Captain America: The First Avenger is a movie that has gradually grown on me a little more with each passing rewatch. I saw it in 2011 and felt like it was a decent superhero movie; upon a second viewing, I gained more and more appreciation for its heart and the way it embraces the circus of wartime propaganda. My relationship with that film has matured in that fashion over the past few years, to the point that it sat firmly in my personal top three of Marvel’s films: 1. Iron Man 2. Captain America: The First Avenger 3. Avengers. That was my list, and it stayed like that, all the way up to Thursday night when I watched Captain America: The First Avenger once more, this time in 3D on the big screen to be immediately followed by its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I can say, having now seen the new film, there will be no similar growing pains between it and I; my list is now: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2. Iron Man 3. Captain America: The First Avenger
Ever since it was announced that Captain America: The First Avenger‘s sequel would adapt the Winter Soldier storyline to film, this film has been my most anticipated of the Marvel Phase 2 films. It did not disappoint, and I would say much of that is thanks to the direction of Anthony and Joe Russo. Seeing these two films back-to-back “double feature” style was the best decision I could have made. Most sequels don’t really gain much from that kind of thing, and even Marvel’s films haven’t necessarily been routinely improved in any great amount by marathoning them, but The Winter Soldier continues so many of the themes of The First Avenger, and marries so well with it, that both films were actually made better by seeing them so closely together. If you can’t catch a double feature, I definitely recommend watching Captain America: The First Avenger at home before heading to the theater to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Chris Evans, of course, returns as the titular hero, and he has reached Robert Downey Jr. levels of familiarity here; I really can’t see anyone else in the role of Steve Rogers. Unlike Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t feel so tethered to the events of Avengers as to potentially be weighed down by them. Sure, those events are mentioned and are in everyone’s mind, but the film absolutely feels more in line with the events of Captain America: The First Avenger than it does with Avengers, and that is a great thing.
A few articles of note do anchor this film to Avengers, but they’re an asset instead of feeling like a burden: Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) all take on significant roles in the film’s plot. In the case of Romanoff, this film does more for that character than any of the other films in which she has appeared; this film and its plot advanced Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow to a point where I honestly can’t imagine not getting a standalone film for her now. As for Fury, the character is redefined in such an interesting way that it almost has him feeling like an altogether new person.
The two major additions to the cast are Anthony Mackie as Falcon and Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, a leader within SHIELD and old friend of Nick Fury. Mackie is fantastic and plays a key role in what I’d say is the biggest theme of the film: fraternity. With this film, the Captain America film universe moves Steve Rogers from the “Band of Brothers” of the battlefield and into a new area of camaraderie with several relationships that are explored and played off of one another. As for Redford, he’s Robert Redford; you can never go wrong with Robert Redford in a role, and that holds true here.
When we first step into the world of The Winter Soldier, we’re greeted by a Captain America who has weathered (or settled) into a well-oiled machine; a guy with no time for parachutes and even less time for dating, he’s a machine in need of a little bit of friction–in more ways than one. We’re also witness to the development of a bigger and bolder SHIELD with a need for some friction itself; the organization’s actions here pull their baser ideas from contemporary events in a way that doesn’t get too heavy-handed and do a good job juxtaposing themselves against an all too familiar climate of fascism displayed in the first film. Throughout The Winter Soldier, these multiple plots and themes intertwine themselves while also managing to do something truly unexpected: deliver a hell of a fine action film. That’s not something I went into The Winter Soldier expecting at all. Perhaps it’s owed to the film’s lack of CG-overload, or maybe it’s the film’s generous use of practical explosions. Whatever it is, The Winter Soldier borrows some suspense from Die Hard, a little sci-fi thriller from Terminator, a sprinkle of buddy cop comedy from Lethal Weapon, a touch of close-quarter combat from Bourne, and puts it all in a buffet with plenty of uniquely Marvel superhero adventures to present one of the most legitimately fantastic action movies in recent memory.
I haven’t even mentioned the actual Winter Soldier storyline; I won’t spoil it, even though–if you’ve been paying attention–it’s probably already “spoiled” for you. The great thing is, that storyline is presented so well that it doesn’t even matter if you already know all about it or not. The film is frankly great; the entire thing wholeheartedly delivers.