Mar 29, 2014

A Spoiler-Free Review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier

A Spoiler-Free Review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Ben Smith

I need to adjust my favorite comic book movies list.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is now solidly perched right below The Avengers as my second favorite comic book movie of all time. The only thing keeping me from possibly putting it above the Avengers right now is my need to let it breathe a little bit, and make sure I’m not being ruled by recency.

In a way, they’re not even really comparable movies, that’s why I’m struggling so hard to make the (ever so important) determination in my head on which one I loved more. Avengers was a perfect blending of the spirit of the Marvel comics and the established universe of the Marvel movies, all with terrific action, great humor, excellent character bits, and an end battle that gives me goosebumps every single time. The Winter Soldier, however, is a (as I’m sure you’ve been told a hundred times already) ‘70s political spy thriller, that also doubles as a flawless Captain America movie.

The first Captain America movie gave us a cynicism-free look at a man that wanted to do the right thing, not from some traumatic motivating incident, but just because it was the right thing to do. The sequel gives us that same character, and along with it shows us that Steve Rogers is the kind of person we should all aspire to be. Not in an annoying boy scout goody-two-shoes kind of way either. The Steve Rogers of this movie is a person that people can believe in, trust, and follow. The exact way Captain America would need to be if he existed in real life. He isn’t the boy scout that is so straight-laced that he becomes corny, like Superman. At the same time, he’ll get down into the mud and get dirty when he needs to. This is not a character that pulls his punches with the bad guys that are trying to do innocent people harm.

The fight scenes in this movie are easily the best fight scenes of any superhero movie to date, and better than most action movies in general. Black Widow and Captain America aren’t just knocking the bad guys down, they’re knocking them out, and making sure they aren’t getting back up any time soon. The choreography and power of the hand-to-hand combat is almost stunning in its violence. For a character like Cap, that doesn’t have any specific showy super powers, this is absolutely essential towards showing what sets this character apart from any other generic superhero. In simpler terms, I’ve been watching a decade of these superhero movies and I’ve been waiting to see one of these characters kick some ass. And Captain America does that and more. (Step up your game Batman.)

One of the points I’ve made about the Captain America comics before, is that I think it works best when his supporting cast is other heroes and/or an organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. Thankfully, Marvel agreed with me on that point for this movie, and Nick Fury, Black Widow, and the newly introduced Falcon all play key roles. This is the longest, and best look we’ve had yet of the cinematic Nick Fury. Black Widow continues her great turn from Avengers as one of the most complex and intriguing characters in this movie universe, and will only increase the growing clamor for her to get her own solo feature. Anthony Mackie shines as the Falcon, making him a character I really enjoyed in this movie, which is not something I’ve ever said about the Falcon in any context. He’s a good man of principle in his own right, and throughout the course of the movie you can see why Captain America would have this man as his partner, which is not something I can ever say the comics were able to accomplish successfully (to be fair, I haven’t read that many of the comics where they were partners).

One of the bigger (and dumber) complaints about the Avengers is that it didn’t have a deeper meaning, that it was just a summer popcorn movie, unlike the more superficially “meaningful” Dark Knight movies (I disagree on all counts). Society tends to reward dark and violent entertainment as somehow having more weight, or being more worthy of our praise, and I don't know why that is.

Well, for all those people that like their movies to have a bigger message, The Winter Soldier has one (an extremely topical one), and it does it more naturally and with more skill than the beat-you-over-the-head Nolan movies could ever hope to achieve. It’s a seamless, and frankly brilliant, extension of the first movie that fits in perfectly with the world Steve Rogers finds himself in today, and it never feels forced in or out of place. I can’t say more without spoilers, but rest assured that the deeper message spins out of the movie embracing its comic book roots, and is not embarrassed by them as so many prior movies have been.

The Winter Soldier himself, a mystery character already spoiled for most comic book fans, is an unstoppable force of sheer dread. There were a couple times during the movie when I was on the edge of my seat, genuinely not sure how the scene would play out. And the eventual reveal, for anyone that might not already know what it is, is sure to be a satisfying one. (One of the few downfalls of this being the first Marvel movie adapted from a specific storyline. On the other hand, if any comic shop doesn’t sell out of Captain America: Winter Soldier hardcovers after this, they are made of fail.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has a massive impact on the landscape of the Marvel cinematic universe going forward. Also, the mid-credits scene, while not as jaw-dropping as the Thanos cameo in Avengers, is so very close to being on that same level in terms of building anticipation (stay for the after credits scene as well).

This movie is about as close to a perfect movie as I think can possibly be made. Both in terms of an entertaining film, and as a representation of the comic book characters I know and love. There’s not many superhero movies I haven’t been able to find at least one minor nitpick with (Cap’s cowl in Avengers) but I honestly couldn’t think of anything like that walking out of this movie.

Unlike any other film, I was completely engrossed in the experience of this movie while watching it. That hasn’t happened to me in a very long time. Even during Avengers, here or there I would think to myself how glad and surprised I was that they pulled it off, or that of course the characters were all going to fight each other first (it’s the Marvel Comics way). If I was distracted at any point in The Winter Soldier, it was about as long as it takes to wonder if they’re going to say Agent 13’s last name or not, and then it was back to the movie. I haven’t had that level of immersion in an entertainment experience since I was probably a very young kid.

What more could you ask for?

Catch up on the movies and/or read the source material here:

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