As dusk gives way to dawn, the opening bars of Alan Silvestri’s “Captain America Theme” mournfully yet heroically play as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) goes on his morning run. This opening scene acts as subtle foreshadowing of the themes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, which essentially asks the question: “Whatever happened to Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” Evidently, the concepts jumped ship to Marvel Studios for this film is arguably the best of all the single Marvel action hero movies to date.
The story takes place three years after the events of 2012’s Marvel's The Avengers. During that time, Steve Rogers has become a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative under the guidance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Partnered with Natasha Romanov, a.k.a. “The Black Widow” (a stunning Scarlett Johansson), he is assigned to what he considers ethically questionable missions. However, when Nick Fury is implicated in a conspiracy to compromise national security, Rogers goes rogue. He must try to ferret out the truth while figuring out the mystery of “The Winter Soldier”, a cybernetic assassin who has targeted not only Fury, but the Captain himself.
Of all the characters in Marvel’s current cinematic staple, Captain America is the hardest sell to the sensibilities of a modern audience. In terms of what he represents (in scope if not in power), he is Marvel’s analogue to Superman (a character who had to undergo a considerable darkening in order to become palatable to today’s moviegoers). And like Superman, as different as dark is to light, so are the Captain’s Great Depression ideologies regarding trust, honor, and heroism to the realities of modern warfare. In truth, “terrorism” in all its forms has become the default raison d’etre for these types of films. As The Hunger Games, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Man of Steel, and even Divergent can attest. It’s no longer enough for a bank robbery or a mad scientist scheme to be a reasonable call to super-heroic action. Yet here, the results of those concerns are plausibly presented. All the opposing political rhetoric regarding national security is in bas relief here, with the Marvel Universe’s S.H.I.E.L.D. organization taking the place of the NSA. The film begs the question whether someone as out of time (and touch) as Steve Rogers has a place in this era, and not just in reference to dealing with “the enemy”.
Speaking of dealing with the enemy, it is violent endeavor here. The film is all technical spy spectacle; a throwback to the spy thrillers of the post-Watergate 1970s (made all the more apparent by the presence of Robert Redford as head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Alexander Pierce, a character’s whose ideologies run in contrast to his turns in All The President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor), while embracing the violent excesses of the modern spy genre with frighteningly plausible shades of Minority Report thrown in for good measure. However, its presentation cannot be faulted for its excesses. Unlike the aforementioned Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, where the majority of the fight scenes were obscured through camera slight-of-hand, the fight scenes here are beautifully choreographed in such a way as to be distinct, yet somehow seem naturally, brutally spontaneous. The special effects are mostly done in the “old school” style, with as little CGI as possible, but rendered in such a way as to be “old school” in the best sense of the term; a throwback to the days when the term “star destroyer” was something to be marveled at (no pun intended). The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also play S.H.I.E.L.D. interrogators in the film), loosely based on the works of comics scribe Ed Brubaker (who also cameos in the film), is tight and practically uncontrived. The film’s 136 minute running time moves breezily, deftly giving poignant heft to even the quiet moments, of which there are many. This is still, after all, the story about a man who just happens to be a super-hero forced to live in a world he never made, holding on to values and ideals that have become outmoded. This contrast is made especially clear in the film’s score. Silvestri’s theme is only given respectful acknowledgement, showing to lyrically remind us what Captain America stands for. However, when Henry Jackman’s score kicks in, it shows a marked thematic contrast; expressing acoustics more representative of the modern era. But remarkably, unlike his X-Men: First Class effort, this score balances heroism with the discordant sounds he attributes to The Winter Soldier himself (which is somewhat reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s theme for The Joker in The Dark Knight). The score is in turns claustrophobic, discordant, jarring, yet rousing, emotional, tragic and heroic and used effectively to highlight each scene’s atmospheric intent.
I’ll say it here. Chris Evans IS Captain America. He owns the role the way Sean Connery did James Bond; Robert Downey, Jr. with Tony Stark; and a certain other Christopher who came to epitomize another red and blue clad hero. His body language embodies the character in such a way that one believes what comes out of his mouth, no matter how hokey or schmaltzy it may sound in this day and age from someone else’s. With two previous films under his belt, he’s made the role his own, making the character as, if you’ll excuse the term, bad ass as any in Marvel’s staple. Of course, his is not the only performance of note. The Russos have managed to make CA:TWS an ensemble piece; each member of the supporting cast are fully realized in their own right. Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury is given more depth and pathos than in any previous offering. In fact, he’s the lynchpin to much of the proceedings. Jackson imbues world-weariness upon Fury not seen before; Jackson makes the audience feel his character’s turmoil regarding S.H.I.E.L.D. and his place in it. As Black Widow, Johansson continues to redefine the expectations of the female protagonist. She is Rogers’ equal, in some ways her superior, yet she evidences a vulnerability also not explored before on film; managing to sell it without compromising her character’s strength and integrity. Newcomer to the franchise Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson (a.k.a Marvel’s answer to Hawkman, The Falcon) elevates his character from its 70s blacksploitation roots into a force to be reckoned with, being the one individual who still believes in Captain America even when all hope seems lost. The chemistry between Evans and Mackie feels naturally right. You buy it. In his film performance, MMA fighter Georges St-Pierre makes perhaps one of the lamest characters in all of comicdom, Batroc the Leaper (don’t ask), into a major threat. Of special note are the aforementioned Robert Redford and Sebastian Stan as The Winter Soldier. To say anymore would reveal too much (if one hasn't read the comics, that is). However, Stan while says very little his body language speaks volumes. The filmmakers understand that all the best villains are used judiciously. For those who want the Soldier to have a lot of screen time will be sorely disappointed. However, what he does when he’s on the screen MORE than makes up for it.
To say any more, such as analyzing the themes of identity, duality, and paranoia, would reveal too much of the film and it is with great restraint that I hold back. Yes, "restraint", because the movie is just…that…GOOD. It’s a movie that makes pure, unadulterated, and unapologetic heroism epic and “cool” again, continuing the restoration of wonder and adventure that have been a hallmark of Marvel’s most recent films; and it does so with the right blend of pathos, action, and humor. In short, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (or, as Anthony Mackie once humorously put, Avengers 1.5) is a cinematic triumph. It has everything anyone could ever want in this sort of film. In a sense, it serves as antithesis to Man of Steel, showing that one does not have to completely compromise character integrity to fit modern sensibilities. This is one of those rare films I give my highest recommendation.
P.S. Be sure to look closely for a particular tombstone. Not all Easter eggs are Marvel related. ;)