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Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review

This post was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad. Nathaniel is on vacation but it is reprinted here with their permission

"On the left" Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) warns a stranger as he jogs past him at The Mall in Washington D.C. Moments later, "On the left" again. "On the left" And a wave of quiet laughter starts rolling in the theater as it dawns on the crowd - the super soldier, better known as Captain America, is lapping this man repeatedly. It's the perfect soft joke to open Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's not hilarious, really, but it's warm and good natured... neighborly even. Which could also describe this fish-out-of-water superhero. Steve Rogers isn't of our time. He's 90 years old, actually, but he still looks like Chris Evans because being frozen in a block of ice for 60+ years is apparently it's own kind of fountain of youth. [More...]

That Marvel Studios didn't worry about modernizing the character when they de-thawed him was something of a master stroke. (Warner Bros, who owns the rights to the similarly square Wonder Woman clearly have spent a lot of time worrying about this rather than embracing it, or we'd have long since had an Amazonian blockbuster) That conviction in the character gave us Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) which was an immediate standout in the crowded superhero genre for its 1940s WWII setting (complete with an awesome retro musical number). Neither that conviction nor his character melted with the ice for this sequel. The Captain is still the Captain, through and through, even though he's had a few years to adjust and looks perfectly at home in a smartly modernized costume.

The man who can't keep up with Rogers on the run is a former soldier himself, Sam Wilson (who comic fans will know as the good captain's future sidekick The Falcon) and after a brief chat about tours of duty The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) drives up to collect her fellow Avenger for a top secret S.H.I.E.L.D. mission. And they're off and the story with them as they speed to the first action setpiece and the one after that. They all spin organically from plot points that might fairly be called ridiculous: artificial intelligence, Nazis, cyborgs,  and then at the core shadowy organizations embedded within other shadowy organizations embedded within still other shadowy organizations like some espionage thriller matryoshka doll. 

Captain America shares billing this time with The Winter Soldier, a mythic and extremely formidable assassin who wants all the heroes dead. But why? Or, a better question: who are the heroes? Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) after a very narrow escape from an assassination attempt warns Steve to trust no one which leads to some wonderfully tense sequences with The Black Widow. Scarlett Johansson continues to spin gold in the role, despite that weirdly dull start in Iron Man 2,  slyly suggesting not so much duplicity as the thrill of conveying duplicitousness. Evans and Johansson have great chemistry and one of the welcome surprises of the movie is how much of a Black Widow feature it turns out to be (Hey, if she can't get her own movie...)

And the action sequences. Can you say "upgrade"? Joe and Anthony Russo are the new directors and though their previous filmography does not immediately suggest facility with mega-budget action, they apparently learned from the right movies. They seem to have studied at the school of James Cameron and other masters in that you can actually follow (most of) the fight scenes, where the characters are, what they're doing and how it might affect the other characters in the fight. That's so rare in modern blockbusters when they usually just edit a million tiny little shards of movement together and presume you'll be excited because it's fast and there's very loud music playing. The action here has great stunt work and numerous playfully staged surprises including one absolute knockout sequence in an elevator. It keeps things simple but you don't need visual pyrotechnics for every scene, not when you have a tightening vise of a plot and a really solid hero at the center of it all. Even better, the action scenes feel genuinely dangerous this time now that it's mostly humans fighting; the red caped demi-gods and angry green giants are nowhere to be seen and literally every character here experiences actual pain during all the explosions and shootings and death defying leaps and runs.

On the left and, now, well out front. The Captain America franchise is lapping its (plentiful) superheroic competition. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is easily the best superhero film we've seen since the genre's double peak in 2004 (Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles). And it couldn't have happened to a nicer or more unlikely hero. Chris Evans is on record that he plans to retire from acting when his Marvel Studios contract is up. It's easy to see why playing a stiffly noble and patriotic hero in film after film might be less than artistically satisfying but he's aces in the role regardless. His quiet resolve and lack of actorly tics -- he does just enough to sell each scene and never pushes -- are a perfect fit for the modest personality of this All-American hero who's just trying to be the best man he can be. And, you know, save the world. Again.

Grade: B+/A=
Oscar Chances: The Academy doesn't seem interested in Marvel's Cinematic Universe so it's unlikely even in the technical categories. They didn't even nominated "Star Spangled Man" in Original Song in 2011 which was a real shame.

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Reader Comments (21)

Great to know that you liked it...Is an Under the skin review coming soon ? That's the scarjo performance I'm looking foward to the most this weekend.

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjcram411

"On the left and, now, well out front. The Captain America franchise is lapping its (plentiful) superheroic competition."

It really wasn't until I did my ranking of the Marvel movies on your last post that I realized this was true for me too.

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNate T

Also, if there were any justice, this would be a major competitor in both Sound categories.

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNate T

Nice review, Nathaniel. Great description of the open and what the Russo brothers do with the action sequences.

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErik

Your ignoring of The Dark Knight and Batman Begins is cute, but I'm not buying the attempt to erase their greatness from comic-book movie history. We get it. You like bright colors and goofy humor.

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertony

Batman Begins was solid, but I dunno bout great.

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNate T

I still prefer The Avengers, but this was great stuff. (Nothing from Marvel has touched The Dark Knight though.)

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

You can basically divide recent comic book movies into two worlds: ones in which the superhero mostly suffers inner torment (the Stan Lee tradition) and ones in which the superhero mostly pursues outward vengeance (the Frank Miller tradition).

I prefer the Stan Lee tradition. That's why I'm not much of a fan of the DARK KNIGHT movies.

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErik

I wouldn't put this above The Avengers, but this really was quite good. Very happy for all involved. Though I do wish they kept the Cap's old-fashioned haircut.

April 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

I'd agree that "Winter Soldier" is the best 'non-DC-comics' superhero movie since "Spider-Man 2" and "The Incredibles" but obviously we can't forget about Nolan's trilogy (which is still the best thing the superhero cinema has to offer) and "Watchmen".

April 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSomeone

Even though the movie is 2hrs 30 min long, it did not feel like that at all. The movie is great, Chris Evans and ScarJo are great and I like the surprises ( did not read any reviews beforehand) and the fight scenes

Much better then Thor 2

April 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

Why do people keep defending The Dark Knight? It is a C at best that happens to have a few great and one more than great (Ledger) performance. Performances do not make great films.

April 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

@Steve - hmm, everyone has different tastes but I am pretty sure 'C at best' is not how most would classify The Dark Knight, even those who recognize its problems.

Anyways, I wasn't a huge fan of the first Captain America, so glad to hear this one may be better than the last - but probably still a rental for me - I am not nearly as taken with Evan's performance in these films so far as others appear to be so am glad to hear that Johansson (who had a couple great beats in the Avengers) has decent screentime here.

April 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

"The Dark Knight" is 'A' movie so it doesn't need to be "defended". :)

April 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSomeone

Just a side note: Mary Elizabeth Winstead was rumored to be the top choice for both the Maria Hill and Agent 13 role (Emily VanCamp was barely on screen), and it's nice she passed or they didn't work out because her talent and time would've been wasted. I was at a Q&A with her for Smashed, and although she didn't specifically name what blockbuster franchise she turned down, I recall she said she passed on one because she didn't want to be contractually tied up for years with work that was unfulfilling. Easy to see why.

April 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoJo

Honestly speaking, I wouldn't call "The Dark Knight" a superhero film, but a thriller in which the detective wears a bat costume and the villain(s) are odd-looking. That being said, there's been plenty of awe-inducing superhero films since "The Incredibles"; "The Avengers", "Iron Man 3" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" complete my top 5 ever, with those before mentioned. I'd add "Watchmen" as a honorable mention, too.

"Iron Man 3" is extremely overrated, it dares to go to places no other superhero film dared, specially the suggestion Osama Ben Laden (the Mandarin) has just been an illusion promoted by corporations to get a sh*tload of wealth and power, with the excuse of "War on Terror". Recheck the film, it's almost in your face.

... and actually "Captain America 2" follows that line, too. Both films are perfect mirrors of our zeitgeist.

April 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

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September 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJames Toscano

I would like to see thor and loki in the next disney infinity game, i think if they are not in there alot of loki fans will be disappointed.

April 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSBO

By far the best mini-franchise in terms of women has been Captain America.  Peggy, in the first movie, is not there to be the chick.  She has her own mission, her own goals, and her own set of skills. 

May 6, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterThomas


January 30, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterddd

I love Captain America. He is a sign for heroism and I love the way he changed to be the biggest hero! I dreamed of Black Widow so many times, she is so sexy...

August 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCaptain America

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