time: 136 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
Captain America: The Winter Soldier might not have the heart of 2011’s The First Avenger. That would be impossible: Captain America: The First Avenger was approximately 75% heart, and 25% Hydra-smashing action.
But then, The First Avenger was a World War II fantasy about what happens when we allow the best of ourselves: bravery, humility, charity – to shine through. The Winter Soldier, by contrast, is a thriller about what happens when we let our darkest and most desperate needs to feel secure override our basic rights.
The Winter Soldier also features a brainwashed, unfrozen cyborg assassin, so don’t go thinking Marvel’s gone too off course in their second Cap film.
Striking a very delicate balance between paranoid, 70’s-style thriller (complete with perfectly-coiffed Robert Redford) and costumed spectacle (Cap wears the costume twice by my count), The Winter Soldier sees superspy boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) taken out, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) on the run, attempting to ferret out the poison at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D. For the most part, the directing team of brothers Anthony and Joe Russo manage it, making The Winter Soldier feel like a spy movie set in the Marvel Universe.
You can lay a large part of that at the feet of Evans who – across three movies has figured out how to make a character that could have easily been corny feel genuine, and vital. He’s a 280-lb super soldier created (and still being used, we see here) as a piece of wartime propaganda, but we get to see the good and decent human being inside who struggles with his loyalty to his country and the at-all-costs mentality of S.H.I.E.L.D. If you can pinpoint his journey here, it’s about a soldier learning when to stop following orders and start following his conscience – a parallel hinted at with the amnesiac Winter Soldier whose identity has been spoiled pretty much since Cap 2 was announced, but I’ll keep mum about it here.
In fact, if there’s one major failing to The Winter Soldier, it’s the handling of the assassin’s identity, which really owes more to the marketing of the film. Although he’s the one spending the most time handing Cap his butt in the many wonderfully-staged hand-to-hand/knife-to-hand/gun-to-hand fight scenes, he’s somewhere around like a third or fourth-level antagonist to Cap. Basically, he’s a silent henchman until somewhere in the third act where his face is revealed, tying the character to an earlier flashback. Sebastian Stan does fine work later in the film conveying how broken the Winter Soldier is after years of mental manipulation, but that’s after an hour and change of him simply being a wordless, faceless badass.
Similarly problematic is the story hand-waving that would allow anyone to believe that something like Project Insight – whose deployment provides the ticking-clock backbone of The Winter Soldier – would actually be allowed to move forward without all of the world’s governments flipping out. Imagine the conversation with Russia (or even China, who is represented as a member of the S.H.I.E.L.D. security council) giving the go ahead to a trio of nigh-invulnerable Helicarriers with dozens of murder cannons and pinpoint accuracy that can pointed at every country on the planet.
It’s the only time that the film could pejoratively be described as a “comic book movie,” given that it finds ways to make everything from French mercenary and martial artist Batroc the Leaper (former UFC champion Georges St. Pierre) to Anthony Mackie’s The Falcon work. And here, this is the key part: The Winter Soldier isn’t embarrassed by these elements: Mackie’s character is still a guy with cool mechanical wings, Arnim Zola is still a deliciously weird mix of crazy ex-Nazi melded with CRT TVs, and at no point does the script feel compelled to wink at us or point out how bizarre any of this is.
I’m seeing a lot of other critics losing their shit over The Winter Soldier and I can’t really speak to that. It’s a very good action movie with a slightly too-simple plot at its center (I can’t get over the ridiculousness of Project Insight), and the big softie in me responded in a bigger way to the earnestness of The First Avenger. Still, it’s proof positive of the flexibility of the Marvel model: they’re not only able to deliver multiple movies that feel distinct and yet part of the same universe, but multiple movies in the same series that allow for dramatic shifts in tone and genre.