It's rare that sequels exceed their predecessors in quality. Rare enough, in fact, that it's always a question for debate, even among die hard fans. I'd have no problem saying that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a superior film than STAR WARS, but there are those who feel differently, and can back that opinion up. Maybe "superior" or "better" aren't applicable, especially when defining something so vast as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shaping up to be. Each new film is a different facet of an epic undertaking, and as such should probably be visited on their own terms. It almost feels that all the Marvel films so far are more of a symphonic movement than just one ongoing story. It's a larger piece, but each film adds its own melody to the work.
I may be waxing rhapsodic when it comes to reviewing CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER; it is, after all, ostensibly a superhero movie, another entry into a genre that has been exhaustively explored these past few years. But when a movie is just that good, when a movie hits what it aims at every single time, recognition must be paid. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER isn't just a great superhero movie - it's a great movie, full of intrigue, politics, wonder, terrific action, and characters that leap off the screen and the page. Its filmic ancestry comes straight out of 1970s films like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR or THE FRENCH CONNECTION, but it also draws from sources as disparate as James Bond, COLOSSEUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, and THE PARALLAX VIEW. But CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER fits perfectly into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both as its own story and as a piece of the larger symphony.
There have been many comparisons of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER to the political thrillers of old, and while CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER shares that DNA, it's also as spirited as the most action-packed comic book. It's a more grounded movie than, say, THE AVENGERS, or the THOR films, but once it hits its comic book stride, it never looks back. There are setpieces as big as any in the previous Marvel films, and the introduction of characters and ideas that are as wonderfully corny as some of the sillier moments of Marvel Comics. That's not a criticism at all; this movie isn't afraid to embrace its comic roots when it serves the story, and through sheer charm and will manages to make the more preposterous moments of the plot work remarkably well. This gives CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER a real sense of camaraderie and fun, even when the film dips its toe into more serious themes.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has been busy since the attack on New York - heading on mission after mission for SHIELD. But Rogers is becoming increasingly jaded about his work, and even his partnership with Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) begins to grate him a little. There's obviously a bigger play at stake that Black Widow and Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) aren't telling Captain America about, and in addition, Rogers still feels very much like a man outside of time. Still, Rogers forms new friendships and bonds, especially with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former soldier who also works with returning veterans coping with post-traumatic stress.
Suddenly, Nick Fury is attacked, and Rogers decides to investigate what happened. New SHIELD Director Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) isn't too keen on Rogers' investigations into an increasingly militarized SHIELD, and soon, Captain America is on the run. Even as a mysterious assassin called the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) appears in pursuit, Rogers discovers that some wars are never finished, and that the past isn't as past as Captain America once believed.
Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, at first glance, wouldn't seem to be the directors for this kind of movie, but their work on COMMUNITY and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT have trained them well for a movie of this scope and magnitude. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is almost two and a half hours long, but it never feels it; this story moves at a brisk pace, fast enough to keep the audience engaged at every level, and steady enough to give characters time to breathe and the plot time to thicken, as it were. They also expertly handle the tonal shifts that the script, by CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely based on the successful issue run of Ed Brubaker, offers.
While the film touches on current events, it never stops too long to smell the thematic flowers. The film has atmosphere and weight, but they do not distract from the adventure. There are action setpieces that are as thrilling as these movies get. Captain America may not be fighting an alien invasion this time, but he is fighting something just as dangerous and even more insidious. If there's one complaint about the direction, it's that the Russos tend to use a bit of the shakycam, but it always helps when each sequence is as well choreographed as these are. The lense may shake too much at times, but what's in front of it is still terrific.
Chris Evans' portrayal of Steve Rogers is even better here than in previous outings - he manages to get the intrinsic nature of Captain America without diving too much into sentimentality or treacle. Captain America is an inspiring figure because, for lack of a better term, he walks it like he talks it. His integrity is steadfast, and this informs the movie with a sense of nobility. It's unfortunate that Evans is supposedly retiring from acting, because he's quite good at it (if you haven't seen his performance in a little movie called PUNCTURE, get thee to Netflix as soon as possible - he's terrific). Evans is also surrounded by great work from the rest of the ensemble. Robert Redford makes us remember why he is such a great actor, and I love how he doesn't show all his cards as Alexander Pierce. Samuel L. Jackson gets a lot to do as Nick Fury this time, both in action and in his performance. But he also gives an emotional power to his work here. Scarlett Johannson has great charisma with Evans, and their scenes together are fun to watch.
The heart of the movie belongs to Anthony Mackie, and I'd happily see him in a solo adventure if Marvel is willing to make one. I'm glad we won't be seeing the last of his character in upcoming Marvel movies. A few surprise actors and characters show up that I won't spoil here, and while the identity of the Winter Soldier is apparent to pretty much anyone who reads the comics or the cast list, I will say that that actor does good work as well, bringing a terrific physicality to his fight scenes with Captain America. This is a movie where the heroes' victory is definitely not assured, and the actors' performances help build the intensity.
I don't know quite where to rank CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER among the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films, but it's pretty close to the top. If it doesn't quite reach the heights of THE AVENGERS, it's because that movie offered us images and scenes that fans had been waiting many years to see. But while THE AVENGERS has a rocky beginning, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER has no such detriment. It moves from frame one until post-credits, with a compelling story, the best action sequences so far in a Marvel movie, and characters that we happily root for (or happily hiss and boo at).
At the end of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, the pieces are definitely set for THE AVENGERS 2, and while it'll be fun watching Joss Whedon getting the band back together, I'm also thankful that Marvel gives these individual characters the attention they deserve. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is the rare sequel that outdoes the original, but if it wasn't for that solid base of the first film, it's doubtful that this sequel would have gotten off the ground as well as it does. As each filmic piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe falls into place, I feel extraordinarily lucky to be able to see the larger tapestry take shape. We live in great times for geek cinema, my friends. Enjoy it while it lasts, and let's hope it lasts a very long time.