Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the sequel to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger and the ensemble film The Avengers, is full of all those things you like to see in a comic book spinoff film: lots of action sequences and plenty of banter between superheroes. It’s a good addition to the Marvel Studios universe of films. But compared to past entries it begs the question of where Marvel is heading with all its Avengers-based films.
Not as viscerally compelling as The First Avenger, the story in The Winter Soldier seems disjointed, as if it is a stitched together batch of scenes instead of a clearly thought out story. We have one villain with the Winter Soldier, another with a government wonk played by Robert Redford, another with a would-be S.H.I.E.L.D. enforcer played by the who-would ever-trust-a-guy that-looks-like-that Frank Grillo, and pretty much every government lawman around, including scenes with too-many-to-count police cars destroyed and demolished by the good guys. Oh, yeah–and Hydra. Again. Is it a complex story or just too many unnecessary plot threads? The first Captain America was a complete story, showing the weak young man who wanted to fight for all that’s right as he moved along a path to become a supersoldier, working with an incredible group of comrades, and experiencing love and loss along the way–character driven, not action driven. The basic story here has been over-used lately–stop the criminals who believe destroying the world (or the city, etc.) is the only way to save it. In what world does that logic make sense?
The Winter Soldier spends too much time with that sequel device writers think they must have: repeat information from the first installment so that someone seeing the franchise for the first time with Part 2 will know what’s going on. With a world of blockbusters everyone sees can we finally scrap this device? It simply wastes too much time that could be used to further the plot–Think The Empire Strikes Back, where nothing was re-hashed from Star Wars. Here this also included a return of Cap’s old girlfriend, several photos of the cast in the last movie, and a montage featuring a National Air and Space Museum exhibit about Captain America and his pal Bucky, the only member of Cap’s WWII team to have lost his life, complete with voiceover by Gary Sinise explaining what happened in the first film. It also includes what really, really doesn’t work, bringing Hydra back as the villain behind all the villains. What is fun about the Smithsonian scene is a nice ensemble of cast costumes from the first film on display (like Iron Man had on display at Comic-Con a few years back), which, intentionally or not, parrots a similar scene in last year’s The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot.
Marvel Studios is clearly betting the obvious, that these movies must feature the Avengers themselves as headliners in order to get the necessary return on investment. But the best part of The Winter Soldier is the rest of the team, beginning with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury. Finally we get a better glimpse at a (bad) day in the life Fury. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is just begging to be a future standalone film. After Jackson, Anthony Mackie stole every scene as Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon, the coolest new superhero on film since Robert Downey. Jr.’s Iron Man. His story as a vet who works to help PTSD peers who comes to the aid of Steve Rogers is a perfect fit to partner with Captain America. Unfortunately neither Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill were written as strong and clever as their roles in The Avengers. Despite all the great Black Widow stories to pull from, you just know Disney will never make a film starring Black Widow in the title role.
But you can’t knock Chris Evans’ performance as Steve Rogers. Where The First Avenger focused on world building and The Avengers left him as a grumpy complainer and do-gooder, The Winter Soldier reminds us all that Captain America has superpowers, and the comic book character we loved to read as kids. Up against G-men trying to take him down he is superb, especially in a nice bit that puts him in an elevator with perhaps two dozen people trying to apprehend him.
You then have the scenes with the Winter Soldier, who unfortunately gets only two scenes where we feel any emotion about the character, first as he recognizes Steve, and second, after the credits have rolled and he recognizes himself. It may have been better to scrap Robert Redford and leave his character for another film, and nix the Hydra redux altogether, leaving more for us involving the title character of the film.
So where does The Winter Soldier stack up compared to the rest of the Avengers films? It’s probably better than Thor and definitely better than the Iron Man sequels and all the Hulk films. But it doesn’t quite measure up to the perfection that was Iron Man, the energy and heart of Captain America: The First Avenger, and the fun of The Avengers. Still, it’s worth watching, plenty of fun and even has enough good bits that will have you watching it over again when it’s out on DVD and Blu-ray. Keep an eye out for a great scene featuring none other than Jenny Agutter, back from The Avengers, in a completely surprising performance.