What has set the Marvel movies apart from expected, somewhat run-of-the-mill super hero movies based upon comics material from other companies and books is their ability to change genres — yet do so in a strong, compelling fashion.
For example, the three Iron Man films were all technological thrillers for the most part, the two Thor films were epic fantasy and the first Captain America, The First Avenger was a World War II adventure yarn. (And, of course, Marvel’s The Avengers was a big summer action movie that put all of those elements and characters together in a way that was both groundbreaking and irresistible.)
As crazy as it sounds, Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier might be the riskiest of the Marvel movies so far. It’s a spy thriller, in a time where such things are frowned upon. Especially when you consider that it puts a few colorfully costumed characters in such trappings and then tries to use them to make an actual point or two.
Refreshingly enough, it does so in a thrilling, surprisingly deft fashion. The Winter Soldier not only satisfies with its plentiful action scenes, it also offers some intriguing commentary on the current political and world climate, and turns out to be a sterling character piece.
Drawn from some fairly recent comics’ story lines (particularly writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting’s must-read run on the monthly Captain America title), it finds out of time and out of his element “super soldier” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in the present day, where he’s having a hard time adjusting both personally and professionally.
Now working for the S.H.I.E.L.D. spy agency, Steve/Cap finds himself partnered with Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who’s not afraid to get her “hands dirty,” especially when she abandons her post and sets off on another mission during an at-sea hostage situation.
But as it turns out, Natasha was acting on orders from S.H.I.E.L.D head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who seems paranoid about a possibly conspiracy within the agency. And when Fury is attacked, it appears those fears were justified.
So Steve and Natasha are forced to go on the run, with what seems like most, if not all, of S.H.I.E.L.D against them. They’re also being followed by a mysterious assassin, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who seems awfully familiar to Steve.
And as the duo tries to figure out who was behind the attack, they also must decide whom they can trust. Nick’s longtime friend, bureaucrat Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), offers help, at least initially. And one new ally is Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a veteran soldier Steve has befriended.
Directing duo the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, had nothing in their credits that suggested they could do a big action film this well (save for maybe a couple of episodes of NBC’s Community), but they handle the big and loud and small and soft moments equally well. And screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s adaptation also draws some inspiration from the Secret Warriors series, which also tracked conspiracies within S.H.I.E.L.D and throughout the existing Marvel universe.
The story is told in a fairly clear-cut but smart fashion, all the while painting several of its characters in intriguing moral grays.
Performance wise, this may be Evans and Johansson’s show, but several characters and actors threaten to steal the movie out from under them. Stan is better than he’s been in anything before (save the Political Animals television miniseries), and Mackie may be the breakout character here. (Seriously, what kid isn’t going to want to play at being The Falcon, with his wings and guns?)
Yet the best, most compelling character of this bunch might be Redford’s Pierce, who isn’t as out of place as you might think. Not to give too much away, but his he turns out to be a central figure, and Redford makes him so watchably enigmatic that you’ll actually want more of him. In a movie that’s filled with super heroics, that’s really saying something.
By the way, there are several “Easter eggs” for Marvel fans and devotees of the first film (a couple of characters reappear). And don’t forget to stick around after the screen fades to black. As in keeping with recent Marvel movie tradition, there are a pair of “pay-off” scenes — one of them during the credits and another after all is said and done. Setup for Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, as well as a middle finger to the upcoming, Fox-produced X-Men: Days of Future Past, which uses a couple of those same characters.
Jeff Michael Vice can also be heard reviewing films, television programs, comics, books, music and other things as part of The Geek Show Podcast (www.thegeekshowpodcast.com), and can be seen reviewing films as part of Xfinity’s Big Movie Mouth-Off (www.facebook.com/BigMovieMouthOff).