Captain America: The Winter Soldier is necessarily a very different kind of superhero movie. Though Captain America is clearly a superhuman, he can’t really fly, or shoot beams from his hands, or do many of the bombastic things that one has come to associate with the genre. There are still explosions in place, but a good chunk of the movie is made up of a fairly tightly plotted tale of espionage, mixed in with some surprisingly deft character work. The film occasionally struggles to mete out all the information that it needs to, but as a whole experience, it is solid all the way through.
The movie catches up with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who in between missions as Captain America, is still trying to adjust to life in the modern world. Trouble begins when an attempt is made on the life of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). It soon becomes apparent that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised. Captain America becomes a target as he and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) try to get to the bottom of a complex conspiracy designed to take control of the world. On their trail is an army of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and a mysterious assassin known only as The Winter Soldier.
Before the film gets down to the business of dealing with the plot, it spends some time exploring who Captain America is at this point. He is still a man out of time, a relic from the past stuck in a future he could have never imagined. He is an idealist who stands by a code of honor that has long been abandoned by his contemporaries. Even before the fists start flying, the film finds compelling material in the main character’s struggle to define his place in the present day. The film rushes a bit to get to all these ideas, but they do add a nuance to the story beyond the usual blockbuster stakes of saving the world from imminent destruction.
The main plot itself is pretty clever. Again, it suffers a bit from having to do too much, but it feels pretty well thought out. More importantly, it feels like it matters. The recent Marvel films feel a bit isolated, like they’re just spinning the wheels of the franchise to keep the status quo until the characters can cross over again. This film is different in that it actually changes things. It moves the characters to interesting places, and reveals something new and sinister lurking beneath the already established world.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo are mainly known for their work in sitcoms. Their comedic roots certainly show in the banter, which helps temper the film’s mostly serious tone. They handle the action well enough. Though a lot of it is cut a little too aggressively, there’s a groundedness to much of the fighting that keeps it appealing. Chris Evans has always served this role well, and he does no different here. He has an easy, nostalgic charm about him, ably capturing the essence of the character. Scarlett Johansson offers easy chemistry as the Black Widow, despite the awful wig. Robert Redford offers the film a sense of real gravity, pinpointing the ideological struggle at the heart of the plot, even when it lapses into technobabble.
Weirdly, the weakest part of Captain America: The Winter Soldier involves the mystery of The Winter Solider. Perhaps the filmmakers were just acknowledging that it isn’t much of a mystery at all, and that readers of the comics already known the identity of the masked man. Or maybe the film is just trying to do too much. It just doesn’t land the way it’s meant to. Aside from that, however, the film is a really solid outing for what must be one of the most challenging superheroes to build a movie around. Because Captain America is more than just your average hero. What makes this film so effective is that it embraces that challenges, crafting a story about what the man represents.