For movies involving superhero characters, I’m not sure what will top the joy of seeing the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes come together for the first time in The Avengers. All the meticulous planning that Marvel and Kevin Feige put in to making the seemingly impossible work ended up reaching a level of success they may not have even anticipated. The reason I didn’t use the term “superhero genre” up top was because these Marvel comic heroes and villains are just the jumping off point for working within various tropes and established genres (such as the magical world of Thor and the technology driven world of Iron Man). In the case of The Winter Soldier, it’s a spy/political thriller that just happens to featured costumed heroes. But in so many ways, it’s more than that: This entry of Captain America is a straight up damn good movie.
The Russo Brothers displayed a fine sense of filming action on the TV show Community, but I did not know they were capable of doing it on such a big canvas. For whatever reason (I can’t at least identify why from a storytelling perspective), Steve Rogers is a lot more lethal this time around in hand to hand combat. The big set pieces are pleasently original and for once it seems like Marvel hasn’t gone the cheap route. But the action alone wasn’t going to make this a great movie: in addition to fantastic performances across the board, The Winter Soldier has real stakes the audience can invest in.
The easy thing to do would be to just throw in a few curveballs and plot twists and call it a thriller out of the mold of the 70s Robert Redford classics. Though in the third act (Marvel so rarely- with the exception of The Avengers- gets these right) there are some twists that felt one step too many, the majority are earned and in turn cause the characters to reevaluate their motives, their actions, themselves, and each other. That’s plain old good storytelling! And I make that point of emphasis not to disparage the superhero films that came before, but to highlight that this can be the new standard.
The Winter Soldier does have the benefit of having a few previous films within the Marvel Universe help set up the aforementioned stakes, but it’s still a success in its own right. All Marvel movies feature some form of humor to acknowledge the inherent silliness, but the humor here is a lot sharper and smarter than any of their previous entries. In addition to action, the Russo brothers know how to pull off comedy very well.
In my mind there’s no two ways about it: Chris Evans is and will always be Captain America the way that Christopher Reeves will always be Superman. There are fine performances from Anthony Mackie and Scarlett Johansson, but Evans is the anchor of the movie and puts in his best performance as Cap of his three appearances. The Winter Soldier may not have the cultural impact of The Dark Knight nor the unforgettable cinematic experience of The Avengers, but it is by leaps and miles the best film that just happens to feature superhero characters.