Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
There is an almost brutal efficiency present in each of the films encompassing the now-vast Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rare is the entry in this mini-canon with a striking level of personal style or brio; though the characters depicted within these stories are allowed to have brash personalities, the worlds they occupy are presented in workmanlike fashion. For better or worse, Marvel’s movies over the last 5 years are not helmed by directors interested in offering a singular vision; as fantastical as the set-ups may be, and as visually off-kilter as the source material is, the Marvel films rely more on getting the job done, than on being flashy before successful.
Though there have been a few misfires from Marvel over time, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the pinnacle of the studio’s efficient aspirations. In spite of switching tonal gears from Captain America: The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier remains a calculated piece of popular art, a solid action film made by people who had no interest in aiming higher. There are moments of portent and angst, but Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, always winning even if his character’s not as much of a gee-whiz Boy Scout as in the original) isn’t the brooding sort. Granted, this story is meant to push Captain America to his limit, more so than in the 2011 original. Now comfortably ensconced in the present day, Rogers finds himself facing off against the mysterious and equally powerful Winter Soldier after Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, finally given a great deal to do with this character after so long in the shadows) is accused of having staged a hijacking on the high seas. Rogers is, as always, pure of heart, but he’s branded a fugitive by a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official (Robert Redford) and goes on the run with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) to clear his name as well as figure out Fury’s motives and the identity of that elusive and grimly determined Winter Soldier.
The conspiracy plot may seem like a dramatic left-turn for the Marvel universe; even though The First Avenger took place primarily in the 1940s and was infused with a retro-futurist vibe thanks in part to director Joe Johnston, it was still a comic-book-style action movie. If anything, however, there’s a boost in the level and intensity of action in The Winter Soldier. From an early and thrilling car chase involving Fury to a relentless shootout on the streets near Washington, DC, this film rarely takes a breath in between set pieces, offering just enough plot and machinations in between before Steve and Natasha find themselves in a new bind. What The Winter Soldier gets right—and what most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies get right—is maintaining focus; this film, in particularly, isn’t an excuse to introduce too many new characters.
The major addition is Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, as enjoyable as ever), whose military flying apparatus, known as Falcon, comes in mighty handy when things get tough. Redford and Frank Grillo (as a S.H.I.E.L.D. heavy) are fine, but closer to serviceable. There a few nice, subtle winks to Redford’s 70s-era starring roles, but he’s not nearly as memorable an antagonist as he could be. The script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, is as straightforward and laser-focused as Steve Rogers himself is; in retrospect, an early moment where we see Steve’s handy notebook wherein he’s jotted down various pieces of popular culture to catch up on—such as “Star Wars/Trek”—feels like it’s from a different movie, as this one isn’t dotted with such loose humor throughout.
Johnston didn’t return to sit behind the camera for The Winter Soldier, instead ceding the chair to Anthony and Joe Russo. The Russo brothers are best known for directing episodes of single-camera comedies like Community and Arrested Development, yet they’ve adapted to the house style of action filmmaking well enough. Granted, this means that a number of hand-to-hand combat scenes are shot and displayed with rapid-fire editing; this doesn’t separate the Russo brothers from the pack, of course. They’re merely echoing the directors who’ve come before them, presenting action as it is now expected, in spite of not being terribly coherent. Still, a few sequences—even the special-effects-laden finale—work on a visceral level, as when Wilson outruns a rapid explosion by attempting to dive into an oncoming helicopter.
Just like its hero, Captain America: The Winter Soldier gets the job done. It’s a marked improvement on Captain America: The First Avenger, which was a decent enough introduction to this iconic figure without being incredibly special. Steve Rogers is a unique figure in the world of the Avengers, a man displaced from time. But outside of a few early scenes, his alienation from modern society isn’t played up or commented on heavily. Even as he breathlessly figures out why he’s being attacked on all sides, Steve doesn’t linger on emotions. He’s a goodhearted and true individual, a ruthlessly effective hero even when he’s fired at by fighter jets. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is equally effective, an entertaining action picture that never intends to be anything more.
— Josh Spiegel