It’s a very different film from the first one, an espionage story rather than a war adventure. But it’s also rich with character, and it all starts with Chris Evans as Captain America, delivering his lines earnestly, even more convincingly than Christopher Reeve did as Superman thirty-five years ago. Cap is a man of moral clarity – even when he’s not certain what the right thing to do is, he recognizes the wrong thing when he sees it. He’s not a perfect judge of character, but Evans makes him convincing inspiring to other good people. This film puts all of our hero’s best qualities to the test.
The film is rich with character bits, starting with the opening scene where he meets Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) – the Falcon in the comics – while jogging around Washington DC in the morning, which features real humor as well as two veterans of two different wars getting to know each other. Cap’s rocky relationship with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is also on display, as is his professional relationship with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a spy rather than a soldier, with a very different outlook on the world, but they’re connected by their common goals despite their different characters.
The film’s pacing is sharp, moving from the opening scene to an action against terrorists who have captured a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship, and then to a lengthy (but never dull) sequence building the tension in and around S.H.I.E.L.D., culminating in the attack on Fury by the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), followed by the revelation of what’s been going on.
If anything, the action sequences are the film’s weak link, with rapid cuts between shots, sometimes making the action hard to follow. The one-on-one fights are the best, but I think the cinematographer and choreographer perhaps got a little too enamored of the technology they had at their disposal to portray super beings fighting each other. But to be fair, seeing Cap punch out clearly-deserving bad guys is a lot of fun. The script also uses fight scenes to underscore the difference in Cap’s non-lethal fighting style to that of everyone else, particularly including the Black Widow, in the first combat set-piece.
Actually, the surprise revelation of the film is Johansson’s performance as the Widow. Made up as a glamour girl in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, and seeming horribly mismatched to Joss Whedon’s somewhat ridiculous portrayal of the character in the latter (and turning in a performance so wooden that one wonders if Whedon just flat-out lost interest in working with her), she’s so different here as to seem almost a different actress. Gone is the bright red hair and lipstick, instead she looks pale and world-weary, as if she’d been left out in the sun far too long, and her performance matches her appearance. Her chemistry with Evans is perfect, two professionals linked in their mission, but also in their shared experiences with S.H.I.E.L.D. I’ve never been won over by Johansson as an actress, but she’s quite good here.
(I don’t want this review to turn into another “I don’t understand the big deal about Joss Whedon” screed, but suffice to say that The Avengers feels downright childlike compared to The Winter Soldier. Yes, the action sequences in The Avengers are superlative, but it’s a shallow film.)
Certainly you don’t want to look at the plot of The Winter Soldier too closely, but that puts it in good company with almost every other superhero film. (Flying fortresses built with insufficient oversight? Brought down with a convenient swap of computer chips? Sure, sure. And while the presence of the Winter Solider himself is another axis to provoke Cap’s personal involvement in the plot, it feels a bit awkwardly grafted on to the main story.) It’s the characterizations which make the film work, with themes of trust – personal, professional, public, and private – permeating the story. While the story ultimately reduces the complexity of its themes to blowing up flying gunships, there’s a lot of nuance along the way.
A few more quick things: Henry Jackman’s score is pretty good (he also scored X-Men: First Class), but doesn’t quite measure up to Alan Silvestri’s score from the first film.
The visit to the training camp in New Jersey and the Arnim Zola intelligence is one of the most moving and chilling scenes in the film.
Mackie’s turn as Sam Wilson is outstanding, though he seems eerily to be channelling Will Smith. Not that that’s a bad thing, and he has a bit more gravitas than Smith.
Robert Redford clearly had a ball playing Alexander Pierce.
Overall, a thoroughly entertaining film. Better than the first? The two are so different they almost defy comparison. The Winter Soldier doesn’t have any scene which quite matches Cap’s first mission in the first film, but it keeps the suspense amped up for almost the full two hours. Given how different the films are, I can’t wait to see in what direction they take the third film.