I got overhyped for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which some fans are calling the best Marvel universe movie yet, and on par with the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. I'd place "Winter Soldier" roughly even with the first "Captain America," which I liked an awful lot, maybe a little higher, but still firmly behind "The Avengers" and the first "Iron Man" movie. I prefer my Marvel movies lighter and quippier, and "Winter Soldier" is all business. But for some the more down-to-earth political thriller trappings will be a big plus, and I understand why the movie has been embraced so wholeheartedly.
We find Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) working for the intelligence operation S.H.I.E.L.D., headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). After a mission with Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) where Cap is displeased to discover that the two of them have been given different sets of orders, Fury reveals that he and Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), are working on the secret Project Insight, where a trio of new helicarriers will give them the capability to target and eliminate anyone on earth. Sinister forces are at work, however, which soon pit Cap against a "ghost" assassin called The Winter Soldier, and Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), leader of a S.H.I.E.L.D. counter-terrorism unit gone rogue. Fortunately Cap still has Black Widow on his side, and a new ally in former pararescue soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), also known as the Falcon.
While "The Winter Soldier" clearly takes place in the Marvel Universe, where cryogenics can preserve a supersoldier for seventy years and nifty gadgets let ordinary people accomplish all sorts of outlandish, impossible feats, the story takes its cues from recent Bourne and Bond spy thrillers more than any of the familiar superhero templates. Sure, you get your giant scale battles full of carnage and destruction, but the bulk of the story is all about the cloak and dagger operations of a group of baddies who have the most frightening tools of the surveillance state at their disposal. There's quite a bit of not-so-subtle commentary on the current state of the military industrial complex, the intelligence community, drone warfare, and privacy concerns I didn't ever expect to see in a Marvel blockbuster.
Of course, this only goes so far. This is still a comic book movie and so all of these problems can be solved by simply identifying the bad guys and the bad organization that they work for, and taking them down with all manner of fancy stunt work and CGI explosions. And boy is the action a lot of fun in "Winter Soldier." We're treated to car chases, aerial chases, gun battles, cat-and-mouse games, a couple of different hand-to-hand showdowns, and a fight sequence in a crowded elevator that is just delightful. Better yet, "The Winter Soldier" has a wonderful momentum and energy throughout that has been missing from far too many similar movies. It could stand a little trimming here and there, but otherwise it's an excellent flick as far as action is concerned.
Where I think the movie has been oversold is the maturity of its storyline. Yes, it's great to see Cap and friends dealing with some real-world issues and tackling a situation with some very big stakes in play. However, the twists and turns remain very PG-13, easily digestible, and pretty typical action movie fodder. While there are permanent consequences that seriously affect some of the characters and the Marvel universe as a whole, we're still taking about fantasy baddies and soap opera twists. These are executed about as well as they possibly could be, but despite the presence of Robert Redford in a prominent role, this could never be mistaken for a serious 70s political thriller, and it lacks the operatic grandeur of Nolan's Bat films.
"The Winter Soldier" is a solid, entertaining film, but I think the most recent couple of Marvel sequels have been so lackluster that the bar has been lowered to the point where this one seems better than it actually is. The Russo brothers were handed the directing reins, and acquit themselves nicely, though they get a little carried away with the shakeycam, and they're not in the same ballpark as Paul Greengrass. Chris Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers, but he's not in the same league as Robert Downey Jr., and the movie leans heavily on its sterling supporting players - several of them in dire need of their own spinoff films. Nick Fury and Black Widow in particular get plenty to do, and end up outshining our hero.
There's no doubt that this is one of the best Marvel universe films, but that doesn't mean as much as it would have a year or two ago. It does a good job of being its own self-contained film and still pushing larger events in the Marvel movie franchise forward, but I can't help thinking that it could have been better if it didn't have to worry about setting up more sequels.