Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Marvel Studios, 2014)
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Concept and Story by Ed Brubaker
Based upon characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Starring Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johannson (Natasha Romanoff), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill), Frank Grillo (Brock Rumlow) with Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce) and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury)
Marvel is a relatively new film studio but to say they haven’t had their share of hits would be a misnomer. Overall, the franchise (prior to this weekend) has brought in $2,362,030, 576 domestically and is the second highest grossing film franchise in history (closing in on Harry Potter… in fact, the Avengers will likely overtake the wizarding world this month!). The series has had eight feature films with several more in various stages of production (and plans for films all the way out to 2028! Insane!), a moderately successful television series with another series potentially on next year’s schedule and several series on Netflix in development. To say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a success is quite the understatement.
The latest installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, takes the MCU in a different direction: a political thriller. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of action and adventure to keep you entertained! But this is something different. This is a film that drew in Robert Redford to join the ensemble. And let me tell you something… It’s worth it.
Two years after the events of The Avengers,Steve Rogers lives in Washington, D.C., continues to work for the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D., and struggles to adapt to contemporary society. After meeting and befriending former Pararescue war veteran and PTSD counselor Sam Wilson on a morning jog, Rogers is called to help save a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel from Algerian pirates led by Georges Batroc. Aboard, he discovers fellow agent Natasha Romanoff extracting data from the ship’s computers, something Rogers was not briefed on. At S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, Nick Fury introduces Rogers to Project Insight, three Helicarriers linked to spy satellites and designed to preemptively eliminate threats.
Due to heightened encryption, Fury is unable to access the data Romanoff recovered. On his way to rendezvous with Maria Hill, he is ambushed by assailants disguised as police officers, led by a mysterious assassin called the Winter Soldier. Fury escapes, sneaks into Rogers’ apartment, and informs Rogers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised. After Fury hands Rogers a USB flash drive he is gunned down by the Winter Soldier. Rogers gives chase, and his neighbor reveals herself as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Agent 13. Fury appears to die in surgery, and Hill recovers the body.
The next day, Rogers is summoned by senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce. When Rogers withholds Fury’s information, Pierce brands him a fugitive. Hunted by the agency, Rogers meets with Romanoff. Using data in the flash drive they discover an old S.H.I.E.L.D. underground base in New Jersey. There, they activate a supercomputer containing the preserved consciousness of Arnim Zola, who reveals that since S.H.I.E.L.D. was founded after World War II, HYDRA secretly operated within its ranks, sowing chaos across the world in the hope that humanity would willingly surrender its freedom in exchange for safety. Rogers and Romanoff narrowly escape death when a S.H.I.E.L.D. missile destroys the bunker.
They enlist the help of Wilson, and acquire his old “Falcon” winged-flight exoskeleton. After deducing that senior S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell is with HYDRA, they interrogate him until he reveals Zola developed a data-mining algorithm that can identify individuals who might become future opponents to HYDRA’s plans. The new Helicarriers will sweep the country, eliminating these individuals with their satellite-guided guns.
En route to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, they are ambushed by the Winter Soldier. In the fight, Winter Soldier loses his mask and Rogers recognizes him as Bucky, his old World War II comrade. They are captured by S.H.I.E.L.D. but are rescued by a disguised Hill. She leads them to a hideout where they discover Fury is alive and planning a mission to prevent Pierce from launching Operation: Insight by replacing a chip within each Helicarrier to override their satellite control.
After members of the World Security Council arrive for the Helicarriers’ launch, Pierce holds them hostage and reveals HYDRA’s true motives. Rogers and Wilson storm two Helicarriers and replace the controllers, but the Winter Soldier destroys Wilson’s suit and confronts Rogers at the third. They fight, with Rogers trying to revive Bucky’s memories. Meanwhile, Fury and Romanoff confront Pierce and force him to unlock access to S.H.I.E.L.D’s database so Romanoff can expose HYDRA’s motives to the public by leaking classified information. After a brief conflict, Fury shoots Pierce dead. Aboard the third Helicarrier, a wounded Rogers replaces the final controller, allowing Hill to override the satellite operation and have all three vessels destroy one another. The Helicarrier carrying Rogers and the Winter Soldier crashes into the side of the Triskelion, where Wilson battles compromised agent Rumlow, who had earlier tried to capture Rogers.
Rogers falls off the vessel into the river. Slowly remembering his past, the Winter Soldier pulls Rogers from the water before disappearing. With S.H.I.E.L.D. in disarray, Fury destroys the last traces of his identity before heading to Europe in pursuit of HYDRA’s remaining cells under the cover of his apparent death. Romanoff appears before a Senate subcommittee and later gives Rogers a dossier on the Winter Soldier program. Both Rogers and Wilson decide to track down the Winter Soldier.
A mid-credits scene takes place in a HYDRA lab, where Baron von Strucker is keeping Loki’s scepter and two prisoners: one with superhuman speed, the other with telekinetic powers. In a post-credits scene, the Winter Soldier visits the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution to learn of his past. (Source: Wikipedia)
I like to look at the negative aspects of something I review first of all. It makes it a little easier to get the criticisms out of the way first of all and then delve into what I loved about it. Here, and I’m going to be honest, there’s not a lot to be negative towards. My biggest complaint, and maybe I missed something, but how exactly was HYDRA able to operate within the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D.? It would seem that there would be background checks and that the people S.H.I.E.L.D.would employ would either have strong moral compasses or weak moral compasses and good intelligence gathering skills to prevent this for going on for sixty years. I probably missed something.
Going forward, I’m going to have to be a little nitpicky here. I think that a flaw is that it could be a little more clear on who was fighting who in the battle scenes in the third act. Unless they were shooting at Rogers, Romanoff or Wilson… or any of the other established supporting characters were on the screen, I found it a little difficult to know who I was supposed to be rooting for. Not that it was that important, but it would have been nice to see it. The action was also a little frenetic and again that made it a little hard to follow. That also might have had something to do with seeing it on a frikkin HUGE screen.
I’m not familiar with the source material for the movie so I don’t know for sure but I’m not certain that The Winter Soldier was the best subtitle for it. The subtitular (I may have made that word up) character was not the focus of the movie. Bucky’s storyline here was far more of a B plot than anything else. It informed the S.H.I.E.L.D./H.Y.D.R.A. plot a lot more than the other way around. In fact, I feel like there might have been some things left on the cutting room floor from his storyline. I think a more appropriate subtitle for this movie would be The Price of Freedom. It’s part of a quote attributed to many, most notably Thomas Jefferson. The full quote is “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” It is actually uttered at one point in the movie, but I don’t recall who said it. I think with the plot of the movie, it’s an excellent subtitle and far more fitting, in my opinion, than The Winter Soldier. Anyone with more knowledge on the source material, please correct me if I’m far off base here.
Other than that, I think my other problem with the movie results in underuse of some of its stars: the plot dictated that Samuel L. Jackson sat out for most of the movie and it makes sense. What he does have is great. But Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill really just seems to be around to serve the purpose of bringing Rogers and company to Fury and then to call out the battle. I think she’s a better actress than that and a more important character. I also thought new character Agent 13, Sharon Carter (hmm… any relation to a certain Peggy Carter?) played by Emily VanCamp was also underutilized.
Before I get into the positive aspects, the ending puts some of the characters out in the cold and there’s a lot of follow-up demanded here. S.H.I.E.L.D., well, what’s left of it, will get a lot of follow-up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. There is absolutely no way they cannot address the ending. S.H.I.E.L.D. is more or less in shambles right now and if the last few episodes of the season don’t deal with the ramifications of what Rogers and his band of merry men did, it would be a hugely missed opportunity. It seems that’s the way they’re going. So hooray! Natasha is on her own again but Scarlett Johansson is appearing in next summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, so it won’t be that long before we get some closure on that story… maybe. Fury’s got an amazing story ahead of him and I really hope he gets a standalone in Phase 3. Hill is apparently going to work for Tony Stark so she’ll be around in Age of Ultron, I’d imagine (but I’d think a return to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. anytime soon is out of the cards, which is okay because I’d rather have Bill Paxton join the cast full-time… with only two episodes left in his arc, it’s unlikely… but it’d be awesome). Bucky had an interesting end in the post-credits scene and I hope that will be followed up on in the next installment of Captain America. Sharon Carter though — going to join the CIA? We may not see her again.
So… good things… Where to even begin? I think the most obvious place to start is the performances. Pretty much all across the board, these were A+ performances. If I have one complaint there, while he did fine, Robert Redford really didn’t add much to the film other than the illusion of gravitas to the project. (Gravitas, even in an illusionary state, is not a bad thing.)
Chris Evans continues to play what could be an extremely boring boy scout of a character with grace and aplomb. He continues to show high morals in a very immoral world. With a lesser actor, Steve Rogers could be far more of a Dudley Do-Right kind of a character and no one wants that. He starts his journey in this installment as a fish out of water, but by the end, to say that Captain America hasn’t definitively landed in the 2010s would be a ball-faced lie.
Rogers’ relationships with the rest of the major players are solid. Particularly with Natasha Romanoff and Sam Wilson… er, Black Widow and Falcon. Scarlett Johannson and Anthony Mackie both do tremendous jobs in recurring roles. Both are funny, great with the action and make you care about them and what happens to them. The first scene in front of the Washington Monument as Rogers passes Wilson running several times with the simple line “On your left” is great and the exchange between the two of them is wonderful, particularly as Rogers is trying to catch up on stuff like Steve Jobs, Thai food, Star Wars, Rocky (maybe Rocky II?)and the soundtrack to Troubleman is a lot of fun. And to get off of the topic of performances for just a second… his wings are awesome too. Johannson gives her finest performance as Black Widow to date. She has a lot to do in this movie and utilizes the sultriness that the actress is known for to her advantage. But at the same point in time, there’s a lot of warmth to her character towards Rogers. The two of them care about each other. As the two of them spend much of the movie together, this is important. Honestly, I was wondering (but not fully expecting) if there would have been a romance from them here. I’m glad there wasn’t. I’d say she is the brightest star in this cast and a Black Widow solo film really needs to be coming from Marvel in the next few years.
As for Samuel L. Jackson? Well, he misses the better part of the film as he plays dead. Unfortunately, the soda that I had really was causing me some problems that needed relief so I missed his “resurrection” but I wasn’t surprised to see him alive. His role is vital and he manages to have a lot to do in the time he is onscreen. He’s the catalyst really that gets the story moving and in the end, he’s the only one who can go off and tie off some loose ends that need to be tied off. Like I said, a Nick Fury movie now at this stage of the game would be epic.
Honestly, while Sebastian Stan isn’t given a whole lot to do in an acting capacity as Bucky/The Winter Soldier, what he does do is very good. He manages to show a lot of emotion in the eyes prior to us actually finding out it is in fact Rogers’ old buddy and the look on his face is the perfect mix of emotion in the post-credits scene (all the way at the end… still shocks me when people leave right after the movie or the mid-credits scene… it’s a Marvel movie, dummies). And although a lot if it is probably a stunt man, what he does there is in the action scenes is really good as well.
The rest of the cast is just as good: Cobie Smulders (after getting pummeled last week in reviews for the How I Met Your Mother finale) gives a solid performance in her third outing as Maria Hill. A touching appearance by Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter is a nice addition. Emily VanCamp gives a serviceable appearance as Agent 13. In a surprising twist, Toby Jones reprises his role as Arnim Zola in one of the most creepy computer sequences since HAL in 2001. Jasper Sitwell makes his final MCU appearance played by Maximiliano Hernandez as a H.Y.D.R.A. agent. (Interesting that I never would have guessed that prior to this movie.) Gary Shandling also appears as Senator Stern, last seen digging a medal into Tony Stark’s chest in Iron Man 2. Also, Avengers: Age of Ultron stars Aaron Johnson-Taylor and Elizabeth Olson make uncredited cameos as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch during the mid-credits sequence along with Thomas Kretschmann as Baron Von Strucker. The best cameo (other than Stan Lee) is by Community’s Danny Pudi. I might have yelled out “Abed!” when he came onscreen.
Other than the performances, the writing is superb. A lot of comparisons have been made to 1970s political thriller films and I don’t think that’s too much of a reach. I give the writers tremendous credit for going down this road and going against the norm of a comic book movie. It’s a fascinating tale of intrigue as Rogers, Fury, Romanoff, Wilson and Hill literally have to destroy their entire world in order to make the rest of the world a better place. It goes back to the idea of the price of freedom. And this fab five managed to be vigilant against an army. I am a sucker for a good underdog story, and that is one aspect that Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely managed to crush it on.
The direction, cinematography and particularly the stunts were very well done. There’s a lot of action in this one and although I felt like the two action sequences that took place on roadways were a little repetitive, the almost parkour sequences throughout the movies were a lot of fun. It was nice to see Cap almost get acrobatic with his fighting sequences. Talking about Community, there was a lot of concern when the Russo brothers were tapped to direct this movie, having been primarily known for their work on the sitcom (which also explains Pudi’s cameo) but I think this has put any concerns about them directing an action thriller to rest.
I really feel like I’m just going to keep gushing over this film so I’ll stop. You get the idea. If you’ve seen it, you probably know what I mean. If you haven’t, why not? You spoiled yourself! Just go see it!
SPECIAL: WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE OF AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.?
There’s no question that Winter Soldier is going to have a huge effect on the entire MCU but Agent’s of S.H.I.E.L.D.will most definitely feel a lot of those changes and much sooner than others. With the reference to the film in last week’s AoS’s “The End of the Beginning” with Sitwell going off to the Lemurian Star and that mission taking place at the beginning of Winter Soldier, and apparently in the televised version, the scene with Fury’s SUV being overturned by the Winter Soldier was included as the tag (it wasn’t present on my iTunes copy), there’s no question that the events will have to be mentioned, ya know, soon. Like, probably Tuesday’s episode “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I mean, Rogers and company brought down the organization. All of the secrets are on the web. The Triskelion was destroyed. Fury is “dead.” S.H.I.E.L.D.has been dismantled and the name of the show is Agents of, um, S.H.I.E.L.D.. While “Turn, Turn, Turn” may take place concurrently with Winter Soldier, the producers of the show suggest you see the film before the show resumes. Granted, that could just be an attempt to stir up ticket sales. (As I finish this review up Sunday morning, the film has brought in $37 million Friday and is estimated to land around $90 million for the weekend.)
The producers have also said that although the series has yet to be picked up for a second season, they do have plans for events into the third season. My thought then is that the rest of the season will be cleaning up the mess that was left behind by Rogers’ war while discovering the true identity of the Clairvoyant and bringing him down while sowing the seeds of rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D.. It’ll be interesting to see the team do their jobs without all the resources of S.H.I.E.L.D.. I think that in itself could either make the show a lot more interesting or turn into more of and A-Team clone. Time will tell.
It’s a fun addition to the MCU with a lot of great things going for it. Where does it lie in this series for me? I really want to wait to see it again before I really make a final call on it, but I will say it will land at either #1 or #2 with The Avengers right around there. The scores are way too close to judge at this point.
So, assuming you’ve actually read this far, I’m not sure what I might review next. I am, however, open to suggestions. Please offer them up!