At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, let me preface this by saying that most of the Marvel movies — Thor: The Dark World aside — are pure gun-toting, world-saving, hero-worshipping entertainment. Marvel, along with Disney, has constructed a perfect formula for these movies. A formula that usually never lacks for enjoyment, even though its beats are blatantly obvious. The second stand-alone Captain America movie is joyful in its destruction while embracing the Marvel world’s standard movie routine.
Contrary to the film’s title punctuation — Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Captain America isn’t actually the Winter Soldier. No, that’s a spoiler that I won’t discuss here, even though anyone who reads the comics, anyone who talks to people that read the comics, or anyone that saw the Captain America: The Winter Soldier TV spots knows exactly who the Winter Soldier is. No matter, you’ll find out soon enough.
Continuing on after the events of The Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans) finds himself living a fish-out-of-water lifestyle in the modern world. He even keeps a notebook listing all the history he missed out on, and activities he needs to catch up on (Star Wars/Trek for example). It’s little jokes like these that make this film as entertaining as any other Marvel movie. Geeks are sure to catch onto every little self-referential reference, of which there are many. The screening I attended was full of hardcore fans. The experience was not unlike watching a Twilight movie with hardcore Twilight fans.
Where the more recent Marvel films have been about a race of aliens attacking Earth, Captain America: The Winter Soldier brings the storytelling back home. It’s a political, espionage thriller with all the predictable plot twists that you can imagine. Cap finds himself thrown right in the middle of it all after the attempted assassination of S.H.I.E.L.D. chief Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The line “Don’t trust anyone,” is uttered, and just like that, Captain America finds himself at odds with the very government agency he’s sworn his allegiance to.
The biggest problem with the Marvel movies is that the stakes are so minuscule that it’s impossible to think that anything other than a happily-ever-after ending will do. Characters are in constant danger, but it’s faux danger. With Marvel sequels greenlit into perpetuity, it’s abundantly clear that no one we actually care about is in any real danger of being killed. The franchise is so in love with its characters that it couldn’t even kill off Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) for good, instead bringing him back to star in his own TV series. Big bad villains come and go, but the status quo remains unchanged, because there’s always the next movie to think about.
The most interesting aspect of Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the fact that this is just as much of a Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) movie as it is a Captain America movie. She’s inherently more interesting as she’s the one hero without any superpowers. It makes her much more vulnerable than the nearly invincible group she pals around with. We got a tiny taste of how distasteful Black Widow’s past is from The Avengers, but that storyline gets a little more meat on its bones here. It’s a welcome deviation from the movie’s wonton destruction.
There are a few clever action scenes, especially the car chase towards the beginning. Computer-generated effects are abundant and usually destroyed in a series of ear-popping explosions. The final 15 minutes feel terribly anti-climactic as each hero is paired up with their own personal hand-to-hand showdowns with the villains that match their abilities. Then there’s the post-credit sequence, which it seems everyone is more excited for than the actual movie. Of course it sets up the next movie, and it’s at that point that we realize nothing has really changed. We’re just moving on to the next Marvel moneymaker.