A Marked Improvement
In the pantheon of comic book superheroes, Captain America falls somewhere between Superman and Batman in terms of character intrigue. He’s nowhere near as interesting as the Dark Knight but he’s not as thin as Clark Kent’s alter ego. That’s not to say the adventures aren’t entertaining, but it’s difficult to get invested in a hero whose only weakness is some magical element.
Captain America is a mixture of the two extremes. A regular guy with chemically enhanced abilities, he has the power of a classic superhero but if you put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, he would fall down. The main issue is his character never changes. In Captain America: The First Avenger, the bulky soldier is set up for the dozens of eventual series sequels, but he didn’t arc. He started as an honest, good hearted All American and ended up the same way, albeit with more muscles and big honkin’ shield. The film was good but arguably the weakest link in a gargantuan chain.
With the sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the issue is sidestepped by a solid script, more lively direction and the realization that the titular hero isn’t strong enough to pull a movie along. He’s at his best when reacting to things falling apart. Easily superior to the original, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fun, boisterous and surprisingly interesting sequel that improves on everything from the original in substantial ways.
Taking place two years after the events of First Avenger, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) finds himself slowly acclimating to modern life. After a mission with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) reveals some shady dealings within the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, Rogers finds himself caught in the middle of a paranoid government and his desire for truth, justice and the American way.
Unlike last year’s disastrous Man of Steel, the stakes are more relatable and the central theme of safety at the price of freedom is current and relevant. Instead of spending an entire film setting up a one noted character, Winter Soldier puts the good captain in a windstorm of high flying action and political intrigue. This time around, Cap is less a pivot and more the eye of a swilling hurricane. Allowing him to be a participant rather than a centerpiece gives his strengths of loyalty, bravery and honesty to be better presented. Reprising the role, Chris Evans is again perfect for the part with all the boyish resilience one would expect. There’s more for him to react to than the hammered in love story of First Avenger and he handles it with quiet dignity.
Supporting the script, the direction of first timers Anthony and Joe Russo is livelier and more Avengers-esqe than the previous iteration. While I enjoyed the sepia toned look of the first film, Winter Soldier has more life to it, complete with Joss Whedon style quips and spot on humor. The tone matches that of the The Avengers and helps connect this side story with the series centerpiece. The action is also nicely choreographed and while some of the details are missed with the manic editing found in modern action, it’s still fun to watch the team lay waste to carbon copy baddies.
It also helps Captain America has a much better villain to combat. While there’s a nebulous evil force that looms over the action, the direct battles happen against Winter Solder, a bad ass human / machine hybrid with a taste for wonton destruction. Serving as Captain’s first serious adversary, the battles are quick yet exciting. For the first time, our hero is in serious danger and the threat of harm makes him instantly more relatable. The villain also provides a great plot reveal that gives the story more emotional punch.
This time around, Cap isn’t the only hero fighting the hordes of evil. At his side is series stalwart Black Widow and newcomer Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Although the Falcon character provides a new dimension to the action, Mackie really shines when outside his super suit. With a more relaxed attitude and humorous style, Mackie is an exceptional “best buddy” and counterpoint to the good ol’ American boy stiffness of Steve Rogers. Johansson once again serves up high flying kicks as Black Widow, but her character remains as bland as ever, despite some attempts to get her more involved.
Being the little brother to the Marvel monoliths is a tough task. Iron Man gets all the praise, Thor has the cult following and The Avengers loom ominous over all. It’s a hard niche to fill, especially when your central character has nowhere to grow, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier expands on the hero’s strengths with a story full of twists and turns, impressive action set pieces and a lighter, more relatable tone. Steve Rogers and the rest of the Captain family may never be kings of the Marvel schoolyard but they’ve avoided being shunned outcasts with a fine second effort. A solid and satisfying start to the summer blockbuster season.
Score: 8.5 out of 10