I say a better film because Captain America: The Winter Solider isn’t just bringing to life everyone’s childhood heroes, it is telling a compelling story with those heroes, in a way that Marvel has not done up until this point. The central theme of the film is freedom and what we are willing to do, or not do, to maintain it. We see Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) consistently challenge Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson) and others to think about the actions that they are taking, and whether those actions will truly result in the outcome they desire. It reminds you that Steve is from a different time altogether, and is one of the films most charming qualities, much like it was in the first Cap film. The film also succeeds in building great relationships between the characters. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Cap continue to strengthen their already established relationship throughout the film, and we see the bond between Cap and Nick Fury grow much stronger than I thought it would have.
Also key to the film is newcomer Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) aka Falcon, who starts things off with some great moments and really sets the tone for humor in the film. Seeing the trust that Wilson gains for Captain America as the film goes on is important because it highlights the sentiment of so many other characters, with that trust ultimately leading to what may very well be the best scene in a Marvel Studios film to date. And maybe the most important relationship of the film, that of Steve Rodgers and his childhood best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) aka The Winter Solider. The story is a classic from the comics, and is done plenty of justice on-screen. Steve’s willingness to stay true to their friendship despite the most dire of circumstances speaks volumes to what the character stands for and believes in. In other words, it takes what makes Captain America great, and makes it greater.
Captain America: The Winter Solider also puts us into the action very early on, with Captain America and Black Widow on a mission to take back a ship that has been lost to S.H.I.E.L.D. The first thing that stood out to me here, as I watched Cap taking out groups of thugs one by one, is how well these different heroes are handled by Marvel in terms of their action beats. The Hulk has these huge, much larger than life moments; Iron Man is much quicker, and utilizes verticality and range; Thor is somewhat of a combination of these, but clearly has his own cadence and feel. Captain America establishes the same here in this opening battle, using a great mix of hand to hand combat and a weapon I never thought I would say I like — his shield. Because of this stylistic choice in the action, you feel every hit just a little more. It’s something that had me really invest in all the numerous fights from beginning to end.
The action isn’t all practical hand to hand combat though. There is plenty of over the top spectacle, big budget effects shots, and jaw dropping moments. It is truly incredible to see how far computer effects have come, and how big the leap is between this and even films from only a year or two ago. Falcon is really the most noticeable in terms of effects shots, flying in amazing patterns in the films climactic final battle, you have to remind yourself that Marvel didn’t actually develop a set of wings for Mackie to wear. The blending of Captain America’s shield as is goes from the clearly practical prop on his arm and then is released to bounce from wall to wall in computer animated form, is equally impressive, as are the other hundreds of effects shots, both animated and practical, throughout the film. I’ll spare you from the entire list, but know that I only caught two shots during the movie that where anything less than gorgeous.
The Winter Solider, as I’ve already mentioned in part, brings back many of the heroes you have already come to know from the overall Marvel universe, and the actors that portray them all deliver solid performances. Evans, now much more established in his role, allows himself to be slightly more charming and even lands a joke or two. His dramatic moments won’t stand up to the likes of Daniel Day Lewis or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but they serve the film well enough for what it is. Johansson also adds a solid performance, playing the hardened spy who has the occasional problem keeping her feelings in check around Rodgers. And maybe most impressive in my eyes is Mackie, who after this film has convinced me that he has grown out of the supporting actor role and needs to look towards being the lead man sooner rather than later. He’s tough while still remaining charming, and his comedic timing is spot on. He’s the extra something in this film that really makes it stand out character wise for me, and I’m happy we’ll be seeing him again in future Marvel films. Robert Redford is also new to the cast as Alexander Pierce, and as you might expect, doesn’t disappoint. His role is somewhat small but it serves it purpose perfectly.
At the end of the day, Captain America: The Winter Solider is impressive because it stands alone as one of the best films Marvel has released to date, while simultaneously tying the entire cinematic universe together more than it ever has been before. It also progresses that story forward in a huge way, a way that will affect every facet of Marvel’s film and television universe. But aside from that, this film is just a damn good time. It’s full of humor, the action is incredible, and several scenes in the third act will make you want to stand up and cheer. With Guardians of the Galaxy and many others on the horizon, I cannot think of a better time to be a fan of the amazing universe Marvel has been kind enough to build.