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Review: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ May Be Marvel’s Best Film

I love what Director Joss Whedon did with The Avengers. It was a crowning moment in the Marvel cinematic experiment. Since then we have endured Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon version of Iron Man, complete with a disappointing turn of events midway through the film and an underdeveloped Tony Stark PTSD sub-plot, and a fun but fluffy return to Asgard in Thor: The Dark World which might not have been nearly as interesting without Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Marvel needed to find its edge again, and with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I’m happy to report they have.

What struck me most about Cap 2 was its ability to evolve Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) as a character outside of the suit. There isn’t always a lot of room for individual character development in these films, mostly due to the fact these stories tend to focus on the bigger picture–advancing the universe as a whole–or focusing on the adversarial components of these worlds. Black tried to pull Tony Stark out of the Iron Man suit for extended periods in Iron Man 3, but the result never felt like an organic progression of the character.  Sure, Stark was mentally traumatized by the events of New York, but why? He was never outwardly affected by any other major event in his individual cinematic world, so shifting him from eating Shwarma to the brink of mental collapse felt forced. I ultimately wanted more Iron Man and less whiny Tony Stark.

Contrary to this, the internal struggle Steve Rogers endures as he tries to reconcile his new world order while reminiscing on his distant past is palpable throughout this film. My favorite scene is when Rogers discreetly visits his own exhibit at the Smithsonian, soaking in the memories of what his life was like when honor and country were tantamount. In today’s world, Rogers’ moral fiber is routinely tested against the backdrop of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s smokescreens and indiscretions. It’s a critical moment in the definition of Cap’s character arc when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) proclaims to him that S.H.I.E.L.D. operates in the interest of the way the world truly is, not how we’d like it to be. And I found myself agreeing with Fury in this instance. No matter how much Steve Rogers longs for the simplicity of his earlier days, this world is different and demands to be treated as such.

What might be a bit misleading is the inclusion of “Winter Soldier” in the title of the film. As we go into this feature we’re led to believe there exists a new super villain for Cap to deal with, and while there does indeed exist a “Winter Soldier,” he is a construct of a larger foe, that being the Nazi led organization featured in the first Cap film, known as HYDRA. HYDRA has infiltrated all corners of S.H.I.E.L.D. operations and has patiently waited for an opportunity to initiate advanced weaponry designed to eradicate any living human threats to the future of their world vision. The Winter Soldier is a simply a tool of HYDRA–the brainwashed remnants of Steve Rogers’ early life best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who somehow survived his ordeal in Cap 1 to be used by HYDRA as a master assassin pawn many years later. While the Winter Soldier origins are skimmed through quickly and without pomp or circumstance, he is effective as an adversary and provides another interesting dichotomy in Steve Rogers’ ongoing internal struggles.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) gets a lot of screen time in this film, moreso than in any other Marvel feature. The Black Widow character also progresses throughout the film.  She showcases the intelligence and skills we were already aware of, but is also forced to navigate bouts of vulnerability, both in the heat of battle and privately when she has to deal with loss. There is still a lot of allusion to Black Widow’s past, and I think we’ll need to get some payoff on that sooner or later, but for now, Scarlett and her character have never been better.

In a much smaller capacity is Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), brought into the mix as S.H.I.E.L.D. erupts into chaos, and the introduction of Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp), tasked as a protector of Steve Rogers.  Everything about the way these ladies are handled in the film is perfect.  There are no damsels in distress here.  The weak female does not exist in this dojo.  And there is no love interest sub-plot getting in the way in Winter Soldier.  Cap spends a few moments reminiscing about his lost love, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), but wastes no time pursuing any prurient interests with any of the female characters in the film. This serves to make the film a much more rewarding experience as a result. It’s refreshing to see strong willed, bad-ass women kicking ass and not having to be subjected to poorly written stereotypes prevalent in a lot of action films of the day.

Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is also given a lot more to do and we get to see him in one of the best chase scenes to hit the screen in a long time. Fury may be the elder statesman of the S.H.I.E.L.D. operation, but he can still handle himself in the field when required to do so. We also get a quick peek behind the hardened facade of Nick Fury as he wrestles with some of the things he’s been forced to do over the years.

The biggest new face in the franchise comes via the addition of Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/The Falcon. I dug Falcon, but his character is brought into the fold quickly and we don’t get a clear sense of his motivations for throwing himself headfirst into this battle without asking a few more questions.  It’s pretty much just “Cap needs me, Hoorah!” These are minor gripes, but if the future of the Cap series holds plans for the character, I’d like to see some additional backstory on Wilson/Falcon to subsidize his presence.

In the end Winter Soldier is a perfect blend of character development and rewarding action.  It avoids the frenetic pacing some of the Marvel films have suffered from, allowing for plenty of meaningful moments of character interaction and private introspection. Some of the greatest moments in the film are when nothing is going on.  And as with all Marvel films, Winter Soldier stands competently as its own beast while still forwarding the grander plan towards the next inevitable assemblage of Marvel’s greatest heroes.  There couldn’t have been a more perfect film to segue into Avengers: Age of Ultron.  For me, this is the best of the Marvel films not called The Avengers, and if you want to claim that it might be better, I’m open to that discussion. Mr. Whedon, you’re up!

4.5 out of 5 

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