“How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?” asks Falcon while running. Captain America responds, “If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad!”
The first theatrically-released Captain America feature film was Albert Pyun’s awful 1990 film Captain America (there had previously been a 1944 serial and two TV movies in the late 1970s). Captain America was supposed to make a cameo in the opening to 2008’s The Incredible Hulk; it was a sequence where Bruce Banner journeys to the Arctic to kill himself (later semi-referenced to in 2012’s The Avengers), only to end up turning into the Hulk and causing an avalanche (which briefly revealed Captain America’s shield). This sequence was unfortunately cut out (like many great character-driven scenes in the film), delaying the Cap’s return to the big screen until 2011 when Marvel Studios produced Captain America: The First Avenger (the last of its Phase One films leading up to The Avengers). Directed by Joe Johnston and starring Chris Evans in the title role, the film was a critical and box office hit, paving the way for the massive critical and box office success of The Avengers. Whereas The First Avenger was largely a period piece set during the last few years of World War II (the early-to-mid 1940s), its direct sequel would be set entirely in the present.
Based on the Marvel Comics character created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes place two years after the events of The Avengers. Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) is still adjusting to life in the present and is working for S.H.I.E.L.D. He continues to try to fight the good fight but is wary of the secrecy and/or lies that S.H.I.E.L.D. is accustomed to operating under. He meets Sam Wilson, a former Pararescueman who works at a VA hospital, early on while jogging around Washington D.C. After completing a mission at sea with Black Widow, Rogers finds out that there’s something going on at S.H.I.E.L.D. that even S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury has been trying to uncover. After Fury is attacked and killed by a new (or rather old) assassin called the Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. head Alexander Pierce pronounces Captain America a fugitive who must be captured dead or alive. Rogers teams up with Black Widow to discover the contents of a flashdrive that Fury gave to him before his death and must race against time to stop the horrific plan that’s already been set into motion. Enlisting the aid of Wilson (aka the Falcon), they must also deal with the Winter Soldier, who has a secret tie to Captain America.
Chris Evans continues to shine as Steve Rogers, Scarlett Johansson continues to develop her role of Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (who previously appeared in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers), and Sebastian Stan is very effective as the Winter Soldier (I will not spoil anything for those who still haven’t seen the film). Robert Redford is terrific as Alexander Pierce (there’s one twist involving him you could probably guess correctly, but that’s only so that the other twist involving him can catch you completely off-guard), and Samuel L. Jackson continues to be the bad-ass Nick Fury, adding to his already complex character. Anthony Mackie is a welcome addition as Sam Wilson, a character that is much more well-rounded than I had anticipated.
Anthony and Joe Russo were a surprising pick for helming the Captain America sequel, which makes their work here all the more impressive. They’ve crafted together an engaging modern spy/conspiracy thriller with a terrific screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the duo had also written The First Avenger). Markus and McFeely took some inspiration from the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s (this also led to the casting of Redford, who had appeared in such films as Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men). The modern setting allowed the action sequences to be grittier than the previous Captain America film, and the stakes are higher and more personal than ever. Henry Jackman contributes a good score, and while he introduces his own Captain America motif (partially based on Alan Silvestri’s theme from the previous film), more reprisals of Silvestri’s theme would have been welcome (surprisingly, Jackman reprises Silvestri’s S.H.I.E.L.D. motif from The Avengers a few times). As much as I loved The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier is an even better film that continues Marvel Studios’ winning streak critically and financially. I’m looking forward to this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy as well as the culmination of Marvel’s Phase Two lineup with next summer’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron.