The existence of the TV and movie-spanning Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to amaze and astound me. When you pull back and realize that eight different movies focusing on a collection of heroes has all worked together almost seamlessly for the better part of a decade, and even more films and TV shows are being added to the mix as time goes on, it’s one of the more impressive achievements in popular culture history.
At this point, if it’s Marvel and it’s Warner Bros, it’s bound to be good, and those involved with the uber-franchise only seem to be getting a better hang of it as time goes on. The Avengers was better than all the individual films that came before it. Iron Man 3 was the best of the bunch. Thor 2 beat Thor 1 handily. And now Captain America: Winter Soldier is more interesting that The First Avenger ever was.
Captain America has always run the risk of being the “lesser” Avengers franchise. Thor has the wonders of Asgard and the forever-entertaining Loki. Iron Man has Tony Stark, a one man show. But Captain America? He’s a frozen soldier with a shield, played by Chris Evans in a way where he’s got looks and muscles, but he leaves most of the charisma to other team members. It’s a conscious decision by him and his directors, as everyone on the team can’t really have the same personality. His background and willingness to work as a team make him a natural leader, but can he be compelling?
In Winter Soldier, we finally bear witness to a somewhat non-traditional plotline. Yes, there’s a plan for world domination, but it’s not a terrorist cell with a nuke or aliens hatching an invasion. Rather, it’s the corruption of the central agency that has held the Marvel Cinematic Universe together since its inception, SHIELD.
In the Marvel Universe, SHIELD operates as a sort of ultra-NSA/CIA/FBI, with the powers of all three and then some. It’s the focus of Marvel’s first real attempt at a live-action TV show, Agents of SHIELD, a program that’s actually impacted by the events of the films. And boy, is it ever going to be shaken up Winter Soldier.
Nick Fury (Sam Jackson) realizes something is amiss when Secretary of Defense Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) starts acting shady as SHIELD prepares to launch a new initiative. Fury enlists the help of Cap, Steve Rogers (Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to figure out what’s going on, and the pair turn to ex-soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) when they realize they can’t trust anyone.
There’s much more intrigue than your typical Marvel film as the grand plot inside SHIELD is unraveled. Much of it ties back to the original Captain America, and the “Winter Soldier” refers to a new masked superpowered baddie who has all Cap’s strengths and then some. The grand twist revealing the identity of the Soldier isn’t exactly mind-blowing, but it works from a plot perspective.
Rogers soon finds himself as an enemy of the country whose name he wears, and he and Widow are constantly being hunted by rogue SHIELD operatives as they try to deduce just what exactly is going on. The central threat revolves around a trio of newly commissioned helicarriers which have the ability to detect citizen “threats” around the world, and eliminate them with precise minigun fire from near-orbit. The idea is a bit goofy, even for a comic book movie, and the political allegory is obvious.
The corruption of SHIELD is all about the overreaching security state we supposedly now live in. The central bad guys realize that freedom can’t be taken outright, it has to be slowly given away in the name of “safety.” If they allow people to give up their freedoms, if they convince them threats are threats eons before they do anything threatening, absolute power is at hand.
I normally take issue with movies will clumsily overt political messages (The Purge, Elysium) , but Winter Soldier tackles the issue in a rather clever, not ham-handed way. I’d argue that it doesn’t side with a particular party, as both sides of the aisle have started to protest against certain practices like NSA spying or military interventionism.\
In terms of being an action flick, I don’t think Winter Soldier quite lives up to other Marvel films. The final fights of The Avengers, Thor 2 and Iron Man 3 were the best the genre has ever seen. The Winter Soldier finale is good, but not nearly on the level of those films. I love Cap’s shield bashing and super punching, but it’s hard to compete with his more flamboyant team members.
Rogers is a dynamic, likeable lead, and it’s good the film didn’t shoehorn in a romance with Black Widow simply because she was there. He has more of a bro-buddy relationship with Romanoff, something not usually seen when your co-star is one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood. There’s sparks, but no fire, and Widow makes a nice pairing as the double, triple, quadruple agent who is ironically, one of the only people he can trust. I still don’t think that they’ve developed her into a strong enough character to lead her own film which is unfortunate. Part of it is her weirdly muddled and barely explained backstory, but also she simply just doesn’t have superpowers. Shooting things well is not a superpower. I just don’t know how interesting that film would be, though I would see it nonetheless. The Avengers needs a Wonder Woman, and I don’t know if Widow has that same sort of weight.
The Winter Soldier does many things well, though being the better of two Captain America movies still means that there are a lot of Marvel movies ahead of it, and far more in the superhero genre itself. Still, it shows Marvel isn’t out of ideas, and the MCU marches on.
3.5 out of 5 stars