The latest installment in the CAPTAIN AMERICA story reminds us that although the super soldier (still played/embodied by Chris Evans) can make short work out of a cosmically enhanced Red Skull and an invading horde of aliens with his Avengers pals, the greatest threat to mankind is itself. In this case, it's a shadow organization that literally has the means to decide who lives and dies on the planet to make it a more peaceful/docile place to live.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is many things, and most of them work. It's a fit and proper sequel to both CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER and THE AVENGERS; it's a political thriller steeped in healthy fear of technology; it's a fleshed-out, highly watchable expanded episode of the ABC series "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (if you're still watching it, make sure to see this week's episode before you head to THE WINTER SOLDIER for an added bit of fun); it introduces some of the most interesting and useful new characters (good and bad guys) that we've seen in a while—that includes you, Hawkeye; and it's just a magnificently plotted and paced action film that uses Captain America's past as a device to haunt and alter his present and future.
The film opens with what would probably qualify as a typical mission for Cap and a few S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, including his Avengers teammate Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), but before long the world as everyone knows it begins to unravel. There are assassination attempts of major figures, a few hints that the enemy is from within, and even on a smaller, more personal scale, Steve Rogers is still coping with the concept that pretty much everyone he fought beside during World War II is dead. Flashbacks add a nice, somber touch to Rogers' bygone days that were sometimes rough but always seemed black and white when it came to right and wrong. Today, everything and everyone is shady.
Enter Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who is heading a S.H.I.E.L.D. program that Captain America is not in favor of—a surveillance plan that operates more like fear mongering than simple monitoring. Even Cap's friend Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) seems to be reluctantly in favor of it. While the new world confuses our hero, he meets a V.A. hospital counsellor and combat vet Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and the two just instantly connect, having both lost good friends during their respective wars and being uncertain who in the world to trust any longer. Even if Wilson didn't become the fighting partner known as the Falcon, his bond with Rogers is really nicely played and quite moving. But as the scope of an evil plan begins to become clear, Wilson also turns out to be the only man Rogers can trust to fight along side him (or more accurately, above him, thanks to pair of rocked-propelled wings).
By now, you probably some idea of who the film's primary villain, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), actually is, but I won't ruin it for you here if you don't. I will say he's an unexpected figure from Captain America's past, and perhaps one of the few people that Rogers would try to capture without hurting too severely. And THE WINTER SOLDIER reminds us that as much as Captain America is becoming more adept at functioning in the present, he is still very much a creature of the past. It's a wonderful device that provides an emotional base to Cap's plight, while still setting up a large number of epic battle sequences that feel like the most brutal (even a bit bloody at times) we've see in Marvel films.
I'll admit, when I heard that co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo ("Community," "Arrested Development," YOU, ME and DUPRESS; WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD) were at the helm of THE WINTER SOLDIER, I liked the idea in theory but wasn't sure how they'd pull off something this vast. Turns out that by focusing on their strengths in character-driven stories, the more action-driven stuff took care of itself. Everyone gets a moment here, and it never feels forced. We learn that Black Widow has secrets about her life that she'd rather not have out there; she's also attempting to match-make Rogers with a few of the women at S.H.I.E.L.D.; Fury gets at least one major solo action sequence that gives us a better idea than ever before that he's a soldier first and a spy second; and practically every moment with Falcon does a fantastic job expanding our enjoyment of just having him on screen. If he doesn't play some role in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, it will be lesser for it. (WINTER SOLDIER's final moment makes it pretty clear that Falcon will be a major part of the third CAPTAIN AMERICA movie.)
But the most interesting and unexpected moments in THE WINTER SOLDIER are the ones where we witness Captain America slowly lose faith in all that he believed in as a kid from Brooklyn the 1940s. He learns to be distrustful of everyone: the military, government, even Fury (ironically, it's Fury who tells him to trust no one in a particularly critical moment). The film uses Redford's trustworthy demeanor to cleverly keep suspicion off of him for a time, but that doesn't stay true for long. As a result, we actually fear him the most because he seems like a reasonable man; we soon discover this not to be the case.
For true comic book nerds, the film includes a few nice name drops and supporting characters (both familiar and new) scattered throughout that should get you giddy. But what kept me the most fascinated by CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER was how perfectly in synch everything is with what has come before it and within the realm of Captain America as a symbol of a bygone age whose innocence may not have a place in this world. Of the three Phase 2 Marvel films so far, this feel like the most direct sequel to THE AVENGERS, but it also works best as a stand-alone piece. I know some of you are eagerly awaiting the Marvel Cinematic Universe to truly stumble, but I'm afraid you're going to have to wait a little longer because THE WINTER SOLDIER is one of its best chapters.