Directors Joe and Anthony Russo are known for their work in comedies, specifically the brilliant and genre-bending sitcoms Arrested Development and Community (they directed both pilots and serve as executive producers on Community). So it makes sense that with Captain America: The Winter Soldier they would deliver a seventies-style political thriller that happens to have a superhero in the lead role. They told me they’ve been calling this movie “Three Days of Captain America,” and if you don’t get that reference, you need to watch Three Days of the Condor right now. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime. I’ll wait.
The movie picks up with Cap two years after the events of The Avengers, and in that time he has been trying (and failing) to adjust to life as a twenty something who was born 95 years ago. He is just lost as a WW2 hero parachuted into a post-9/11 world. He works for S.H.I.E.L.D., but he is in conflict with both Nick Fury and Black Widow over their methods and objectives. The Russos didn’t want to shy away from modern political parallels. They ran straight at them, and this movie highlights everything that is actually pretty terrifying about S.H.I.E.L.D. and their extra-judicial activities, which are made all the more terrifying by the fact that there is something shady going on at S.H.I.E.L.D.
If you think this all sounds heavy and thinky and boring, that is where you are wrong. The Russos handle everything with a deft, light hand. Their comedic sensibilities start the movie out feeling kind of like a comedy, and there are funny, surprising moments throughout. There is a TON of cool tech that will have geeks drooling. And the action sequences are incredible. You’ve all probably seen the elevator scene by now, and that scene works as a microcosm for the whole the story. There is also an amazing car chase. The Winter Soldier doesn’t shy away from civilian death and collateral damage the way The Avengers did, but the death that does happen is strangely bloodless. Literally. People get shot without bleeding. It’s a slight disconnect, but I guess you do what you have to do to keep your PG-13 rating.
I know that Marvel had a hard time casting Steve Rogers/Captain America, but thank goodness they went with Chris Evans. He projects a world-weariness without ever dipping into cynicism, which is a rare feat. His resolution and certainty are an anchor, and the movie wouldn’t work without his unique brand of clear-eyed idealism. He plays especially well with Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/The Falcon, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who is having his own struggles to readjust to civilian life. They relate to each other well, and you are just going to be so happy that Cap finally has a friend. The directors are also smart to make Wilson a very, very grounded character before we even get a hint of the Falcon. The ridiculousness of his wings is undercut when they are worn by such a down to earth person.
The least down-to-earth of them all is Nick Fury, the one-eyed director of S.H.I.E.L.D. played by Samuel L. Jackson, whose philosophy of breaking all the rules to protect the greater good is grossly perverted by the villains inside S.H.I.E.L.D. who want to break all the rules to promote a “good” that is truly horrific. Jackson plays a man who has created the weapon that will destroy everything he stands for and is chastened without ever being humbled. Jackson has played Fury across 6 movies and a TV show, and this is the first time we’ve really seen him changed by the action. This is also the most badass we’ve ever seen him, as he gets an incredible action sequence in this film.
Scarlett Johansson is also the best we’ve seen her as the Black Widow is betrayed by her own moral relativism. It is a unique pleasure of the MCU to see supporting characters develop a little at a time in movie after movie. I really think it lets her down here, though, as this movie seems perfectly calibrated to set up a solo Black Widow movie, but that set up will likely be undercut by her role in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Rounding out the main cast are Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes and The Winter Soldier and Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce. Stan’s first appearance is in a slow motion shot that, frankly, looks a bit like Criss Angel Mindfreak. There’s not a whole lot to his performance as The Winter Soldier, as he is basically an automaton, but when the mask finally comes off, Stan brings enough depth that it leaves you rooting for whatever bit of Bucky remains. Redford, who was the hero of the aforementioned Three Days of the Condor, plays extraordinary arrogance extraordinarily well and seems to have a great time doing it. I’ll also mention Frank Grillo as Brock Rumlow, who was fantastic, which is no surprise because he is great in everything.
As for the ending that is going to reverberate throughout the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe? It is big, and it is earned. Everything is going to be different, and I cannot wait to see where things go from here.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best movie Marvel Studios has put out yet. It hits theaters on April 4, and you should run, not walk, to see it.