A fast paced political thriller of a superhero movie, Captain America The Winter Soldier packs in so much intrigue, action, plot twists, and Marvel Cinematic Universe changing events that it almost teeters on collapsing in on itself, but like Capt. Steve Rodgers trusty shield, it supports its own weight superhumanly well.
Still trying to find a way to fit in to the 21st Century, a decidedly early 20th Century Steve Rodgers is running missions for SHIELD (the ubiquitous super spy/super protection agency) while trying to scape up the courage to ask his cute single neighbor out for coffee. Suddenly though, things get deadly serious when Nick Fury reveals a top secret project designed to stop terrorists and criminals before their dirty deeds can be done through global preemptive strikes. Boldly declaring that "this isn't freedom, it's fear," Rodgers begins to question his loyalty to SHIELD and its all to real world (for us) parallels to NSA spying and preemptive war. He doesn't have much time to question said loyalty though when an assassination attempt on Fury, by a mysterious mechanical armed operative secretly known as The Winter Soldier hurls Rodgers into covert action with the only friends he can trust, Natasha Romanov AKA The Black Widow and Sam Wilson, whom the world will soon know as The Falcon.
Borrowing heavily from Ed Brubaker's Winter Soldier storyline from the Captain America comics of the last decade or so (while simultaneously updating it with thinly veiled references to NSA
spying, mass WikiLeaks like internet info dumps, and the moral
relativism that pervades current national security philosophy), Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an action packed political thriller of a superhero film that long termed Captain America fans have been craving to see. There's plenty for the general Marvel Comics fan to sink their teeth into here though too, including the on screen debut of long termed Captain America superhero partner The Falcon (played smartly by Anthony Mackie) and a bringing to life the classic theme of Rodgers' spirit of doubt, not in his country, but in the men who have co-opted it (namely fascists-another thinly veiled reference to dangerous political movements afoot in America today) that lead to some of the best Captain America comic book stories over the years. For every action sequence, and there are plenty, there are just as many introspective character moments between Rodgers and Romanov (played once again by Scarlett Johansson with a winning combination of sexiness and strength), and Nick Fury (again brought to life by the incomparable Sam Jackson) and Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford with the usual brilliance and gravitas we've come to expect from the legendary actor). Capt Steve Rodgers finally gets what he didn't get in his first film OR in The Avengers: some serious character development. Rodgers is the quintessential boy scout, but he's not afraid to make the tough decisions (see DC Comics, boy scouts can be cool...).
Captain America The Winter Soldier isn't All The President's Men though, even if Redford's appearance here does generate the needed gravitas the film's dark political themes deserve. The aforementioned action sequences are some of the best we've seen in a Marvel Studios film yet, not because of their grand scope or sci-fi sequencing, but because we are finally treated to a serious showcasing of Captain America's fighting abilities, and pulse pounding displays of why he truly is a super-soldier (it's not just because of the super soldier serum). It is awesome fun to watch Cap bust through walls and doors (and door frames) with a more believable super strength than we'd ever see from an on screen version of the Hulk though, and for all the film's serious maturity there are plenty of scenes that are just that: fun.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Arrested Development) demonstrate that they have the directing chops to bring to life a big budget special effects filled tent pole film. The big special effects heavy sequences are more computer directed now than anything though, so while not taking anything away from the Russos, crashing a Helicarrier into the Triskelion isn't really a major directing feat. Staging those more introspective moments between Rodgers, Romanov, and Fury is where the Russos shine. They also manage to get a much deeper performance out of Chris Evans in the title role than he delivered in the first Captain America film. Evans is a great actor in his own right, but here he really needed to rise to the challenge of portraying Capt. America's dark night of the soul, and the Russos got Evans to deliver his best.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is easily one of the best Marvel Studios films yet. While it doesn't rank with The Avengers in the grandness of scale, it easily takes its place alongside the first Iron Man film as one of the best, and most mature, Marvel Studios films yet. With plenty plot lines developing out of this smart and adventurous films, we haven't seen the end of Cap, The Falcon, or The Winter Soldier centric stories yet, not by a long shot. If Captain America 3 is half this good, it will be worth the wait.