The Marvel movie universe continues to evolve in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). I was expecting a big, splashy action flick, and I got it. What I wasn’t expecting was a paranoid political thriller that doubles as a thoughtful, moving character study. This one stirs in more ingredients than your average superhero movie, and the result is gripping.
Following the battle of New York, Captain America (Chris Evans) continues his dutiful service to S.H.I.E.L.D., alongside fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). But Cap is having trouble coming to grips with the 21st century, and, more specifically, with the ruthlessness of his country’s approach to national defense. His struggle intensifies when the man who best embodies this approach, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), entrusts him with intelligence suggesting that the agency they both serve may be compromised. Initially standing alone against forces he doesn’t understand, Cap soon finds an unlikely ally in Black Widow, and the two of them gradually unravel the nature of a massive government conspiracy.
The first thing that jumped out at me about Captain America: The Winter Soldier: hey, this is a pretty great spy movie! S.H.I.E.L.D. has always struck me as more of a paramilitary force than an intelligence agency, but here the spy backdrop is leveraged full bore, with Fury, Black Widow, and other characters – including shifty espiocrat Alexander Pierce (a shrewdly cast Robert Redford) – contributing to the uncertain, plot-twisty landscape. It’s more Jason Bourne than George Smiley, but even so its neatly escalating plot has all the earmarks of a classic 1970s political shocker. Yes, some of the details of the plot are incredulous comic book silliness. Yes, it’s difficult to buy into the conspiracy thriller formula in an era when high-level corruption hardly merits a turned head from the public. But, disbelief suspended, it gives the film an uncommon resonance, and makes it a film about something beyond its surface pyrotechnics.
The plot and the wider themes tie in perfectly to Captain America’s character, and the time-travelled circumstances of his existence. Cap made his mark in an era when the struggle between good and evil was more of a black-and-white affair; in comparison, the 21st century is a chaotic, dog-eat-dog mess through his eyes, beyond even the moral grays of the Cold War. The film isn’t afraid to shine a light on this contrast, and it makes Cap all the more winning; through it all, he remains upstanding and true, even at the moments when it’s the most difficult. Chris Evans is preternaturally likeable in this role, and he’s helped make Captain America – historically one of Marvel’s blandest heroes – into one of the movie universe’s most relevant and interesting.
In light of that, the film is smart to partner Cap with Black Widow; who more perfectly to encapsulate the chaos and subterfuge of the modern world? Scarlett Johansson further comes into her own in this role, and any doubts that she can carry a solo film should utterly evaporate in the wake of this one. I personally think she was the best thing about The Avengers, despite the blinkered press her character received, and she’s fantastic again here: not just as a perfect foil for Cap, but as a layered and resourceful character in her own right. This may be Captain America 2, but it may also be Black Widow 1.
And you know what, it’s also kind of The Avengers 1.5. Cap’s at his best when he has a team to lead, and unofficially joining the team here is The Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Another area the film explores is friendship, and Cap’s unique predicament in that regard, since he’s lost most of his friends to the passage of time. The film takes care to remember Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), as well as the people of his era who are still around, such as lost love Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, convincingly aged). But the Falcon, aka Sam Wilson, is Cap’s first new friend, his introduction a perfectly executed “bromance” cute meet. Bonding over their soldierly ways, Falcon serves as a ray of light for Cap through a dark time; their developing friendship is touchingly rendered, and bookends the film nicely.
The film is not without flaws, alas. For one thing, a big reveal in the plot involves an enormous, unearned infodump, illogically provided by the villains. These types of issues aren’t uncommon in comic book movies, though, and are easily glossed over. More troubling are the action sequences, which – while thrilling – come with alarmingly high body counts and collateral damage. That’s a trend I’d like to see go away in this context. That said, there’s also considerably more emotional content to the fight scenes than usual, which makes them all the more enthralling.
Despite the drawbacks, it’s a uniquely thought-provoking entry in the canon, and ultimately my favorite of all the Marvel films to date – ranking even higher than The Avengers. If it’s not the best Marvel movie yet, it’s definitely the one that spoke to me the most.