When we last saw Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), he had just helped save New York City from an alien invasion and was still acclimatizing himself to modern life having been frozen in ice since World War II as chronicled in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The sequel, The Winter Soldier (2014), takes place two years after the events depicted in The Avengers (2012) and sees Cap working as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., a top-secret spy organization that, among other things, deals with the fallout from the adventures of superheroes like Iron Man and Thor. However, as hinted at in The Avengers and the television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there is something rotten at the core of the spy organization and Cap soon finds himself not only embroiled in a vast conspiracy, but also confronting someone from his past he thought had died in the war. The result is a fantastic fusion of the super hero movie with the conspiracy thriller.
Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are now a team and as the film begins they intercept a covert S.H.I.E.L.D. ship in the Indian Ocean that has been hijacked by Algerian terrorists led by French mercenary Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre). In a nice touch, the filmmakers manage to transform Batroc, who was a pretty ridiculous villain in the comic books, into a bit of a badass. Afterwards, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lets Cap in behind the scenes, showing him three Helicarriers armed with state-of-the-art jet fighters that are linked to spy satellites created to anticipate global threats in a program known as Project Insight.
Cap is not at all comfortable with Fury’s secret project and the notion of creating a climate of fear that potentially robs people of their basic freedoms. However, when Fury suspects something is wrong with Project Insight he voices concern to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Immediately afterwards, Fury is attacked on the streets of Washington, D.C. by S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives and an enigmatic figure known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Fury barely escapes and finds Cap before being gravely injured. It’s up to Cap and Black Widow, along with the help of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a war veteran and post-traumatic stress disorder counselor that Cap befriends early on, to uncover the corruption rampant in S.H.I.E.L.D. and stop it.
Chris Evans does an excellent job of reprising his role of Captain America and providing layers to a character that is essentially a super strong boy scout who comes from a simpler time. He is now immersed in a convoluted conspiracy where he doesn’t know who to trust. As a result, he has to do a bit of soul-searching, which Evans handles well. He also has nice chemistry with Scarlett Johansson, especially when Cap and Black Widow go off the grid together and try to find the Winter Soldier. There’s a hint of sexual tension going on as two people with wildly different backgrounds and approaches to life are forced to look out for each other. Johansson finally gets some seriously significant screen-time than she did in Iron Man 2 (2010) and The Avengers and it’s nice to see her character fleshed out a bit more as well as giving her plenty of action sequences to kick ass in.
A film like this, which intentionally raises the stakes in comparison to the first one needs a credible threat that makes us feel like Cap and his allies are in real danger and the Winter Soldier does that. He rarely speaks, but looks cool and is extremely dangerous so that we anticipate the inevitable showdown between him and Cap. He isn’t some anonymous bad guy, but something of a tortured soul and the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also wrote the first film) offers some tantalizing details of his backstory and how it ties in with Cap’s past.
Markus and McFeely have crafted a solid script that is well-executed by directors Anthony and Joe Russo. They establish just the right rhythm and tone with well-timed lulls between action sequences that are used wisely to move the plot along and offer little moments of character development that keep us invested in the characters and their story. For example, there is a nice scene where Cap goes to an exhibit dedicated to his World War II exploits at the Smithsonian, which succinctly recaps his origin story in a rather poignant way that reminds us of his internal conflict of being stuck in the past while living in the present. One way he deals with this is befriending Sam and they both bond over being war veterans – albeit from very different eras. In addition, the script features several well-timed one-liners and recurring jokes that add moment of much-welcomed levity to an otherwise serious film.
The action sequences are exciting and expertly choreographed with the exception of the opening boat siege, which takes place at night and involves way too much Paul Greengrass/Jason Bourne shaky, hand-held camerawork. Once the filmmakers get that out of their system and Cap takes on Batroc, the camera settles down and is a decent distance from the combatants so that we can see what’s going on. There is also an intense car chase involving an injured Fury in an increasingly bullet-ridden SUV that has the feel of the exciting car chase in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and a little later Cap takes out an elevator full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents intent on neutralizing him that evokes an elevator scene in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). The fights between Cap and the Winter Soldier are fast and frenetic, but never confusing as they convey the frighteningly deadly speed of the latter’s moves, so much so that I really felt like Cap was in some serious danger.
Drawing elements from writer Ed Brubaker and illustrator Steven Epting’s 2005 “Winter Soldier” storyline in the comic book, this film has a decidedly darker tone than The First Avenger as our hero is nearly killed on several occasions and his world is shaken to the very core as he uncovers all sorts of ugly secrets. In this respect, The Winter Soldier is reminiscent of paranoid conspiracy thrillers from the 1970s and this is acknowledged with the casting of Robert Redford who starred in two of the best films from that era – Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976).
It is refreshing to see a sequel that isn’t merely content to rehash the first film. Where The First Avenger was essentially a mash-up of a super hero movie and war movie, The Winter Soldier is super hero movie and a political thriller with events that are a major game changer for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the past, S.H.I.E.L.D. had been the connective tissue that linked several of the films together that led up to The Avengers. It should be interesting to see how the events depicted in this film set the stage for Avengers: The Age of Ultron (2015). That being said, The Winter Soldier has its own self-contained story that is engrossing with a lot at stake for our hero and this in turn gets you invested in what is happening to produce a rare super hero movie with heart.