It hasn’t been uncommon to hear the opinion that some of Marvel’s superhero movies are merely stepping stones to a film like The Avengers or its upcoming sequel. At worst these ‘holdover’ films are passively entertaining distractions which serve to set up future movies in the ever expanding Marvel pantheon. Fortunately for us The Winter Soldier is part of a handful of Marvel superhero films which stands on its own as a proper, self-contained story held up by the strength of the tale being told and not by the amount of sly references and not so subtle winks at other Marvel properties.
The Winter Soldier does away with the space faring villains from other dimensions which we’ve become accustomed to since the previous Thor film and The Avengers. Instead, the Captain America sequel focuses on a threat much more plausible while simultaneously being just extravagant enough to make sense in a film that is ultimately rooted in comic book characters and plot lines. Nick Fury, one of many familiar faces returning from previous films in the Marvel franchise, reveals Project Insight to a skeptical Steve Rogers, the man behind the Captain America persona. Without going into too much detail, Project Insight involves three heli-carriers and enough firepower to kill “millions in seconds”. Their targets are chosen based on extensive surveillance of the world’s population, surveillance that the world was unaware was being carried out. Now doesn’t all this sound familiar? Well, except for the three, giant, flying death machines of course.
The threat of the film arises as a result of classic spy movie subterfuge which inevitably and almost predictably sees Project Insight falling into the wrong hands. After an attack on Nick Fury himself, the Captain is left not knowing who to trust and on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D, an agency whose motives and allegiances suddenly become obscured and questionable. The main threat of The Winter Soldier plays into some very modern and timely concerns regarding government surveillance and the price of freedom in a world plagued by conflict and violence. Throughout the movie Steve Rogers is shown struggling with the repercussions of initiatives such as Project Insight as it becomes obvious to him that in the modern world lies and the ability to keep someone in the dark are weapons just as valid as bullets and explosives.
The Winter Soldier plays up the idea of double crossers and secret agents for the majority of the film. With the Captain eventually assembling his own little group of trustworthy allies the explosive climax sees a new group of heroes, super powered or otherwise, taking on the bad guys. They’re certainly not as bombastic or powerful as The Avengers but they definitely get the job done. One of the few new characters introduced in the film is Sam Wilson who is played by Anthony Mackie. Still sporting muscle from his role in Pain and Gain Mackie looks and acts the part of Steve’s new friend and ally, a fellow soldier sharing similar issues of PTSD from his tours in the war. They both lost someone, for Sam it was his co-pilot, for Steve Rogers it was best friend and ally Buck Barnes. Fortunately for Sam, his lost friend doesn’t reappear decades later to embark on a killing spree which lands him in the crosshairs. Sorry, Cap.
The other new face rounding out a cast made up mostly of returning actors is Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce. Redford’s scenes are a welcome change of pace from the rest of the action packed movie. Almost all of his scenes are of him talking to people, either standing or sitting. He certainly doesn’t jump around as much as Captain America. It’s Redford’s talent as an actor that make his scenes a joy to watch. He lends a sense of importance and gravitas to the film’s proceedings and it is more than welcome in a movie leaning on 70s spy era film tropes such as those that Redford himself has been involved in during his acting career.
In fact, remove Captain America and Sam Wilson’s wings (which transform him into ‘Falcon’ the military codename for his gear) and you’re left with a movie that would very closely resemble something like Mission Impossible. Now add a thawed out superhuman and an experienced war vet with twin pistols and the ability to fly and you’ve got something that feels both familiar and new all at once. While this film does stay relatively grounded and resembles reality far more closely than something like Thor: The Dark World it still allows itself to indulge in its comic book roots. A mid movie reveal shows a human consciousness that has been transplanted into a giant room full of 40s era computers and monitors. It should seem out of place and ridiculous given the context of the rest of the film but somehow it works. This is of course due to the fact that although this movie leans on spy thriller tropes it never lets you forget that this story takes place in a world of armored flying billionaires and hulking green rage monsters.
Speaking of larger than life characters, the titular Winter Soldier serves as the most obvious foil to Captain America. However, his role in the grander plot is something more akin to a hitman than an evil mastermind. In fact, this film ends up revealing four distinct villainous characters and the film should be commended for not feeling bogged down with so many characters moving about. The pace of the film moves at a steady clip, characters are introduced and occasionally removed and for of its moving pieces The Winter Soldier’s 136 minute running time flies by.
Yes there are nods and references to other films, Stark industries is brought up a few times in ways which feel forced the first time and somewhat appropriate the second. Bruce Banner’s name is invoked in a way that is appropriate given the context of the film’s threat and someone at some point mentions “New York”. Still, these references and connections to other Marvel films are part of the enjoyment we derive from them aren’t they? In that attempt to deliver fan service The Winter Soldier manages to keep things flowing fairly smoothly without stopping completely to remind you that Age of Ultron and another Captain America sequel are in the pipe. The winks and nods are brief and never hinder the pace of the film and most importantly you can enjoy them for a brief moment and instantly put it in the back of your mind while you enjoy the movie.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the most successful Marvel movies to date in terms of storytelling, and character development. The greatest praise you could give this film is to say that it works as a stand-alone story when separated from the rest of the Marvel franchise. It draws from the original Captain America in ways that makes sense and pushes the development of Steve Rogers forward and does not get bogged down in set up for future Marvel films. It is both a superior sequel to the original Captain America and a good movie, not just “a good Marvel movie”.