It is fitting that the new Captain America movie has the word winter in its subtitle, since its arrival marks the end of the terrible movie season that has been foisted upon us since Christmas. The period from the January to April is always a rough one since this is when studios burn off movies that they aren’t all that confident in, but this winter Hollywood and Mother Nature got together to force us to endure a particularly crappy season. There were some notable exceptions – The LEGO Movie was a definite bright spot – but when I don’t go to the cinema for over a month, you know it’s bad. I’ll normally sit through some questionable stuff during this time, but this year it was so unappealing that I basically took a prolonged hiatus from going to the movies until the arrival of warmer weather and better cinematic options.
Thankfully, Captain America: Winter Soldier is a step in the right direction; this may be the best of the Marvel series since The Avengers. While the other individual Avengers films are fun, they are beginning to show some signs of franchise fatigue. That isn’t the case with this film, which is actually an improvement over its origin story. Captain America: Winter Soldier is faster, sharper and has a plot that will reverberate throughout the Marvel universe. I did not expect that going in.
While Thor and Iron Man were off dealing with their own problems in their own movies, Captain America was apparently learning how to be a bad ass. His first solo film was something of a throwback because it took place mostly in the 1940s; the action was somewhat limited by the times. Freed from the shackles of the period, Cap has certainly learned a thing or two since he woke up in modern times. His fighting style has progressed mightily and it’s exhilarating to watch. He is far more acrobatic and aggressive in this outing and it makes a big difference. The action sequences are beautifully choreographed and you could be forgiven for forgetting that Captain America is in his 90s. The guy can through a punch with the best of them. Thankfully they mostly forgo any focus on the anachronisms of him living in the modern world – I feared that they might rely on the “unfrozen caveman lawyer aspect” of his story – and instead focus their attention on the story.
I won’t say too much about the story so as not to ruin all the surprises, but in a lot of ways if you strip away the superhero veneer from this film, it is really an old fashioned conspiracy thriller. This film focuses more on the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the possible dark forces that have infiltrated. I had assumed that much of the events from the first Captain America film would be forgotten in this film, given the jump forward in time, but that was not the case. You can certainly enjoy this film if you haven’t seen the first Captain America film, though if you have seen it some of the plot points in the new film will be more familiar to you. While most of the other Avengers have gone it alone in their individual movies, Captain America knows that there is strength in numbers and is joined by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) on this adventure. Newcomers Anthony Mackie and the great Robert Redford help round out the talented cast and fit right in the Marvel Universe. The themes of the film – security vs. privacy and freedom – are particularly timely given that we live in an age of NSA wiretaps and monitoring. There are a lot of unexpected moments in Captain America: Winter Soldier and I’m not embarrassed to say that I was legitimately surprised numerous times during the film. That doesn’t happen often, but the web in Captain America is so carefully spun that I fully enjoyed every revelation and discovery. The less that you know going in to Winter Soldier, the better off that you will be.
While Captain America: Winter Soldier is not as funny as some of the other Avenger movies, there are still plenty of laughs within. Captain America has loosened up a bit in the latest installment and is not quite the uptight guy that he had appeared to be in previous incarnations. Captain America will never be as sarcastic and witty as Iron Man, but he’s definitely discovered a better sense of humor along the way. The idea to pair him with Black Widow is a smart one as the duo have great chemistry that was not necessarily apparent from The Avengers. Still, there is not as much wordplay and banter as there are in some of the other Marvel franchises. It’s still fun, but the humor is a bit more sporadic.
Some other thoughts:
- Lots of familiar faces from the small screen turn up in this film – Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) reprises her role as Maria Hill and Danny Pudi (Abed, Community) and Garry Shandling both have small parts (the later once again playing Senator Stern). Emily VanCamp (Revenge) also turns up, which briefly made me wonder if this was all part of her elaborate scheme against the Graysons.
- The events that transpire in Winter Soldier will have a huge rippling effect not only on the future Avenger related movies, but also on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. There are some pretty seismic changes that occur that will have to impact the TV show, given that they have established that the movies and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. occur in the same universe. I quit watching the show because it was tremendously boring, but I may have to check back in just to see how they handle these new developments.
- There are TWO post credit sequences in Captain America: Winter Soldier – one occurs early in the credits and another is at the very end. Both seem relatively important, though I needed to do some research to understand what exactly was happening in the first one. Some new characters are introduced and they look pretty awesome.
- There are lots of Easter Eggs in Winter Soldier, but I especially enjoyed the hidden Pulp Fiction nod.
- Am I the only person who is ridiculously excited for Guardians of the Galaxy? Every time I see the trailer I get excited, though that movie is either going to be awesome or a train wreck. I see no middle ground. Maybe it’s because they play “Hooked on a Feeling” in the trailer – that song reminds me of college.
- Per usual, I cheaped out and didn’t see the film in IMAX or 3-D.
- Full disclosure – while I love all the Marvel and other comic book inspired movies, I have not actually read any of the comic books. So I can’t really speak to how well they represent the original stories and what has been altered or changed. You hardcore comic book nerds (said with affection) will have a different insight into these characters and plots than I would.
- Captain America: Winter Soldier did very well opening weekend; it set a new record for the biggest opening in April of all time.
It’s rare when the second installment of a franchise surpasses the first film, but that is exactly what happened with Captain America: Winter Soldier. I liked Captain America: The First Avenger just fine, yet Winter Soldier is a marked improvement over its predecessor. An interesting story and the gradual evolution of Captain America made this one of my favorite films from the entire Avengers franchise. Captain America has never been the character that I was most excited with, but as I walked out of Winter Soldier I was ready to watch the film all over again. Hopefully this is an indication that some new life is being breathed into the Marvel films; Captain America: Winter Soldier is definitely a step in the right direction. The bar has now been raised for all future installments.