I have to admit, I wasn’t looking forward to sitting through Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Over the last couple of years, as a critic who ends up having to see most major releases, I developed a sort of Marvel ennui as we’re bombarded with yet another installment taking place in that superhero universe every six months or so.
It looks like as long as these films bring in the big bucks, Marvel will adapt any of their characters and will give them each a never-ending franchise that shares the same fictional world in an attempt to create an ever-expansive, theatrically distributed soap opera.
Perhaps it’s a positive that they still can’t snatch the rights to X-Men and Spider-Man from Fox and Sony respectively, who at least wait a couple of years before releasing a new installment. Marvel’s recent announcement that they’re now planning on releasing twice as many movies does not help matters much.
Marvel’s first foray into their own productions was also their best work to date, the first Iron Man movie. That movie benefited from Jon Favreau’s fun and zesty direction and Robert Downey Jr’s genuine charisma. From that point on, we got insignificant cash grab mediocrities like The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and even The Avengers to a certain extent.
Even Downey Jr, who had so much to prove when he first landed the coveted role of Tony Stark, therefore delivering a fresh take on the character the first time around, eventually grew tired of the franchise and went on autopilot as he kept laughing on the way to the bank.
Even though it did the job of mildly entertaining the audience for two hours, just like a majority of other Marvel films, I wasn’t very impressed with the first Captain America movie, which was a glorified teaser for the then upcoming The Avengers. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised to find an impeccably paced, always entertaining, at times even exhilarating, superb action-adventure in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The second Cap installment definitely belongs in the cinematic Marvel universe all of us have become so familiar with by now. Even though it uses more practical effects and stunts instead of CGI, a major plus as far as I’m concerned, the visual and tonal approach is similar to most of the other Marvel films.
The Winter Soldier doesn’t even attempt to rewrite the rules of the superhero genre like Batman Begins or even the first X-Men movie did. The music is exactly the same, but the all-too familiar notes are played almost flawlessly and with giddy energy.
The sequel’s 136-minute running time is packed with so much glorious spectacle that’s edited with a perfect rhythm that it feels like the whole thing is over at the blink of an eye. Peter Jackson can definitely learn some lessons in pacing from The Winter Soldier’s editors.
Each gigantic action set piece that blasts through the screen every twenty minutes or so is so grand in scope and creative in execution that any one of them could have worked as the show-stopping finale of another superhero flick.
The opening scenes revolve around a raid by Cap (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) on a ship taken over by terrorists who hold many SHIELD agents captive. The superb sequence showcases the true extent of Cap’s powers as he literally kicks bad guys into the air. The movie has a lot of fun exploring the exaggerated physical possibilities of a man who became a hundred times more powerful through the comic book version of HGH.
Before we can catch our breath, the hints within the plot regarding a possible corruption within SHIELD results in a surprise attack on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), which finally reveals how much of a badass the character really is after he effortlessly mows down an army full of professionals half his age, making me wish for a stand-alone Fury installment.
Remember when we were promised some awesome Mace Windu action after watching Jackson sit on a chair and spout wooden dialogue in The Phantom Menace, only to be met with a short fight scene with tepid CGI in Attack of the Clones? At least Marvel knows what to do with Jackson’s infinite charisma.
Of course just stating the volume of visual spectacle should not pass itself off as an automatic endorsement. After all, Transformers movies pack their last hours full of money-burning show-off CGI and leave us with nothing but a head-splitting migraine.
Captain America peppers the ideal amount of plot and character work to let us care whether the characters live or die which, wouldn’t you know it, actually intensifies the enjoyment of the expensive action.
The plot concerning a growing parasite within SHIELD plays out like a simplistic version of a taut political thriller, which is all we can ask from a movie about a superman who uses a shield out of all things to knock out bad guys.
In order for us to root for these heroes, an inner conflict is essential, which Marvel forgot to inject into their movies recently. Thor is a one-dimensional poster boy for pompous entitlement and the attempt to introduce some psychological dimension to Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 via his panic attacks is completely forgotten halfway through.
As a soldier who’s taught to blindly follow orders, Cap has to make some tough decisions on having to turn his back on those he swore to protect while realizing that the modern world has a lot of grey areas. The secret identity of the main antagonist of the piece, the titular Winter Soldier, also infuses the script with a showdown of near Luke Skywalker-Darth Vader proportions.
Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo come from TV comedies and are one of the most baffling choices to helm a special effects-driven major action movie. However, the brothers knock it out of the park as they prove how much they understand the tone and expectations of the genre. They have a lot of fun with the material and simply invite us to join in.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a pleasant surprise within the Marvel Universe. Here’s hoping that this sequel and Guardians of the Galaxy reinvigorates their brand.