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‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ Review: Best Marvel Phase 2 Film, or Best Marvel Film Period?

By  · Published on April 1st, 2014

Walt Disney Studios

Captain America should be the most boring lead in the ongoing cinematic superhero cavalcade – he’s a goody two shoes who fights with a shield, wears an excessively patriotic costume, and by all accounts has never been laid – and yet, over the course of three films he’s quickly become the most entertaining, exciting to watch, and affecting of the bunch by a wide margin. (Your move Superman.)

It takes nothing away from the writers and directors of those films to acknowledge that the biggest key to the character’s onscreen success can be found in the man behind the mask, Chris Evans. His charisma, appeal, and physical presence combined with the character’s personality and tragic circumstances make for a compelling and fun superhero whose humanity shines through far more often than heroes who spend half their screen-time as CGI creations.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier sees Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans) still trying to fit in to the modern world while working for SHIELD on a regular basis. His latest mission leads to yet another conflict with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) over his and SHIELD’s priorities and methods in fighting the war on terror. Rogers thinks criminals should be punished after a crime has been committed, but Fury says they can’t afford to wait that long. The arrival on scene of a mysterious and legendary assassin, the Winter Soldier, shakes things up even further, and soon Captain America is fighting not only for the lives of millions but for his past, his integrity, and every core belief he holds dear.

Frequently teamed with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Rogers is in a rut of leading missions, saving the day, and then returning to his lonely life and apartment. He makes a new friend, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), while jogging around the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool, and makes a half-hearted attempt at asking out his neighbor (Emily VanCamp), but most of his down time is spent alone. He visits the Smithsonian Institution’s “Captain America” room, but images of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) only serve to remind him of what he’s lost.

He’s a hero in a soul-searching flux, and while it’s something we’ve seen before in Tony Stark/Iron Man grappling with his identity and responsibilities, Rogers is in more tragic straits because he’s a hero in circumstances well beyond his own choosing. The First Avenger showed us his origin as a great man wanting to do good and paying for it by being violently torn away from the world he knew and loved, and The Avengers found him continuing to fight the good fight but having to do it in a world with modified morals and ethical shortcuts. Everything we’ve learned about him and everything he’s learned about himself comes to a head in The Winter Soldier, and the result is an exciting, humorous, topical, and surprisingly touching thrill ride that raises the bar terrifically high for the rest of this year’s summer blockbusters. (You know, once summer actually begins.)

Evans remains the ultimate star of the film thanks to his ability to shift effortlessly from highly capable action star to ridiculously charming funny man. He’s at his best in roles that combine physical presence with sense of humor, and that best has never been better than it is here. While Evans is the center of it all, the ensemble cast around him also gets the chance to shine. Robert Redford shelves his liberal heart for a moment as the Director of U.S. Security, a role that it’s fun to imagine as a “Where Are They Now?” follow-up to Three Days of the Condor. The two biggest benefactors, thanks to their expanded roles, are Johansson and Jackson. Black Widow kicks a lot of ass, Jackson finally gets to actually act and get his hands dirty as Fury, and while both get their fair share of serious and funny moments they also get to play a much bigger role in the action. Mackie soars as well both as a hero in his own right and as a friend for Rogers.

Walt Disney Studios

Oh the action. The sweet, sweet, wonderfully choreographed and shot action that relies heavily on hand to hand combat and practical effects with CGI assists instead of wall to wall animation devoid of personality and human weight… it is unexpected and glorious.

From the opening actions sequence featuring Captain America and Black Widow storming a hijacked ship to a one vs ten elevator brawl to a car chase through Washington D.C., the action scenes feel immediate and alive in ways that CGI heroes flying about dodging CGI baddies simply can’t. Of course there are scenes that rely heavily on CG work, particularly in the third act, but even then we never lose sight of the human faces participating in the fight. While their mastery of comedic timing is well documented (and put to frequent use here), co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo have nothing on their resume to hint at such effective action chops. Fights are a mix of the brutal and acrobatic, bigger sequences are shot and edited so we can actually tell exactly what’s happening and to whom, and we rarely feel a step or two removed by CGI or obvious stunt doubles.

That humanity amid the chaos is absent from these types of films far too frequently, and its presence here infiltrates the story and characters to equally positive effect. Steve Rogers remains the only hero to hit true emotional beats that go beyond the superficial, and while others have faced loss and important decisions only Rogers has seen his life swept away with no hope of return. He’s faced here with both his beliefs and his connections to the past being shattered and crushed before his eyes, with the possible loss of his only remaining relationships, and the script (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) and Evans’ performance make those losses more poignant than anything the Marvel universe has accomplished before. Watch Rogers’ visible pain (and Evans’ accompanying acting) at his friend’s hospital bedside, and then try to remember anything in these films even remotely as touching.

I’m no comic or Marvel fanboy (as evidenced by some of my past reviews), but this is magnificent and wondrous entertainment. Many of these films stumble in the third act as the desire for spectacle tends to replace the drive for quality, but the biggest issue here is a comic-book simplicity that pervades some of the later events and action presumably for the sake of expediency. Certain actions should be a hell of a lot more difficult and complicated than they are. And, not for nothing, but with everything at stake here I still take issue with the idea that certain other members of the Avengers wouldn’t be called in to help. I get that this is a solo film blah blah, but in the shared universe (and with this story-line in particular) it makes zero sense that someone wouldn’t speed dial Iron Man to lend a hand.

I’m intentionally leaving out the vast majority of the film’s details, both plot turns and cameos, not just to avoid spoilers but also because the film is a near non-stop torrent of memorable moments and scenes best discovered while watching. There’s not a dull minute to be found here between the expertly crafted action sequences, plot revelations lifted equally out of the comic books and the New York Times, character moments, and legitimately funny laughs. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is big, spectacular entertainment that manages to stay grounded even as the action turns to explosive spectacle. It’s the kind of summer blockbuster we always hope for but so rarely seem to get, and it just may be the absolute best of the Marvel films so far.

The Upside: Chris Evans; spectacular action sequences; heavy reliance on practical effects; Nick Fury finally put to good use; strong sense of humor; excellent challenge to the good captain’s loyalty, integrity, and loneliness; solid work from Scarlett Johansson

The Downside: Some comic book simplicity in third act; seriously, why wouldn’t Iron Man show up for this?

On the Side: There are two end credits scenes. The first is very cool. The second is unnecessary.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.