‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ one of Marvel’s best

captain america the winter soldier illus

There’s been a lot of talk about “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” – which I’m going to refer to by some shorter title from here on out – being a game changer for Marvel Studios and its big-screen cinematic universe.

And it is, in a way. Marvel, through co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo, seem prepared to start making changes in the on-screen universe they’ve established.

That risk-taking is only one of the elements that makes “Winter Soldier” feel like we’re now seeing events play out in a living, breathing, changing universe, one that changes a little bit more after the events of every Marvel movie.

I’ll be throwing in some spoilers later in this review, but I’ll warn you first. And I’ll be acknowledging that a big rumor I had speculated about a few weeks ago was wrong, wrong, wrong.

“Winter Soldier” almost feels like more of a “SHIELD” movie or sequel to “The Avengers” than a sequel to “Captain America,” and that’s appropriate. Steve Rogers, who “died” near the end of the first movie, only to be thawed out and revived and  eventually teamed up with Iron Man, Hulk and Thor in “The Avengers” two years ago, has gone to work for SHIELD, the super-spy agency led by Nick Fury. Cap (Chris Evans, again charming and low-key and a straight-arrow without being a parody of a paragon of virtue) is working alongside Natasha, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) on SHIELD ops.

A nighttime raid on a ship at sea ably demonstrates not only Cap’s, Natasha’s and their SHIELD team’s lethal effectiveness but the twisty-turny nature of the work they do. While Steve is there to rescue hostages, Natasha is there to retrieve information from a SHIELD computer on board. (I’m going to have to see the movie a second time to figure out exactly why Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, with more to do here than usual) knew he could find this info on the ship.)

So while Steve is frustrated at Fury’s duplicitousness – and Natasha’s too, frankly – he’s otherwise adjusting well to the modern world. He’s got a list of pop-culture and historical milestones to catch up on – “Star Wars” is included, as is the moon landing – and he’s befriended Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a fellow veteran who is a VA counselor.

As Cap tries to tell the bad guys from the good guys – aside from his helpful suggestion to Sam that the bad guys will be the ones shooting at them – we’re introduced to Alexander Pierce (Robert freakin’ Redford), a Cabinet-level official who oversees SHIELD.

Before too long, it’s obvious that things are not what they seem with several characters and SHIELD is not the organization Steve would like for it to be. In fact, it’s the organization he and Tony Stark worried about in “The Avengers.” The organization that is experimenting with technology developed by HYDRA and the Red Skull in the first “Cap” movie.

The great part about the Captain America character, as created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, and revived by Kirby and Stan Lee in 1964, is that he’s a man out of time, that his values are unchanging. He’s not a stick-in-the-mud and he’s not a priss. He kills because he’s a soldier, but he won’t kill if someone, even an enemy, can be saved.

The greatest test for Steve is saving the character he shares the movie’s title with. The Winter Soldier is a nearly-unstoppable killing machine, sent out by Hydra to usher in the bloody carnage that leads to a new world order. He’s played by Sebastian Stan, of course, who played Steve’s lifelong friend, James “Bucky” Barnes, in the first “Cap” movie. Here – as in the comics – Bucky, returned from the dead, is a merciless, brainwashed assassin. Once Steve knows who he is, the question becomes, how can he save Bucky instead of killing him?

“Winter Soldier” is two and half hours long, more or less, but never feels that long. Some reviews have declared it’s better than “The Avengers,” but I’m not sure I agree. It is one of the best Marvel movies, no doubt.

This isn’t surprising, considering the nature of the movie and the genre, but “Winter Soldier” feels especially brutal. There’s less Iron Man-style repulsor ray action and less Thor “hammer down” fighting here. This is hard, bone-crunching, hand-to-hand combat with fists and knives. There’s a lot of gunplay and vehicular mayhem. It never feels as callous as the combat scenes in “Man of Steel,” but if you’re sensitive to the idea of this kind of stuff … well, what were you expecting?

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is one of the best of the Marvel movies. It’s a big story about the fight against murderous political ambitions but at the same time a more personal story about trust: Which people and institutions deserve your respect and your trust? For the Marvel movie universe, “Winter Soldier” definitively answers that question.

Okay, spoilers from here on out.

Ready?

Easter eggs are some of our favorite things about these movies, and “Winter Soldier” had plenty of them.
Not only do Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and other major characters get name-dropped – you would expect that – but there’s at least one reference to a major Marvel character to come. Stephen Strange is named as an enemy of Hydra. Why Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, would be taking on this organization is not quite clear, but it was, I hope, a nice foreshadowing of a movie that’s been rumored to be in development.

Toby Jones’ appearance – in an altered form – as Zola, the Skull’s scientific minion, is a treat. It’s such a substantial role that it doesn’t really qualify as an Easter egg, but what the heck. I’ll include it anyway.

I’m sure that on repeated viewings I’ll see more of these, but there’s apparently a quick reference to Stark Tower – the geographic focus of the battle in “The Avengers” – as one of the locations chosen for Pierce’s doomsday scenario attacks. I’m guessing that other locations, glimpsed briefly onscreen, would also offer up some goodies.

How great was it to see Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter? I hope her “Agent Carter” series happens. Seeing her helping form SHIELD in the 1950s would be so much fun. And throw in some Howling Commandos, too.

A lot of sites, including this one, speculated that Redford’s Alexander Pierce was secretly the Red Skull. While I was a little disappointed he was not, thinking it over for a few hours, I’m glad that Pierce was nothing more than a Hydra agent, a politically and morally compromised mad man whose plan for implementing a new world order admittedly rivaled the Skull’s for its viciousness.

Marvel’s weekly TV series, “Agents of SHIELD,” has been building, slowly, to the events that occur in “Winter Soldier.” But how “Agents of SHIELD” operates for the rest of this season and, possibly, next, considering that SHIELD itself is a discredited and defunct as a spy agency, will be interesting to see. Keep in mind, the show will have to avoid stepping on storylines that future Marvel movies might take up.

The trailers for “Winter Soldier” made us think that Redford’s SHIELD honcho was talking to Cap when he was telling him he had “shaped the century.” He was not. Obviously.

There’s something so cool about the montage, set to Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” near the end of the movie. We see Steve and Sam and Fury but we also see Maria Hill and Sharon Carter and damned if it all doesn’t feel just right.

The first end-credits scene feels like the most puzzling one yet in a Marvel movie for viewers who don’t know the context. As most have already noted, it introduces characters we’re going to see in next summer’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” including “The Twins,” Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and Hydra leader Baron Von Strucker. While there’s mention of Hydra, the arch-villain organization of the movie, there’s nary a familiar character in sight. It seems like Marvel has enough confidence in us to let us figure out what’s going on.

The second end-credits scene is directly tied to the movie and to future “Cap” movies, perhaps. Bucky’s return after decades and his stint filling in for Steve as Cap are familiar to comics readers. Speculation recently that Bucky actor Sebastian Stan is signed for nine Marvel movies – so as many as seven more from this point – and the fact that Evans currently has only three more movies in his contract – two “Avengers” movies and a “Cap” movie – suggests that Marvel’s long game might follow the comics storyline.

 

 

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