Marvel Studios, under the direction of Kevin Feige, has discovered the ideal mold with which to make a superhero movie. Sure, things were rough in the beginning: While “Iron Man” was a rousing success, “The Incredible Hulk” and “Thor” were ambitious messes at best, and “Iron Man 2” was a very high-profile black mark on the studio, coming off droll and overstuffed where the first was exciting and precise. What Marvel has discovered since—what made “Iron Man” a watershed and what was dreadfully missing from its sequel—is that for all the action set-pieces and witty one-liners that spawn adoration and .gif-sets, the key to an effective comic book movie is character.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the second movie of Marvel’s so called Phase 2—each phase is made up of four solo movies and ends in the next installment of “The Avengers”—is the company’s greatest effort to date. A big part of the film’s rousing success is the benefit of having context to draw on to build character and, in turn, story.
“Winter Soldier” finds Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) trying to adjust to life in the strange landscape of 21st Century America after having been frozen for 70 years; he keeps a notebook of things to catch up on, including Nirvana and “Star Wars/Trek.” Among Steve’s new challenges is comprehending the highly evolved and morally ambiguous field of modern intelligence work. The machinations of the plot deal heavily in deception and paranoia, with even the title of the movie acting as a bit of a come-on itself, both in terms of the nature of the Winter Soldier (which won’t be a shock to those privy to the Cap’s comic history) and how much screen-time he actually possesses. The real meat of the narrative finds Captain America trying to come to terms with a world that values security over freedom, one that is run by those who willfully overstep the bounds of law and ethics in the name of protecting the liberty that the Captain holds dear.
As fun as it is to see an action throwback to the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s— directors Joe and Anthony Russo cite “Three Days of the Condor” as a specific influence on this movie, which makes the inclusion of Robert Redford as a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. officer a real get—the main focus is on fleshing out the characters of the Marvel Universe. Steve is constantly arguing with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, turning in his best work as the character yet) about the foundations of their two forms of justice: Fury is perfectly willing to shoot first and ask questions latter, while Steve assesses that people should only be prosecuted after perpetrating a crime. In an intelligence landscape wherein the Internet allows both those who wish us good and those who wish us harm to access our dirtiest and most personal secrets, Cap pushes back and shows that the people can be protected from serious threats without compromising their personal liberties.
Marvel’s in-house approach to allowing character to drive narrative rather than relying on empty plotting to drive action bleeds into the rest of the film, as Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has parts of her background shadowed in. She’s whip-smart, vicious, playful, and constantly reinventing herself out of a survival instinct, while still maintaining the air of intrigue that clouds her motivations to the audience — a tough balancing act that Johansson accomplishes with grace. It would be a real waste if Feige and company never commit to a Widow solo movie.
Even more Marvel characters linger in the background, some potentially ready for close-ups in future properties. Audiences are already familiar with Cobie Smulders’ Agent Hill and Garry Shandling’s Senator Stern from past films, while the villain Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre) and the ally Falcon (Anthony Mackie) are introduced here.
And I would be remiss to not mention the fantastic action sequences. The Russo Brothers master movement, dynamism, and space whenever the bullets start to fly and the muscles start to ripple. The movie’s first big set-piece finds Cap almost singlehandedly taking down two dozen pirates on a hijacked ship, the camera moving as deftly as our hero, seemingly untethered as it follows the crazed acrobatics of Cap and his shield. The other major sequence sees Cap decimate an elevator full of bad guys, a piece of brutal choreography that finds a clarity in the claustrophobic madness. The movie also features two practical car chases, aerial dogfights, the best hand-to-hand combat this side of “The Raid,” and a maddeningly good climax involving three airborne aircraft carries.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” achieves greatness with such success and such star-spangled ferocity because it takes Marvel’s perfected approach to the superhero genre of character-first and melds it with its established franchise continuity. The movie also couples the political issues of an age in which privacy is willfully and flagrantly ignored with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s standout display of heroic carnage. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” represents the pinnacle of the comic book movie thus far, a saga that trusts its characters to give purpose and shape to their actions.