Note: This review is spoiler-free, with a separate section below for spoilers. There will be a warning before the spoilers begin. The comments will also contain spoilers.
If you’ve read any other reviews of Captain America: The Winter Soldier then you’ve essentially been told everything you need to know. 1.) It’s a must-see if you’re invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 2.) Even if you’re not, it’s still a lot of fun. Did you see Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World? Whatever reaction you had to those movies is what you’ll have to Winter Soldier.
And that’s okay. The Avengers movies are now three films in to an era of playful confidence, keeping care to root their stories in themes and issues that reflect our world while tackling them with the same nonsensical joy you had playing with your action figures as a kid.
This kind of approach propels Winter Soldier throughout its entire running time. Worried about our culture of incessant surveillance and what those in charge of that information will do? You should be, because in the Avengers universe that means you could become collateral damage to a clandestine plot that runs in, out, and around S.H.I.E.L.D., the overwhelming security force of the western world. Do you feel helpless in the face of such shadowy might? So does Captain America. But unlike you, he has the ability to actually do something about it.
As a character, Captain America is perfectly situated to respond to this kind of overarching fear. He’s seemingly unstoppable, for one thing, and he represents a period of time to which we ascribe a more honest, compassionate morality. It’s definitely arguable as to whether that morality actually existed or was painted over events after the fact, but in Steve Rogers’ case he strives to actually embody that, and Winter Soldier takes pains to show him repeatedly bringing that approach to his everyday life in the 21st century and to how he treats and is treated by the military apparatus that he finds himself working within. The movie doesn’t ignore the events of Avengers or Captain America: The First Avenger. Cap’s attitude towards Nick Fury remains consistently untrusting, his attitude towards dating remains consistently cautious and bewildered, and his attitude towards what is the correct thing to do remains unwavering.
Captain America is a lonely, lonely guy because of this, but Winter Soldier smartly doesn’t let Cap stew through this emotional struggle by himself. From the very first (and very cute) scene, Rogers pulls like-minded souls into his orbit and when the larger events of the film require some serious superheroics, the line is drawn between those who just want to play at heroism and those who actually want to make the world a better place.
The Black Widow’s own character development benefits tremendously from this, as Romanov is placed again and again in positions where she can either follow orders or do what she believes is the right thing. More than that, the events of the film require Cap and others to trust her, and that tension adds to the intrigue in the first half of the story, when all certainties become papery and tenuous. Widow’s heroism goes through some key growth during these events, and her role in Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to be all the more powerful because of it.
The movie does an excellent job with the epsionage thriller tone that it has chosen to adopt for this outing. The cover-ups and twists keep the story humming and the action scenes are intense, varied, and fraught. Cap himself takes a huge leap forward in demonstrating just why he deserves the term “super-soldier,” and everyone from Falcon to Nick Fury to Black Widow to Agent Hill and so on get some amazing moments in the sun. Even Batroc gets a fun fight sequence, and who ever cares about that guy?
The filmmakers make sure to allow plenty of space for quiet, conversational moments, as well. Jokes and banter are squeezed into the corners of every scene—and really half the reason we’re watching this is just to see Chris Evans, Johansson, Jackson, et al throw their charm around—but they never distract from the emotional throughlines that ground the story. A heartbreaking scene with Peggy Carter is juxtaposed seamlessly with a shocking assassination attempt, but both imbue Cap with a sense of personal tragedy. A flashback to the innocence of Rogers’ and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s early days plays out right next to a totally insane sci-fi sequence, but both serve to change the perspective of a time that Cap considered pure and right.
The movie does have its flaws, most notably in the potrayal of the titular Winter Soldier himself. To Winter Soldier’s credit, it doesn’t try to shoehorn in the character development it should have demonstrated in Captain America: The First Avenger, but that limits the film to squeezing in confrontrations between him and Cap where it can. By the end of the film it’s clear that their story is only just beginning, but that honesty can’t quite compensate for the lingering feeling that their story should have already begun. Sebastian Stan broods menacingly as well he can, and that is very well, but his storyline still comes off as an afterthought. (Literally so. Perhaps the most potent scene in the character’s story is his post-credits scene.)
That was really the only bum note for me, however. In all other respects, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an excellent addition to the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s respectful to these characters, smart about their motivations and developing relationships, and exciting and fun all throughout. Even once the events in the film drew to a close, I didn’t actually want it to end.
SPOILER SPACE AHEAD
Captain America: The Winter Soldier contains a lot of developments that will affect other Marvel movies and television shows, both current and upcoming. We’ll get to those after some spoiler space.
Not a spoiler: For someone called Batroc the Leaper he really only leapt once. Or maybe he got that name because of how impatient he is.
More spoiler space ahead...
- OH MY GOD S.H.I.E.L.D. IS GONE. I hope they rename the show Formerly Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If only to hear Clark Gregg say “Previously on Formerly Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
- Seriously, what’s even going to happen on that show? I mean, I imagine dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D. will mean that there’s a lot of messes that they’ll have to mop up. You can’t just close the seed school, or shut down The Box, and someone’s got to look after the various Abominations and such being imprisoned in The Fridge.
- I hope this means they get rid of their super boring plane. Now that S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t there to pay for the infinite amounts of jet fuel they must run through.
- Coulson is going to be so angry at his idol for dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D.! That’s a conversation I want to see. Cap: “You’re alive!” Coulson: “You’re a JERK.”
- The whole Clairvoyant/Centipede business has to be just another arm (tentacle?) of HYDRA. There’s no way a second shadowy organization would be able to operate under the nose of an organization as extensive as HYDRA. Especially when considering the first post-credits scene.
- Oh, let’s talk about that post-credits scene and how bad it is, because it was super bad. Who’s this guy with the monocle? Why is the movie asking us to take a weirdo with a monocle seriously? Oh, okay, he’s got Loki’s staff so that’s bad. But, oh, wait, we’re not here to talk about that? Now here are two more random people who have superpowers that obviously allow them to escape the cages that they are in? Why do they have superpowers? Monocle Guy says it’s because we’re in an Age of Miracles now but really he means we’re in an Age of That’s Not An Explanation.
- Okay, I’m being snippy, but it’s not a well-done infodrop. Thor: The Dark World suffered the same thing with its post-credits scene involving the Collector, but we at least had recognizable Asgardian characters to ground that, and comics fans could still explain the implications of what occurred to non-comics readers who were confused. That’s not the case here. We know that the guy is Quicksilver and the girl is Scarlet Witch (and we might know that the monocle is Baron Von Strucker) but beyond that we’re just as in the dark as non-comics readers. You could argue that this is the point; to keep enough information back so that folks actively theorize or read up on “the twins,” but there’s no info to really fall back on. Aside from Loki’s staff, the scene is disconnected from anything else we’ve seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and since this “Age of Miracles” thing is a new direction that the movies are taking, we don’t know if any comic book background on Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch is viable any longer. (The only thing we do know is that they’re definitely NOT mutants or connected to Magneto. So what are they, then?) Sure, the twins seem crazy and threatening, but we also just saw Cap take down S.H.I.E.L.D. so this doesn’t seem like too much of a worry.
- Is Stephen Strange a “Miracle”? Because he definitely exists now thanks to Sitwell’s squealing. Marvel Films president Kevin Feige has hinted that Strange’s origin may be tied more to theoretical physics and quantum theory than any Old Gods-style type of sorcery, though.
- I’m sad they made Sitwell an agent of HYDRA. That was just an annoying twist.
- I loved the implications that this movie created for Tony Stark. He lives in Avengers Tower now, as evidenced by his being targeted by Project Insight. He’s also a tricky fellow for HYDRA to get their hands on, too. On the one hand, Fury got Tony to create the repulsors that allowed HYDRA’s plan to become feasible, but on the other hand, Tony ran circles around the HYDRA Senator who tried to get his hands on Iron Man back in the second Iron Man film.
- Also that whole thing where Director Hill now works for Stark Industries. (Well, really, we only see her waiting to start an interview but come on. She snuck Cap, Widow, and Fury literally out from under HYDRA’s nose. Her references are impeccable, Tony.)
- Also the way she idly shot two HYDRA agents while staying on the phone.
- Banner’s calmdown juice saves Fury’s life! That was a nice reference.
- The Arnim Zola thing made no sense but it was so flashy that I find a certain glee in defending it as canon.
- I’m really glad that Robert Redford didn’t turn out to be the Red Skull, though.
- And also really glad that Peggy Carter helping found S.H.I.E.L.D. was made explicit. That was probably my favorite cameo of all.
- Even considering Abed.
- And the Pulp Fiction reference.
- I don’t have all that much to say about Anthony Mackie as Falcon. He’s an excellent addition to the Cinematic Universe and they did a pretty good job of proving how useful his Falcon abilities can be, but he got a little edged out by the other big personalities in the film. I’m looking forward to seeing him and Cap partner up in Captain America 3, though, where he can assumably be more varied.
- I wish there had been a line explaining where the heck Hawkeye was. His absence was particularly noticeable once S.H.I.E.L.D. began to turn on itself. Just having Insight list him when it was targeting people would have been enough.
- Finally, how awesome was Councilwoman Hawley’s Big Moment?