Let’s hear it for the underdog. Captain America: The Winter Soldier pulls off quite a feat. Not only does it top its predecessor, but it produces one of the best movies Marvel has put on the screen. Talk about a surprise.
When Captain America: The First Avenger hit screens in 2011, it was pretty much one big yawn. It was a serviceable origin story, but it felt like it was just created in order to be the last piece of the Avengers puzzle. It was a strained opening act for the big show. Well, after Chris Evans popped over for the assembly of superhero all-stars in The Avengers, he’s now back in his own world and he’s raised his game big-time.
Best known for their television comedy work on Arrested Development and Community, directors Anthony and Joe Russo take over the heroic reigns and prove themselves to be one of the strongest to tell a superhero tale. Whoddyathunk? These guys are doing anything but “phoning it in”. Their confidence shines through the film from every action sequence to the quiet character moments. The best superhero movies are the ones where the filmmakers are so comfortable that they become playful with their material in little moments, and that’s exactly what the Russo duo do here.
The story has Steve Rogers on the job for S.H.I.E.L.D. He’s still adjusting to his modern surroundings, but he’s helped by Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the impossibly cool fellow agent who find the humour in any dire situation. Johansson managed to steal The Avengers right out from under all the guys, so it’s a smart move that Marvel brought her charismatic performance to the Captain America world. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is here too, tasking Rogers on his missions, but he also is leading them all to something much bigger. The big picture has a lot to do with Alexander Pierce, played by Robert Redford. Yes, Robert Redford is in a superhero movie. Quite a “get”. Take a moment to enjoy the moment when Redford and Johansson reunite onscreen 16 years after The Horse Whisperer, Johansson’s breakthrough role when she was 14. They are playing slightly different characters here, haha.
There’s also Anthony Mackie as a fellow soldier who becomes a valuable ally, Cobie Smulders back as Maria Hill, Hayley Atwell reprising her role as Peggy Carter in a powerful cameo (and amazing old age makeup), and, in a small role, Emily Van Camp proving that she’s got the presence to be on the big screen too. The large cast of characters around Captain America help off set any blandness that might plague our central hero, but Chris Evans is much more engaged this time around so that’s not a problem.
The action is exciting, the story is unpredictable, and the threat is something far more focused and earthbound than we’ve seen in many superhero movies as of late. The sequel reminded me a lot of the jump in quality we saw from The Bourne Identity to The Bourne Supremacy. Everyone moderately enjoyed the first adventure of Jason Bourne, but it wasn’t until we saw that universe expand in the second installment and Paul Greengrass infused it with his visceral filmmaking that we realized what had been missing the first time around. Same goes here. The Russo duo seemed determined to get their hero out of the “also-ran” slot in the best avenger list.
They’ve created a second installment that is the best thing Marvel has produced since the first Iron Man. This sits alongside Spider-Man 2 and X2: X-Men United. That’s great company to be in, but it’s also a cautionary tale, because both of the third installments in those franchises were godawful. Here’s hoping the Russos buck the trend, but for now, just sit back and enjoy their heroic triumph with The Winter Soldier.