I was never a big Captain America fan. It was a comic series that debuted in 1941, in a time far removed from anything I could relate to. He was Marvel’s All-American Hero, able to both compete with DC’s Superman and serve as a rallying cry for America’s involvement in World War II. Spider-man was a lot easier for me to identify with: a teenage superhero that was just as concerned with saving the city as he was with finishing his homework.
As such, I skipped this character’s first outing on the big screen, 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. By most accounts, it was actually a pretty good movie. Not great, but solid. Having watched it twice since its release, it’s still kinda low on my totem pole of comic book films. However, after a series of pretty impressive trailers, and The Avengers, I gave the new movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a shot.
In short? It was good. Really good. Arguably The Dark Knight good. When I make that particular comparison, I mean that the film transcends “comic book movie” tropes and instead offers a good film for a larger audience that doesn’t have to rely heavily on its comic book roots. Winter Soldier is far closer to a movie like The Bourne Identity than anything else, with choreographed hand-to-hand action sequences, elaborate car chases, and a character evading capture from his own organization after it’s taken over from within.
The plot vacillates between a focus on the titular Winter Soldier character and the bulking up of S.H.E.I.L.D. to use predictive surveillance to eliminate threats before they emerge. The latter has relevance to our current political climate and its handling of the NSA and other spy programs, and it’s interesting that they looked at this theme at all. However, the movie ultimately descends into typical comic book fare, leaving the spy program focus somewhat hollow. They never quite commit to either story line. That isn’t to say the plot is bad, but that some additional focus, or a choice between the two themes, may have served it better.
The generally strong story is also held up in large part by the action set pieces. If you were to watch Iron Man or Thor, you’d be looking at a green screen for the majority of the movie. In The Winter Soldier, you’re mostly looking at Washington, D.C. and Cleveland (…made up to look like D.C…). You don’t see Captain America flying through the sky, firing beams from his hands: he just punches and flips and throws dudes through the air. Granted, with super strength and agility…but really, it’s closer to a martial arts film at parts than it is to a traditional comic book movie. It makes for a nice change of pace from other recent endeavors. That said, the end of the movie ends up going full-on comic book freak show, with lots of spectacle and a series of engineering decisions that could only possibly serve as a set-piece, rather than anything practical. Also, I saw it in 3D and, while it didn’t detract from the experience, I didn’t feel it was really necessary.
Another thing worth mentioning is its integration with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. television series, currently airing on ABC. The series itself was slow to start, but its most recent episode took place during Winter Soldier, so we see what else was happening at the same time, and also how it ties in with the events of the film somewhat directly. It’s synergistic planning on Marvel’s part, but ratings for S.H.E.I.L.D. have been lacking and may not be renewed, yielding the potential for this unique feature of the Marvel Universe to be short-lived.
Ultimately, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was pretty great. I think I’d still keep The Dark Knight up their above it as the best “mainstream” comic film (as it never quite embraced its comic book-ness like Winter Soldier eventually does), and The Avengers as my favorite comic movie of all time, but this one was quite strong. Definitely worth a look.