Captain America: The Winter Soldier: ****/*****, or 8/10
For those of you who were wondering when Marvel would finally more aptly acknowledge its roots in our contemporary world politics, a hallmark that sets it apart from the likes of its rival DC (which instead has its adventures take place in an uncomfortable alternate Earth that is suspiciously similar to our own, but sticks to utilizing fictional cities and such), this second Captain America finally does just that, offering a fairly serious social commentary about the status of that wonderful thing called 'freedom' in modern (American) society. Without sacrificing the quality mix of catchy humour and solid action that characterizes all of the Marvel Studios movies thus far, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves there is room for contextual exploration of the modern zeitgeist on the big screen as much as there is on the pages of its comic books. Forget Iron Man battling terrorists in Afghanistan, there's much deeper threats to be found on the homefront, as Cap is about to discover.
Of course the first thing this second Cap movie needs to do is re-establish the Star Spangled Avenger as a man out of time, providing much needed character exposition that was lacking in his second appearance in The Avengers, since that film's alien invasion plot and abundance of characters didn't allow much time for such additional subplots. His beloved homeland has changed much since he went missing in the Fourties and poor Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) ponders if he still fits in these more cynical times. Everyone he knew is dead or dying, as illustrated by a heartbreaking scene where he visits his former love Peggy, who has become a bedridden, frail old woman suffering from degenerative diseases. Equally deteriorating seem to be his cherished notions on freedom. Civil liberties have been sacrificed for the greater good to ensure national security and his employer, the supposedly worldwide peacekeeping organisation known as S.H.I.E.L.D., is keeping far too close an eye on everybody's private affairs to his taste. Comparisons to the N.S.A.'s shenanigans are easily drawn, but in the tradition of the great spy thrillers of the Seventies (from which this movie takes its fair share of notes thematically and stylistically), Captain America: The Winter Soldier suggests the people have slowly but surely traded in their freedom, conditioned by growing fear the government was sowing in their minds of losing it altogether. Naturally it's not wholly the fault of the executive power either – if you think Marvel joins the bandwagon of calling Obama a Great Satan, think again – as the movie identifies the good Captain's principal enemy to be at the heart of this shady matter. It turns out the former Nazi science department HYDRA has made the transition to the 21st Century much more smoothly than the Sentinel of Liberty himself, embedding itself firmly in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s upper echelons. And so Steve must find a way to root out America's hidden adversaries and end their collective mindcontrol dominating his country, all whilst on the run, as they have successfully accused him of treason.
Enter his sidekicks and assorted allies. His gruff chief, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), reluctantly starts asking questions when he tells Steve of a black ops project that involves launching three new Helicarriers, designed to patrol the world neutralizing threats in their infancy, which Cap finds a revolting concept. It quickly makes Fury a target for an apparently successful assassination, after which Cap teams up with the lethal agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to find out who killed his guardian. Evans and Johansson make quite an enjoyable pair with great rapport between them, both having served as agents of the same secret organization, but carrying different views of their job and its methods; a relic of a more innocent time, Cap dislikes Widow's end-justify-the-means approach to things that the Cold War, which he never experienced, has taught her, causing the necessary verbal fireworks between the two that both provide character development and witty dialogue galore thanks to their fine chemistry. Less compelling proves Cap's relationship with the new persona of Sam Wilson, an army veteran who, as a fellow former soldier, is more in line with his more black and white line of dutiful thinking. Since an ordinary human being, military background notwithstanding, would be too dull at his side in Cap's current endeavours, Wilson soon dons a pair of mechanical wings, convenient leftovers of a secret military project. Comic connoisseurs will remember Wilson's alter ego the Falcon well before the appearance of this apparatus, which only feels a forced addition to the movie's progression.
Equally contrived an inclusion to the plot could be called the movie's subtitular character, the Winter Soldier himself. Serving as the ultimate assassin, a cyborg killer whose mind is wiped after every assignment so as to keep his human tendencies from compromising his ruthless efficiency, this man with his metal arm harbours a dark past and personal connection with his new target. Considering his limited screen time, this relationship, which turns out to be crucial at the film's conclusion, is not given its due to ensure the desired emotional impact, and considering the number of loose ends left, feels largely as a set-up for a third movie. Considering how sparingly the character is seen on screen, you can't help but wonder why this movie actually carries the subtitle 'The Winter Soldier'. Nevertheless, the Winter Soldier proves quite a match for Cap in terms of kicking ass and makes for a formidable foe to behold. The same can be said for Robert Redford's Alexander Pierce, who fulfills a similar role except on a less physical level, serving as the movie's delightfully scheming evil mastermind: an apt choice, considering the various classic Seventies' political thrillers on his resumé.
In terms of visual spectacle and explosive action, The Winter Soldier effortlessly surpasses The First Avenger, trading in the predecessor's delightfully retro WW II style for a more intimidating modern look, with advanced technology to match. Drones and missiles are all part of the package to give this movie a contemporary, actual feel, but in typical Marvel fashion the movie tops this with even bigger guns and gadgets, the most exciting aspect the three giant gunships hovering above the American capitol as they threaten to hold the nation hostage, at its own behest via security over freedom. Spectacular aerial battles are the result, while the movie also contains its fair share of impressive hand-to-hand combat scenes, car chases and gun fights. Not to mention an ample dose of links to the larger Marvel Universe, evoking previously seen characters and surreptitiously introducing new ones. Rest assured, a Dr. Strange movie is a given now, while those who are eagerly looking forward to Avengers: Age of Ultron will get a vigorous nerdgasm out of the film's mid-credits scene. You have to give kudos to Marvel's continuous method of seemlessly creating a larger whole out of separate pieces, without harming the content proper in said standalone stories.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a sequel superior to its predecessor in every respect. It couples valid, well-timed social anxieties to a good political thriller plot, while never ignoring the fun that is to be expected from a Marvel flick. Granted, not all characters come across as intriguing or convincing as ought to have been the case, which is not exactly a new flaw to Marvel's movies either. This second Cap movie successfully introduces its protagonist to the new world he inhabits and the change in concept of the virtues he has always extolled, making this overly patriotic character much easier to digest and to identify with for non American audiences, while giving domestic spectators an added value in having their nation's superhero redefine their mores for them.