Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This intense political-thriller is one of the best films Marvel has ever produced, with amazing action, a few surprising twists, and high emotional stakes.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an awesome mix of a superhero movie and a political thriller. The story follows Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) struggling to maintain his moral code in a cynical modern world, full of drones and government surveillance. As tension rises between him and S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), he must decide what type of man he wants to be, while facing a new, yet somehow familiar threat: the titular Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The movie is not just hugely entertaining, but also has interesting commentary on the state of politics and security in our world today.

Marvel's greatest decision was to hire brothers Joe and Anthony Russo (Community and Arrested Development) to direct the sequel. Taking over for Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III) who helmed the first one, they bring a comedic sensibility and a keen eye for action. Fans of Community will already know of their skills, as the Russo brothers directed the classic paintball episode, and there is even a quick cameo by Community cast members thrown in. Each action scene, even simple one-on-one fights, are brutal, expertly shot, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch. The Russo's desire to use as many practical effects as possible and to limit the amount of CGI really pays off, as everything feels tactical, and the stunts and car chases look real. I found myself on the edge of my seat on numerous occasions, one of which was the inspired elevator fight where the Captain has to take on at least fifteen men singlehandedly.

In the wake of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, Cap 2 smartly focuses its scope inward rather than outward, narrowing in on a character study of Rogers, while throwing in enough familiar faces to keep things interesting. Despite the amazing action, some of the most moving scenes are conversations between two characters. 

While he has expressed desire to retire from acting when he is done playing Captain America to focus on directing, Chris Evans does a great job in the role. In addition to physically looking the part of a super soldier, he brings a sense of optimism, and at one point delivers a cheesy patriotic speech with enough energy to genuinely move me. Scarlett Johansson kicks ass once again as Agent Natasha Romanoff, and Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson (a.k.a The Falcon) has lots of funny banter with Evans and some very cool action scenes. As expected, Samuel L. Jackson plays the hell out of the Fury, who is basically the glue holding the Marvel Cinematic Universe together. While the heroes are all complex and interesting characters, the villains felt slightly underdeveloped to me.

Cap 2 is as much a sequel to 2012's The Avengers as it is to 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger. Although the movie should still be entertaining for newcomers, context and familiarity with the lesser known characters elevates the moviegoing experience. I suggest you watch or re-watch both films before seeing this one.

One of the biggest criticisms of Marvel movies is that they often lack satisfying climactic battles. The Avengers solved this by devoting the last 40 minutes of the film to an immensely destructive battle in New York. Thankfully this film follows suit, offering a thrilling third act battle that not only has great action, but also raises the emotional stakes. My only qualm with the ending is that it wraps things up in a slightly underwhelming way, which focused mostly on setting up the third Captain America film (thankfully set to be directed once again by the Russo brothers). Also, be sure to stay all the way through the credits. As one could reasonably expect, there is a scene mid-credits that teases what is to come, and a less important, but still worthwhile scene after they finish rolling.

One of the issues with Marvel's model is that it can make the individual films feel insignificant, as if they are only commercials for the next movie, rather than a stand-alone, complete story. Cap 2 mostly alleviates this by placing the focus on Roger's emotional journey to make sense of a new, cynical world. Still, the events of the movie seem to hold huge ramifications for future Marvel movies, perhaps more so than any previous film in the larger franchise. I'm excited to see where Captain America's journey goes from here.

Overall, Cap 2 is a hugely entertaining, tense political thriller that happens to feature a likable superhero that stands as one of Marvel's best films to date. Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens on April 4, 2014.

Movie Rating: 9/10 Stars