So, I’ll give my general take before going in depth; I’ll let you know when I start discussing spoilers.
For starters, let me say this: the first film is about a simple story of good versus evil, where you know who’s on which side by the uniform they wear. This story is, by contrast, is on the other side of the rainbow, only not as lovely as Oz.
The Winter Soldier was billed as a political thriller disguised as a superhero movie, and it falls in with that description pretty well, although I would hesitate to call it a superhero movie if pressed. The reality is that while it has Captain America, Nick Fury, the Black Widow, and introduces the Falcon as well as Agent 13, the film’s political overtones ground it far more than any other Marvel movie. Notably, this continues the trend more recently set by Iron Man 3, in which Tony Stark operates without the assistance of SHIELD at all, and is largely on his own.
The Winter Soldier, though, does address the issue of security versus freedom in a way I never thought before. The trailer implies a dark nature to the discussion, which is paid in full in the film. The first half hour of the film helps to set it up as well, with Steve Rogers’ idealism clashing with Nick Fury’s and Black Widow’s pragmatism and realistic take on the situation.
I should note, because it is important, that despite being grounded, the film rides a great wave of humor, which is witty, well-delivered, and never drawn out too much.
However, the first half hour of the movie threatens to kill the rest, for its actual brilliance. I love the set up, having seen the whole movie, but watching it bored me after a while, largely because they kept introducing characters who you saw coming (thanks to the aforementioned trailer), as well as address other issues such as Rogers integration into the 21st century, the political and technological themes of the movie, and the relationships that drive the movie throughout, the most important part of the film, by the way.
All right, this is the part where I say…
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Let’s get one thing straight: the character of the Winter Soldier is actually not necessary for this movie. He’s not. Everything he does could have been accomplished by a Bond-esque henchman, including the assassination attempt on Nick Fury, and later on our trio of younger heroes, and of course, the final fight at the end of the movie. What he is, though, is a well-handled, silent type character who represents an investment in the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so I let this slide. I do feel, however, that they should have moved his character’s psychological progression a little further along; I love the restraint, I think it’s a welcome change of pace in a Hollywood that awards audience gratification way too early, but I felt a little disappointed that the movie didn’t end with Rogers and Bucky running off to fight terrorism together, with Falcon in tow of course. I feel like we, as the audience, earned that reward, and were told to wait for the next movie for it (that said, the second post-credits scene is brilliant).
Perhaps you’re catching my dilemma here a little: I love the movie; I truly do, but the little things that I don’t feel work really nag me.
The corruption of SHIELD, something heavily implied in The Avengers, is a great plot that serves a far greater purpose than just driving this film. My greatest compliment towards Iron Man 3 is that that Tony Stark is made better by having to work on his own; he doesn’t have a net to fall back onto, be it SHIELD or Stark Industries, but is a man on his own, surviving on his own wits; notably, the Bond films of the 1980s reinvented the franchise by doing just that as well. The film’s apparent destruction of SHIELD, coupled with the continued, and even acknowledged by the main characters, survival of Hydra, will help set up an awesome series of films to come, as the Avengers will truly be a team from different backgrounds and places, instead of being essentially placed in the same room by SHIELD.
However, the SHIELD plotline only works because of the presence of Robert Redford, who plays Secretary of SHIELD Alexander Pierce. Being the lead heavy, his villainy, more subtle and intelligent than any previous Marvel villain, is truly scary, for he preaches a better world, builds the means to do it, but honestly believes that his course (kill a few, save the rest) will guarantee peace and security. It isn’t a blow against the conservative notions that reign in our modern government either, unlike V for Vendetta, which was a more conscious take on American conservatism.
Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, and Anthony Mackie are all great. We finally meet the real Nick Fury, the man who honestly believes in the good fight, but who waited, and ultimately too long, to fight the real enemy, forcing him to reinvent himself and go out into the field again. The Black Widow is likewise forced into an exile, but at her own doing, exemplifying the selflessness that men like Captain America expect and idolize; she also plays a major role in him going into the world and being a full human being again as well. Finally, Anthony Mackie as Falcon probably grounds the film more than anything else: implied to suffer from PTSD, and aiding others going through it, he bonds with Rogers over an array of things, notably the desire to get real stuff done. Cobie Smulders, as Maria Hill, who really deserves larger roles in the following films, rounds out the cast with a quiet, yet forceful performance.
Finally, Chris Evans gives what is his best performance that I have seen. When he tells off Nick Fury for being inactive, and subsequently makes the decision to destroy SHIELD, not reform it as Fury apparently would prefer, even Samuel L. Jackson stops and concedes. Evans is genuine, smart, and portrays the transition of Rogers from a World War II super soldier to 21st century hero in such a way that it never really is that obvious. His internal conflicts, be it simply going out with a woman to the ethical conduct of SHIELD operations, are shown on his face, in his walk, and even in how he takes out the bad guys.
The film’s third act balances the politics with action, and final fights are well done. I wish that they had avoided the cliché of the task not being completed until the last possible second, but the fight is well handled, even with that. The truth is that most films either rise above or fall flat in once the last major push starts, but The Winter Soldier doesn’t, and as surprising as it may be to hear, it benefits from it. It means that, unlike The Avengers, the second half isn’t better than the first half. The whole film is enjoyable.
If you are looking for a traditional superhero movie, this may not be for you, but if you want a smart thriller with brilliant action, it’s right up your alley.
My rating: 4.5/5.0 stars.
P.S. I acknowledge that that is technically S.H.I.E.L.D. and not SHIELD, but I was feeling lazy when I wrote it.