It's getting awfully complicated now to evaluate the latest Marvel comic book movie in a standalone fashion. All on its own, the latest, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is a decent romp with a few too many contemplative stretches. Taken as part of the Avengers tapestry however, it is hard to watch without spending a fair bit of time trying to figure out how the big events will impact the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." television show. Will the next movie in this universe, Avengers: Age of Ultron, have to spend 15 minutes explaining what happened in this movie? Or is Captain America: The Winter Soldier the first movie in the group that is truly required for continuing to understand subsequent movies involving the other characters? Previously, seeing them may have helped, but were hardly required.
That complexity is surprising because the movie does amazingly well as a standalone. I was lukewarm on Captain America, but bringing Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) into the present goes a long way somehow to breathing life into the character. This is done with a slow start that results in the movie being just a bit too long, but ultimately it helps a lot with accepting that the future of human society finds itself in his hands.
It seems a safe assumption that the broad strokes of the movie come from the comic books, but not being familiar with those, I can't comment on fidelity. Taking place a couple years after the events depicted in The Avengers, Rogers is the leader of an elite team that includes Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, whom we've met in previous movies.
After a mission in which he learns information was kept from him, Rogers has misgivings about the militaristic role of S.H.I.E.L.D. and whether he should continue working for them. Things then get worse when a new villain, known as The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), attacks Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)—and it quickly becomes clear that things aren't quite right within S.H.I.E.L.D. Much more story detail would require significant spoilers, so let's just say that once things get going, they keep moving at a good pace, with all the requisite cartoonish absurdity.
Additions introduced in this movie are Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) as the secretary of the World Security Council (the group that was so willing to blow up New York City in The Avengers and oversees S.H.I.E.L.D.).
Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) is a veteran who now counsels support groups for returning veterans, and by the end, dons a jet pack with falcon wings (thus his hero name, "Falcon"). Falcon's introduction is a bit underdeveloped and out of the blue, but presumably he's there to explain why when Captain America needs the support of someone who can fly, he doesn't just call Stark for help from Iron Man.
Cobie Smulders returns as Maria Hill and Nick Fury's right-hand woman, though with an involvement that really could have been any random character.
The fact that the movie was fun in the moment does not mean it is without flaws, and the biggest to me is one that has seemed to increase with each passing Marvel movie: the casualness and meaninglessness of civilian casualties. I understand that the events depicted are violent, that civilian deaths are a realistic result of that violence. In this movie, however, they are treated as having absolutely no moral weight by either the characters, who may pause to check on a teammate but barely even notice regular humans, or by the filmmakers, who seem completely OK with launching a grenade into a passing car for the cool visual, completely ignoring the fact that someone was driving that car.
The movie is rated PG-13, but that is a testament to the power of studios to get the ratings they want as the hypocrisy of the system where too much cleavage or a cigarette dumps you into an R rating, but extended gun battles through the heart of Washington, D.C., are just cool-looking. One moment that crystallized this for me is in one battle sequence where an anonymous pilot is shown being thrown into the turboprop of a plane, causing the engine (and the pilot) to explode. It is one thing if the importance of this is, "Oh my, isn't this character bad." Instead, my sense is that the intended tone was, "Oh my, isn't this character badass." It happens throughout the movie.
The other problem that's not quite a problem is that fundamentally, the mechanics of Captain America's "superhero-ness" don't make sense. One of those things best not to think about but will suck you down a rabbit hole if you start. Why is it that sometimes the shield ricochets all over the place to return to Captain America, but the next time, embeds itself into the first surface it hits? Why does hitting a massive padlock with the edge of the shield cut right through it, but hitting someone in the face with that same edge does no damage? Will Captain America finally be defeated as soon as the bad guys realize they should shoot him in the feet instead of the shield he's hiding behind?
Those are real complaints, but in the end, they were outweighed by the kinetic energy carrying the audience along and decent enough banter, particularly between Rogers and Natasha. Again, though, if you're not a big Captain America fan but still like the overall Avengers universe, I think this one may be mandatory viewing for key events that will define the starting point for future movies and TV shows. Oh, and this movie also relies heavily (and generally without explanation) on events from the first Captain America movie, so you might want to watch that again first if you're fuzzy on the details.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a Marvel/Walt Disney Pictures release.
- Wide theatrical release on Friday, April 4, 2014
- Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
- Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
- Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie.
- Running time: 136 minutes
- Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout
- Alex's rating: 7 out of 10