Captain America: The Winter Soldier totally lives up to the hype… Yep, that was almost a given.
*as always, reviews on here have SPOILERS*
Count me as one of I-don't-know-how-many folks who happened to think that Captain America: The First Avenger was a damn good film, one of the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in fact. Prior to seeing this film, it was #4 on my list, below Iron Man, The Avengers and Iron Man 3. Its stylized setting, good old-timey action-adventure tone (heaven forbid we see that kind of movie in this day and age!), great character work and exciting action made it a winner for me. Steve Rogers was a likable character, he was selfless but he wasn't dull or too goody-goody. He wanted to do what was right, and was capable of making mistakes, but he soldiered on despite the things that happen, from losing his best friend to realizing that he must make the ultimate sacrifice at the end. No moping, no brooding or any wannabe-Batman garbage like that.
Perhaps its only problem was that the pacing was a bit off, but on the whole, it's just a very well-made work of escapist entertainment that seems rare in this day and age of dark, gritty and serious. Anything that copies Christopher Nolan's formula, basically.
Think about it. Steve Rogers has quite an unfortunate life: Sure, he's a revered super soldier who people look up to, but because he's been frozen for 70 years, a lot of his life is pretty much gone. Not only is the world nothing like what it was in the "greatest generation", but his love interest is in her 90s and nearing death, his friends have been dead for years and his best friend is alive, but brainwashed and out to kill innocent people, working for an evil organization. That alone, for me, made Captain America: The Winter Soldier a fairly dark film, and perhaps Marvel Studios' darkest. Sure it doesn't have any bloody violence, no one major really dies in it, but what Cap is going through is quite sad. How he continues to keep his head up makes him a very likable character, again it's the "doing what's right" aspect. He has no time to mope, especially when many lives at are stake.
I mean, him awakening in present day at the end of the first film was a great emotional moment ("I had a date…"), this film expands on that. When Rogers visits Peggy Carter, it's quite a heartbreaking moment. Cap realizing who the Winter Soldier really is, also produces very subtle, emotional moments - especially during the climax when he goes head to head with him.
The main story itself is strong, with a tight script supporting it. Rogers, now with S.H.I.E.L.D. two years after the events of The Avengers, gets wind of suspicious activity that they are up. This of course ties into a lot of what's going on today, but like a good topical film, it doesn't hammer these things onto you. These elements are weaved into the story and as a result, it's loaded with intrigue. It's been praised for being a political thriller, though it does pretty much go into all-out action film mode in its chaotic second half. Still, the build-up and the element of mystery in the first half is impeccably done. All the while, it mixes in the familiar Marvel elements: Humor, lots of thrills and nice twists and turns. Also, Cap must team up with Black Widow and The Falcon on his adventure. It's surprisingly small-scale compared to the other films, though we get our rock-em sock-em explosion-fest during the third act climax.
Soon, we begin to find out that HYDRA (the evil organization that Cap seemingly defeats in the first film) has been pulling some strings. They've always been alive, and it's a cool twist that the uninitiated probably won't see coming. Alexander Pierce, played by Robert Redford (fitting, because of course…), is actually of HYDRA. HYDRA is attempting to link three S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers that'll kill anyone that may be a threat to HYDRA's plans, which is all thanks to an algorithm developed by Arnim Zola, whose consciousness is preserved within a hidden vintage supercomputer. (That scene gives some serious TRON vibes.)
With all these twists and this massive conspiracy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier's plot is intricate but also simple. You can follow it, and as the clues get cracked, the more interesting it gets. Then there's the Winter Soldier himself; Cap's best friend - James "Bucky" Barnes - from the 1940s who actually survived the fall, and was brainwashed by HYDRA into becoming a ghostly, fearsome assassin. Sebastian Stan reprises the role, of course, and he knocks it out of the park. Bucky is transformed from a very likable American hero character into a chilling, terrifying foe from the disheveled long hair to the metal arm. Because he appears out of nowhere from time to time, a sort of fear is created. You don't know when he'll strike!
The rest of the cast nails it. Chris Evans preserves Rogers' sincerity and selflessness, but injects a lot of determination into him. Although Cap was no softy in the first film and he was good at giving the orders in Avengers, he's significantly more badass in this film. The opening sequence alone shows this, where he takes off his helmet and withdraws his shield when fighting with Batroc. In this film, he just doesn't screw around and at the same time, he adapts to the 21st century quite effortlessly. Scarlett Johansson gives her best Black Widow performance yet, as we get to know more about her and we see more sides to her and her personality. She's badass like she is in the other MCU installments, but she also has a sense of humor and isn't the bland "action girl". Despite her past, she's very much dedicated to hero work. How her and Rogers work off of each other, especially when they are forced to get information another way after S.H.I.E.L.D. goes after them, is brilliant stuff.
Sam Wilson / Falcon, a new face, is also a great addition. He's played by Anthony Mackie, who delivers a fun performance. The scenes with him and Rogers are great, especially the opening sequence where Rogers keeps passing him when running laps. Unlike how Black Widow was introduced in Iron Man 2, he feels fleshed out and we learn a good amount about his backstory. His suit is also super cool, and when he finally starts using it for the third act climax, the excitingness of all the action just shoots up. Those who reprise their roles do well, we learn more about Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and we see him engage in some action, particularly a stand-out car chase that leads to a near-encounter with the Winter Soldier. Oh, and he also shoots Pierce dead. Is there a reason not to love this character?
Does this action deliver? It indeed does. There's a lot of intimate action, while the explosions are saved for the finale. The Winter Soldier's attack on Cap and Black Widow is shot and choreographed so well, it's really intense stuff, particular when Cap himself goes toe to toe with the assassin. The opening set piece where Cap and Black Widow run around a boat of Algerian pirates with S.H.I.E.L.D. hostages recalls The Dark Knight's opening bank robbery scene while having a spy film feel to it. Even the final battle with all the mayhem and destruction is thrilling, which seems strange since a lot of these comic book films seem to be ending with these kinds of big battles… It makes me wonder if Ant-Man, being a heist film, will not end with some blow-em-up climax. Though to be fair, Thor: The Dark World's big climax didn't involve too much destruction, it was actually pretty original with all the flying through portals and stuff.
So Captain America: The Winter Soldier offers a consistent story, character development, a knock-out script and fine performances, pulse-pounding action, fun humor and lots of the world-building that always adds an extra pinch to these films. It's intimate and big at the same time, as some of it recalls Iron Man 3's smaller feel when Tony wasn't in the suit. The emotional moments are there, but they're never overdone nor do they feel half-hearted. Adding to all that is the unpredictable twist-and-turn nature of the plot. It's, for me, the best installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.
The extra scenes are also excellent; the first one - like any good mid-credits MCU scene - gives a very good taste of what's to come in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the post-credits scene is a fine cliffhanger. This is a nice change of pace from the humorous post-credits scenes in MCU films and ends the film on a high note.
Yeah… About that scene…
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo mentioned to Slash Film the other day that this film is really Part 1 of a two-parter, as 2016's Captain America 3 (which was officially named Marvel's May 2016 release on Monday) will be the part 2 with Age of Ultron linking both films. Basically, this film hasn't truly concluded. Marvel wisely didn't label this film "Part One"…
(P.S. I was totally expecting Pierce to turn out to be the Red Skull.)