More than one film critic has been quoted as calling Captain America: The Winter Soldier Marvel's The Dark Knight, a description of the film that is more than a tad lazy and more than a little bit inaccurate.
I understand the comparison. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is very likely Marvel's most emotionally complex and resonant film yet, a film that cares as much about its characters as it does about the thrills and larger than life action sequences that we've come to expect from the Marvel films. This is not completely unexpected, of course. After all, the first Captain America film was one of Summer 2011's most unexpectedly awesome surprises precisely because it somehow managed to weave together heart, humor, action, and the Marvel Universe in such a way that I truly felt like I was watching the comic book come to life.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier maintains a faithfulness to its source material, though it does move a step or two closer to the wild action and larger than life antics of the other Marvel films.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has now been out of his cryogenic tank for a couple of years and continues to adjust to life as a stunningly fit and well preserved nearly 100-year-old man whose early scenes having him plant the seeds of friendship with the man who will become the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and being given another assignment with S.H.I.E.L.D. by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The world in which Rogers is now planted is far different from that in which he first obtained his superhero status. Now, the enemies are less obvious and the conflicts far transcend the far more 1:1 and technologically simple nature of Captain America's earlier days.
Joe and Anthony Russo are co-directing this time around, and you'd hardly guess that they're first-timers in the Marvel universe. The Russos do a stellar job of building both a viable superhero flick while fulfilling their obligations to cohesively move the Marvel Universe forward cinematically in anticipation of coming films. While the Russos are more known for their television sitcom roots, think Community and Arrested Development, those comic roots are only subtly expressed here through the same type of wry, quiet humor that was present in the first film. Fortunately, the Russos and co-screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus avoid going for easy laughs and only minimally delve into the whole "fish out of water" story thread that might seem obvious for an early 20th century guy now living life nearly 100 years later.
Working with a $170 million budget, which sounds extreme but is fairly modest these days for this type of flick, the Russos have crafted a Captain America film that capitalizes on the advances in technology while remaining firmly planted in the simpler world of Captain America. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is also a surprisingly intelligent film, a film with political intrigue that may be formulaic in nature but is far more subsantial and reality-based than we usually find in the Marvel universe.
This time around, Robert Redford has been added to the cast as Alexander Pierce, a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. officer working on a highly classified project essentially aimed at preventing crime before it happens.
Yes, you will think of Minority Report.
Redford gives the film a surprising amount of emotional heft in what is really one of the actor's rare turns as a guy whose motives could be rather questionable. Redford is usually the likable good guy in a film, and you can see the Redford twinkle as he clearly embraces playing such a complex character. Scarlett Johansson is back again, this time changing up sides as one of Captain America's confidantes. Johansson and Evans have a comfortable, fun chemistry that resonates quite a bit emotionally. Samuel L. Jackson adds to that emotional resonance with a performance as Fury that is far more substantial than you might expect. Sebastian Stan is strong here, as well, though his secrets are best left to be experienced.
There will be those who are tempted to look at the film's darker moments and compare it to The Dark Knight, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels a whole lot less goth than the Gotham-based world of The Dark Knight. The darkness here is less all encompassing and more grounded within the development of the film's characters, a development that feels authentic and well earned.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier didn't quite grab me in the same way as did its predecessor, but realistically speaking this may very well be a more fully developed and satisfying film. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that rare superhero film that excels in presenting both spectacle and substance and, as a result, it is one of the most satisfying and entertaining films to come from Marvel yet.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic