The first Captain America movie, with its ridiculous villain, rushed CGI, saccharine optimism, and pervasive Americanism, is the worst movie Marvel Studios has made in the six years since launching with 2008’s Iron Man. (The character was given some chance to grow in The Avengers, having to grapple with losing everyone he cared about, being a man out of time, and going from being one government’s pawn to another’s.) In contrast, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the movie the superhuman character deserves.
Following the destructive climax of The Avengers, when much of New York City was laid to waste, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) has remained in the employ of SHIELD, taking half-explained orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and going on covert missions alongside Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
When Nick Fury is ambushed by assassins early on in the movie, he feebly drags himself to Rogers’s apartment. After SHIELD fails to get answers about why Fury went there from the tight-lipped Captain, SHIELD essentially burns him. Rogers escapes an attempt on his life in an elevator and flees, and SHIELD makes hunting him down into their top priority.
Meanwhile, Rogers, aided by Romanoff, sets off to unravel a conspiracy within SHEILD that Fury had been digging into, having to stay one step ahead of their hunters at every turn. In addition, Rogers and Romanoff themselves go on the hunt for a mysterious killer known only as “the Winter Soldier.”
Captain America: The Winter Soldier barely takes a single wrong step, from its thrilling opening sequence to its surprising ending. It moves at a really brisk pace, never feeling like it’s actually over two hours long. Each scene seems hard to top but is often dwarfed by the turns of the plot or the immense action sequences that follow. Even predictable turns in the plot actually serve to just blind audiences toward later twists.
The actors and characters breathe in ways that only Robert Downey, Jr. and his Tony Stark have really had the opportunity to. Evans’s Rogers, always the whiny do-gooder and naïve patriot in prior movies, is now likeable, disillusioned, and relatable. Johansson finally gets the chance to be a three-dimensional character, after numerous turns being nothing more than eye candy. Even Robert Redford, in a casting move that pays homage to ‘70s conspiracy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, has more fun with his performance here than he has in years.
The Avengers set the highest bar of the last six years of Marvel movies, managing to tackle mammoth action sequences while effectively juggling numerous larger-than-life characters. Captain America: The Winter Soldier pares down the lengthy cast of characters while still keeping the size and spectacle. It sets the stage for The Avengers: Age of Ultron, leaves many tantalising teases about the third Captain America movie, and wonderfully continues the story established in Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers while also working perfectly for anyone who goes into it blind to any prior Marvel movies.
Truth be told, despite its humble beginnings, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best Marvel Studios movie to date.