Film Review: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Marvel Studios’ ninth cinematic installment, is the most grounded and faithful adaption of a superhero comic book to the big screen thus far.

Having been on a roll since 2008’s “Iron Man,” Marvel Studios has become this generation’s new Pixar insofar as the comic book-to-film studio has yet to release a critical or commercial dud since its inception.

Unfortunately for the naysaying cinephiles who have been chomping at the bit to cry foul at a Marvel Studios release, “Captain America: The Winter Solider” is not only a solid action film in its own right, but a fantastic universe-building addition to Marvel’s pantheon of interconnected films.

Partially inspired by the epic series of Captain America comic books written by Ed Brubaker entitled “The Winter Soldier,” the film begins months after the alien invasion of New York City seen in “The Avengers,” and features a more hardened and skeptical star-spangled avenger (Chris Evans).

Though still employed by the shadowy and omnipresent S.H.I.E.L.D. organization – think a global NSA, FBI and CIA – Captain America has begun to question the motives and orders of the group’s director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The film opens with a breathtaking action sequence where Captain America, per Fury’s order, performs a black-ops mission with the aid of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) aboard a hijacked cruise liner.

This opening scene is an immediate punch to the gut for longtime Marvel Studios’ fans who may not be familiar with the Captain America found within the Marvel comic book. Though we’ve seen Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America, kill aliens in the movies, most viewers will be shocked to see the red, white and blue hero murder his enemies. In the opening sequence alone, we see Cap choke out, stab and smash the skulls of multiple foes.

In a spectacular fashion, “Captain America: The Winter Solider” dismantles the long-held belief that Fury and his S.H.I.E.L.D. organization can be trusted. Shortly after, movie-goers are introduced to Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) who further plants seeds of doubt in the head of Captain American concerning Nick Fury. Compounding problems for our hero is the emergence of the mythical Soviet assassin turned real, the Winter Solider, who is relentless in preventing him from saving the day.

It’s important to note that this film is very bleak at times. It’s difficult to recall a PG-13 rated major motion picture – with the exception of “The Empire Strikes Back” – that is so violent and dour. However, levity is provided by the flirtatious banter between Captain America and Black Widow.

Though drenched in shades of moral gray, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” wisely introduces the character of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), AKA The Falcon. An Iraqi war vet, Wilson is one of the only characters untainted by S.H.I.E.L.D., and his partnership with Captain America feels natural. Actors Evans and Mackie are wonderful in bringing to life the over four-decades-long friendship between Captain America and The Falcon.

Little else can be said concerning the film’s plot without heavily spoiling the film, but “Captain America: The Winter Solider” is a super-heroic commentary on modern global concerns – the NSA’s invasion of privacy and the ethical dilemma posed by drone strikes. Really, the film feels like it was co-written by legendary Marvel Comics writer Stan Lee and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Most, if not all, of the successes found in “Captain America: The Winter Solider” are due to the work of relative newcomers of film the Russo brothers. It’s shocking that this brotherly duo – whose filmography is limited to the movies “Welcome to Collinwood” and “You, Me and Dupree” – were able to successfully imbue Marvel Studios’ latest film with a compelling blend of grim and gritty storytelling scarcely seen outside of director Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. However, the Russos wisely marry the dark tone with the more quick-witted style of “The Avengers.”

“Captain America: The Winter Solider” is not only a great sequel, but it also resides alongside “The Avengers,” “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 3” in Marvel Studios’ upper echelon of releases.

If Marvel Studios’ first wave of films, which Marvel films’ President Kevin Feige has referred to as “Phase One,” was concerned with setting up the Avengers as a team, the directive of Phase Two has been to take these now established cinematic characters – Captain America, Iron Man, Thor – and allow them to experience stand-alone adventures that flesh out their characters and add to their mythos.

So far, Marvel Studios’ Phase Two has been a success. The Shane Black-written and directed “Iron Man 3” was a terrific chronicling of the ramifications of Tony Stark’s post-traumatic stress disorder following his near death experience as Iron Man in “The Avengers,” whilst the Alan Taylor-directed God of Lightning’s sequel, “Thor: The Dark World,” was a compelling study of the dysfunctional brotherly relationship between the Norse gods Thor and Loki.

“Captain America: The Winter Solider” has started off the 2014 summer blockbuster season with a bang. Studios releasing superhero films this summer most likely broke out in a cold sweat when they saw the opening weekend box office numbers for the Russo brothers’ film – and they should. Not only is “Captain America: The Winter Solider” a great action-adventure film, but it takes the ambitious and overarching storyline that began in the first Iron Man movie and turns it on its head.

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