After months of holding my breath for this movie, I’ve finally seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The first Cap movie, The First Avenger (2011), was a disappointment for its awful pacing and lack of punch, but that only made seeing Steve Rogers finally get an engaging, kick-ass action movie in The Winter Soldier more exciting. And honesty, the film is even better than I thought it would be. It’s like I have a Captain America hangover this weekend, in a good way.
For the most part, the story successfully strikes that fine balance between feeling epic and also very personal to Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (played by Chris Evans). That’s the balance I always look for in superhero films.
On the epic side, you have Captain America teaming up with Black Widow Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) to investigate an attempt on S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) life. There’s a secret file, connections to HYDRA, and bad guy Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) helping to mastermind something akin to a police state. But according to Cap, what it really amounts to is humanity giving up its freedom in exchange for a proposed safety.
On the personal side, you’ve got Steve making a new friend: Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Seeing the origin of their friendship here is rewarding for its realism; there’s instant, relaxed chemistry between the two of them. You also have Fury trying to teach Cap that you can’t trust everyone, which is the underlying theme that resurfaces throughout the film. And who is Steve up against? His best friend from the 1940’s, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who has been brainwashed into being a super soldier assassin — the titular Winter Solder — for the enemy. All of this gets kind of emotional.
You can always tell a good fight scene by how much you hang on every move, and this film had my gaze tracking every single motion. The fight scenes are well-choreographed and mesmerizing. Camera angles mostly keep you right in the action, with occasional long shots showing what the action would look like if you were, say, outside the building looking in from a distance. It’s all beautifully shot. Honestly, it’s a movie like this that makes me — a story lover and not so much an action lover — appreciate how gorgeous and engaging a good action scene can be.
These scenes also make good use of their settings. You have a fight in a tiny elevator with way too many people inside it. Nick Fury endures a shoot-out in his van. One scene made me afraid of heights, which I will never get over. And I won’t even get into talking about how awesome it is to see the Falcon fighting from the air over D.C.
I’ve come to love Chris Evans as Captain America. This is a character who can be an idealist, but Evans also makes him sharp and earnest. He makes up his own mind about things; he’s a leader, not a pushover. He may be learning the tough lesson that things in the 21st century are less black-and-white than they were in the 1940’s, but that whole you-can’t-trust-anyone lesson? Steve dismisses that when he decides trust Natasha. That’s the way Captain America is, and Evans makes him very believable. You don’t laugh at Cap for being naive or old-fashioned; you get behind him because he decides what his moral compass will point, and nobody else has the right to shape his values.
You know what else I love about this film? There’s no romance. I mean, I like romance in films, but we don’t need it in every superhero movie. Steve and Natasha are friends, and their relationship is one of learning to trust each other. I loved that. In fact, there’s a scene in the film with Steve and Natasha getting cleaned up in a bedroom, and I could hear people in the cinema laughing or gasping and generally getting excited to see the two of them get it on — but that didn’t happen. The scene ended up being a conversation about having each other’s backs, which was so cool.
Natasha also blossoms in this movie. I liked her character in The Avengers, but she hit a new stride in Winter Soldier. In conversations with Steve, she opens up about how espionage has had an impact on her, saying she can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction anymore. She’s also witty, smart, and physically tough: One minute, she’s spinning a web of charming lies as a distraction while she hacks into a computer file; the next minute she’s flipping enemies onto the floor. This versatility makes her one of the most interesting and intelligent heroes in the Avengers world. At this point, Black Widow really deserves her own movie.
Agent 13, or Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), also makes an appearance. In the comic books, she has a much more fleshed-out backstory and is even Steve’s ex-girlfriend, who flirts with him over a drink at one point in The Winter Soldier storyline. I love her character in the comics: tough, blonde, and someone who knows Steve well enough to read him on an emotional level throughout the mission. She’s able to talk sense into him when no one else can.
In the film, she’s similar — still tough, still blonde — but she not the ex-girlfriend (among other things). Steve just thinks she’s a neighbor, and when he asks her out for coffee, she turns him down. Later, it’s revealed that she’s actually a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in charge of protecting him. I would say that the film could have used more Agent 13, but that’s just because I love her character so much in the comics. Natasha filled the role of Steve’s partner very well in the film, with Sharon getting an interesting minor role.
The greatest disappointment in the film is that Pierce, as one of the primary villains, doesn’t get more of a backstory. Robert Redford gives him plenty of gravitas, but I would have liked to see a little more of his personal life to understand what makes him tick.
However, the personal villain of this tale is the Winter Soldier, a.k.a. Bucky Barnes. And he’s fantastic. The only mild complaint I have about him is that there’s just not enough of him in this movie. I mean, there isn’t a ton of him in the comics, either; the story focuses on what Steve is going through. But even so, I think the movie would have benefited from expanding his role a bit more. He deserves more than just a handful of lines the entire film, and it would have made for a more compelling showdown if we’d seen more of Bucky’s inner struggle. At least we did get to see him have a flashback to his old life; speaking about Cap, he says, “I knew that man,” and hesitates in his attack. So despite the minimal Barnes, I concede that the story there has major emotional impact.
I like Captain America: The Winter Soldier as much as The Avengers. Which is really saying something, because not everybody can do what Joss Whedon does. Since Captain America is my favorite superhero, I might be biased, but directors Anthony and Joe Russo and scriptwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have created something pretty magical in The Winter Soldier.