‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ Review: Patriotic Paranoia, Marvel-Style

'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'

Movie Rating:

4.5

The biggest strength of the Marvel Movie Empire thus far has been delivering blockbusters that live up the legacy of their classic characters while still defying expectations. The ‘Captain America’ series might be the finest example of this juggling act. The character is a dreadfully dated relic of wartime propaganda comics. While the first movie vividly created an old-timey 1940s comic book feel, it did so while gently mocking the character’s rah-rah Americana. The sequel pits Cap’s good ol’ American values against a political backdrop flavored by Watergate-era cinematic thrillers and contemporary post-Snowden paranoia.

It’s still a patriotic franchise that lives up to the name, just one that the Marvel moviemakers are willing to approach with sly mockery and cynical questioning. That they can do so while also delivering popcorn-munching superhero entertainment is practically a miracle.

This round of Captain America’s adventures kicks off with a high-seas hostage situation busted up by the Cap (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). However, Cap feels a little uneasy after discovering Widow’s secret side-mission and quickly confronts eye-patch badass Nick Fury (Sam “not Lawrence Fishburne” Jackson). It turns out that Fury is working on a new international defense project involving a collection of helicarriers floating all over the planet to secretly monitor civilians for crimes before they happen. It’s the type of paranoid surveillance fantasy that would feel at home in a Watergate-era Hollywood thriller exaggerated to superhero proportions (which is why Robert Redford’s clever stunt casting works on a variety of levels). Cap’s old fashioned American values don’t line up with Fury’s plans, and he quickly becomes S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most wanted man. Soon Cap and Widow are running around America like they’re starring in a ‘Bourne’ reboot. To complicate things, they’re hunted by the legendary mercenary called the “Winter Soldier,” who shares Captain America’s powers, but none of his values.

This time out, the ‘Captain America’ franchise has been reframed as a paranoid man-against-the-government chase picture with a superhero at the center. It’s a pretty brilliant choice that manages to gently dip into social commentary without ever drifting from fluffy popcorn entertainment.

The cast is rock solid (Evans, Johansson and Jackson own those roles now) and the new filmmakers nail the light-yet-dark tone perfectly. Coming out of a comedy background including TV shows like ‘Arrested Development’ and ‘Community’, sibling directors Joe and Anthony Russo find the cheeky Marvel tone with ease, but do their best work elsewhere. More than anything else, ‘Winter Soldier’ is a chase picture, and the Russos keep ramping up the paranoia, suspense and action with heart-trembling results. Although their action sequences reach the standard Marvel CGI clusterfuck heights in the climax, the focus until then is on car chases, choreographed fights, and other forms of physical action. As a result, their movie feels old fashioned in the best possible sense. It’s a throwback not just to ’70s thrillers, but also classic action movies where stuntmen were valued over pixels.

There are flaws, of course. Attempts to set up further Marvel movies and cram in new characters often slow down the relentless chase. The post-converted 3D is useless. Most oddly, the titular Winter Soldier is barely developed in order to leave room open for sequels. Thankfully, these problems are easily ignored in a blast of entertainment that never feels 138 minutes long. ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is easily the best Phase 2 Marvel movie yet and ranks highly amongst the entire franchise.

27 comments

  1. Drew

    I saw this on Monday night, and I agree with almost every word of this review. ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ suffers a bit from the disease of more (and gives validation to the axiom – less is more), but is otherwise outstanding. It works best when operating as an intimate and paranoid action thriller, rather than a superhero film that contains action thriller elements.

    I’m seeing it again, tomorrow night, and I’m very excited to see how it holds up to a repeat viewing.

  2. Not everything was golden about this movie, but it’s definitely one of the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

    Also, the villain reveal while Capt. America and the Black Widow are on the road is precisely the absurdist humor that is a hallmark of “Community.”

  3. Chris B

    How much is it like the first Captain America? I really didn’t care for the original, it felt cheesy, dated and wholly unrealistic…

    • I also thought the first Captain America was the worst of all the Marvel movies. It was such a boring, by-the-numbers origin story. The initial trailer for the sequel looked pretty great, but I’ve got to say that recent ads make the movie look kind of cheap and cheesy to me.

      • I also thought the first Captain America was the worst of all the Marvel movies. 

        ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

        I really enjoy the first one, no perfect, but with some pizza slice and diet soda is fun to watch.

    • Ryan

      I felt the same way about Captain America’s first movie (and his character in the Avengers). I just can’t muster up any desire to see this one no matter how many good reviews it gets.
      Most likely a rental for me.

    • All respect, you have to understand they had to do the first movie the way it was done to setup a great deal of what comes after wards. Hydra is THE big bad in the Marvel Universe, or at least the largest terrestrial bad guy that the likes of Cap and Stark face up against. And the roots of Hydra start in WW2, while it would be impossible to do the history justice they are doing it exceedingly well. As someone that has been a lifelong Captain America fan the first movie made you understand the world he came from and sets up everything that comes after. This new movie is So much better than the first because we see how his 1940 sensibilities clash with the modern world which has been a running theme with the character since I first read about him in the 1980’s. If you are worried about seeing this don’t be it is a great standalone thriller with great fights chase scenes and action. But if you are familiar with the stories and history it draws from you will enjoy it that much more.

      • Chris B

        Yeah, I grew up reading Marvel Comics and a little bit of D.C. I understand the need to show the characters backstory and the time period from which he originated. I meant the first movie felt dated in a way that it seemed like sonething that would have been released in the early to mid 1990’s, it was extremely predictable and the costume designs for Red Skull and his minions were goofy as hell. Add to that the fact they felt the need to make Captain America’s team so multi-cultural which was an obvious PC pandering move, and the climax being totally unrealistic. Example: Tommy Lee Jones is a 4 star general right? Why the hell is he in the thick of the action on the front lines? That’s not how the military works! That’s just one example but it kind of sums up a lot of the problems I had with the movie. However, seeing that peole have said the sequel is a completely different animal, I’m still interested in watching it.

  4. Phil Brown

    I actually loved the first movie because of it’s old timey charms (it was by the director of The Rocketeer afterall). However, I can completely understand how the qualities that make me love it would make others loath it. Good news, this movie is nothing like the last one. That’s part of why it was such an unexpected treat. Don’t avoid Winter Soldier if you didn’t like the last Captain America flick. This one is a whole other beast.

  5. Just saw it last night, SO good! I’m surprised so many people disliked the first one, I thought it was pretty great myself, but regardless this one is completely different. While The Avengers is still my favorite in terms of shit-eating-grin rewatchability, this is possibly the strongest MCU movie so far.

  6. Good review and surprisingly good movie, maybe the best of the Avengers bunch, which is a shock after the boring drag of Red Skull. There was also an odd but pleasing overlap in the story with the ‘Metal Gear Solid’ series. (Just in some parts, like the the tanker.)

  7. Far exceeded my expectations! I like the good nature of Capt. America, and he really gets you rooting for him in this movie. Sure, it’s a tad predictable, but the quality of the final product is excellent.

  8. Chaz

    Wow, this was just downright awesome in every way. Easily the best stand alone Marvel has done yet, amazing and real action scenes (stunt guys make a big difference) CG was top notch, acting was great and the impact this had on the whole cinematic Universe is huge. I loved this movie and its gonna be tough to beat as my favorite of the year, there are some really good movies coming this summer but it might be tough to top this one, I would put this up with the Avengers IMO as one I could simply enjoy over and over again. So glad it crushed numbers at the box office, it really deserves it and its worth paying every penny for!

  9. Timcharger

    There was something in this that was very, very suspension of disbelief bad.
    Absolutely eye-rolling horrible:

    Spoiler Alert: Don’t read!

    After the 3 giant ships have taken off, the guns are lined up at their targets,
    and the number of individual targets were being counted up…
    Did I see a 700,000 number? The computer-controlled ships had 700,000
    guns lined up to shoot 700,000 people?! This was ridiculous and
    unnecessary to pump up the tension… 700,000 people Will DIE!!!!!! Hurry,
    Cap change that microchip or 700,000 people will get shot at the same
    time by 700,000 guns! Was the number 700,000? Is that divisible by 3? 🙂

    New gripe: Back in Avengers, Hawkeye will a little help easily knocked out
    one of those giant heli-ships. Instead of the whole I-need-to-get-to-the-
    belly-of-the-ship to change the microchip plan, a few explosive arrows
    could have done the trick.

    —–

    Those gripes aside, the film is one of the better Marvel flicks.

    —–

    I’m glad Cap partnered with Black Widow for this plot. When Cap was
    at the Smithsonian and befriended a little kid… I was afraid that this
    would be like Iron Man 3 all over again. Thank goodness it wasn’t.

    • Timcharger

      I’d buy 700 guns trained and locked in to 700 targets. Maybe even
      7,000; maybe.

      This must be how the conversation went:

      “The digital effects guys can only render an image of about 700 guns
      attached to the giant ships.”

      “700? That’s it? The stakes aren’t extreme enough for a superhero
      ending.”

      “What’s wrong with saving 700 people? That’s not good enough?”

      “Who’s the boss? I am. Don’t you do any thinking, idiot.”

      “Yes, sir.”

      “We’ll just show a digital gauge counting up into the thousands.”

      “Count up to what number?”

      “700,000 of course. No maybe 7 million. Not would be silly. Make
      it 700,000.”

      “We can’t possibly attach 700,000 of these giant guns to the bottom
      of these ships.”

      “What did I say about you thinking?”

      “Sorry, won’t do it again.”

  10. timcharger

    We really just ignore the endings of the recent Marvel films.

    At the end of Iron Man 3…

    Spoiler Alert!

    …we ignore that Tony Stark destroys all the Iron Man suits.
    We don’t believe that Iron Man is no more.

    At the end of Cap Amer 2…

    …we ignore that Cap destroys all of SHIELD. We don’t really
    believe SHIELD is no more.

    Really? Marvel, in Avengers 2, we are NOT going to have
    Tony Stark in an Iron Man suit? And we will NOT have a
    SHIELD government entity working with the Avengers?

    • I actually think (or hope at least) that these events may be longer lasting than that.

      Spoilers and stuff I guess

      Obviously something S.H.I.E.L.D-esque is going to reform, they basically show us as much when Maria Hill goes into Stark industries, and we know that the remaining agents will still be working behind the scenes, but it still won’t be what it was, at least not for some time. The remaining agents are in the minority to Hydra now, and no one knows who to trust. as for the end of Iron Man 3, I’m really hoping that Tony doesn’t suit up in Age of Ultron. Instead I’d like to see him help in the creation of Ultron and then when that shit blows up in their faces, the creation of Vision. Wait to put him back in action for either Iron Man 4 if it happens or Avengers 3 to help fight Thanos.

  11. Phil Brown

    Hmmm…Tony Stark deciding to bust the the Iron Man suit out of retirement sounds like a pretty fun way to reintroduce his character. But there’s no way that Marvel could be planning that, right? As for SHIELD, if only there was a television show dedicated entirely SHIELD where all of those issues could be revolved over the next year just in time for The Avengers. I guess that’s all just wishful thinking on my part, huh?

    • Timcharger

      That’s exactly my point. These endings are meaningless. I’m NOT saying there isn’t way to workaround these endings. It’s just silly these endings.

      You used the word “retirement”. Tony Stark would be retired for 18 months? 24 months? Maybe only 24 weeks before he unretires and builds the next suit. Isn’t that silly to call that a comeback?

      Yes, there is an Agents of SHIELD TV show. More reason that Cap Amer 2 ending of destroying SHIELD is unbelievable by any Marvel fan.

      Why not have “wishful thinking” of having endings that don’t artificially pump up the consequences that we know is just going to be undone in the next episode. We should all wish for that, Phil.

    • Timcharger

      Heck, based on Redford’s request to Fury for his neice’s birthday…
      Tony Stark has already unretired and rebuilt a suit.

  12. Phil Brown

    Ha! True. I see what you’re saying. But at the same time, writing in a drastic change only to eventually return everything to the status quo is as common in comic books as superpowers and tights. That’s just part of the genre. Have fun with it. Eventually there will be major deaths and real retirements. it’s just too early for that now. These are early days in the MCU.

  13. Timcharger

    Yeah, I know that the source material is comic books. And in the comics every issue is about saving the city, the world, the universe and despite whatever big, dramatic change, it all goes back to status quo for the next issue.

    For comics, there’s an issue every month. We can’t get permanent status quo changing plots every issue.

    But for movies with 2-4 years between sequels, we should expect better. If we walk out of the theater knowing that the ending is bullsh*t, that’s not a good thing.

    As for having fun with it, the films would be just as fun without the iron suits being destroyed or SHIELD being destroyed. Yes, destroy the Hydra infiltrated gunships. Yes, the headquarters can get destroyed, too. But the notion of disbanding the intelligence, advanced-tech organization to counter superhuman threats, that’s not needed to pump up the fun of the film.

  14. Chris B

    Finally caught up with this on Blu-Ray last night and goddamn what a blast. Blows the first one out of the water, maybe the best blockbuster of this past year. Can’t wait for Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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