Although the previous Captain America movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, only made $176 million domestically, the $370 million worldwide total made a second Steve Rogers solo movie a no-brainer. Moviegoers who weren't feeling the patriotic superhero in a World War II setting came to appreciate the character in the modern-day The Avengers, which set up a completely different approach to the Cap sequel.
Instead of bringing back director Joe Johnston, Marvel Studios went with Anthony and Joseph Russo, primarily known for helming several terrific episodes of the NBC geek sitcom Community. Thankfully, the pair were fans of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's superb storyline "The Winter Soldier" from the Captain America comics and wisely met with Brubaker to discuss his various thoughts about the character.
The Russos, working with a script from the returning Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, decided on approaching the film as a political conspiracy thriller, essentially a Marvel superhero version of classic films such as Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and Marathon Man. And just to emphasize that concept, they somehow managed to bring in Robert Redford, the legendary film actor who starred in, yes, Three Days of the Condor.
Picking up two years after the events in The Avengers, Steve Rogers is still trying to find his way in the 21st Century after nearly seven decades of being frozen in ice. He continues working with the intelligence and espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and is quickly brought in to join a mission to free captured S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives from Algerian pirates led by none other than Batroc. It's here we get our first hint that things aren't as they seem, when Steve discovers his fellow agent and Avenger Black Widow is more concerned with saving data from the ship's computers on a flash drive than kicking Algerian pirate ass.
From that point on, it's one S.H.I.E.L.D. trust fail after another. Executive Director Nick Fury is blocked from accessing the data Black Widow extracted, then ends up ambushed by a bunch of fake cops and a mysterious assassin called the Winter Soldier on the downtown streets of
And if that isn't enough of the Worst Monday Ever, Cap is summoned by S.H.I.E.L.D. uber-bigwig Alexander Pierce to reveal what Fury learned and refuses, which results in Pierce branding him a fugitive. With the help of Black Widow, Cap uncovers information that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been totally compromised by everyone's favorite comic book terrorist organization, HYDRA. Joy.
The Russos keep things moving briskly, with heavy S.H.I.E.L.D. intrigue balanced well against seat-gripping action sequences and some zippy lines of dialogue along the way. Henry Jackman does well enough with the score to heighten the tension at just the right moments, but ultimately pales in comparison to previous composer Alan Silvestri. Unfortunately, the films biggest problem is cinematographer Trent Opaloch, who seems determined to turn Captain America into Jason Bourne with frustrating and confusing close-ups of action sequences, mixed with quick-cut editing and nauseating shakycam.
Despite those issues, the film's cast turn in some terrific performances with a lot of great character moments. Here are some of the things that stood out:
CAPTAIN AMERICA/STEVE ROGERS -- Now halfway through his reported six-film contract, Chris Evans continues to add considerable depth to his character. You genuinely feel for Steve as a man out of time, struggling to adjust to life seventy years from what he knows. He's desperate for something to believe in, which makes it all the more tragic when he's betrayed by what he believes in most.
BLACK WIDOW/NATASHA ROMANOFF -- Scarlett Johansson proves once again how ridiculous it is that the Black Widow has never received a solo film. For most of this movie, Natasha acts as Steve's full-fledged partner, casually flirting with him at times even though both seem to know nothing's going to happen beyond friendship. And finally, we get to see Natasha's darker, secretive side in full display, giving her that morally grey distinction that makes her all the more fascinating.
THE WINTER SOLDIER/JAMES "BUCKY" BARNES -- Although he doesn't get much in the way of dialogue, Sebastian Stan is near perfect casting as the Winter Soldier. Due to his facial mask early on and the minimal dialogue, Stan is forced to express his character through his eyes projecting everything from mind-controlled emptiness to tormented recollection of fleeting memories. It's going to be interesting if Stan ends up taking over as Captain America when Evans leaves, as the Winter Soldier does during Brubaker's epic "Death of Captain America" saga.
THE FALCON/SAM WILSON -- Right from the start, Anthony Mackie nails his role of Sam Wilson without being obnoxious or wacky comedy relief. Sam and Steve quickly form their bromance while running laps around the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, bringing to life one the best superhero friendships to come out of '70s comics. Although we don't get to see him in full flying action until the third act, The Falcon more than proves his worth and I really hope we get to see him join the Avengers.
NICK FURY -- At 65, Samuel L. Jackson seems ready to let Nick Fury vanish into the shadows. He finally gets a significant action sequence of his own, but there are some very symbolic moments at the end that strongly hint he won't be coming back. Fury leaves his eyepatch behind in a burning fire, and then we get a shot of Fury's gravestone, which features a much-beloved Bible quotation from Ezekiel 25:17, made famous by Jackson in the Quentin Tarantino classic Pulp Fiction. What better way for Jackson to go out on?
ALEXANDER PIERCE -- Robert Redford is another aging veteran at 77 and unfortunately, it shows all too well. In an apparent nod to Brubaker's Aleksander Lukin, Pierce is ultimately revealed as the Big Bad mastermind serving HYDRA, but Redford seems too old to project the edge needed to make his character a truly menacing villain. He comes off as just another Evil White Guy in a Suit, something we've seen hundreds of times in action movies.
MARIA HILL -- Once again, Cobie Smulders is supposed to be Nick Fury's number two but serves little purpose apart from helping Cap and Black Widow escape S.H.I.E.L.D. and to update the audience on how the Helicarriers are being disabled. Perhaps she'll get more to do working in Stark Industries' human resources department.
AGENT 13/SHARON CARTER -- This was Emily VanCamp's introduction as Sharon Carter, Steve Rogers' love interest after her aunt Peggy. It feels like Sharon's being saved for the third Captain America film, but she does get a nice sequence where she defiantly refuses to roll over for Rumlow activating the Helicarriers.
PEGGY CARTER -- After wowing fans with her Agent Carter one-shot on the Iron Man 3 Blu-Ray release, Hayley Atwell returns to give some much-needed modern-day closure between Peggy and Steve. It's tragic she and Steve never got to have that dance, but hopefully the rumored Agent Carter television series actually happens.
CROSSBONES/BROCK RUMLOW -- Unfortunately, Frank Grillo doesn't assume his Crossbones identity in this film, but he's solid as Pierce's go-to henchman heading up the S.H.I.E.L.D. strike team. He also gives The Falcon someone to fight while Cap's busy with the Winter Soldier.
BATROC THE LEAPER/GEORGES BATROC -- Former UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre portrays one of Cap's oldest bad guys from the comics, now reinvented as an Algerian pirate. The casting makes perfect sense, allowing St. Pierre to showcase Batroc's mastery of savate, a French form of kickboxing.
ARNIM ZOLA -- Toby Jones returns as Zola, albeit in audio form only now that his character's consciousness has been uploaded into a supercomputer. We're one step closer to finally seeing Zola as a headless monster with his face projected holographically on his chest. Can't wait.
JASPER SITWELL -- Maximiliano Hernandez reprises his role of Sitwell, showing us how deep HYDRA's corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D. runs and to inform Cap about Zola's data-mining algorithm. Unless Sitwell ends up in that wonderful place known as Tahiti in a future episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this may be the last we see of him.
SENATOR STERN -- The same goes for Garry Shandling, returning after his previous appearance in Iron Man 2. However, Stern ends up arrested and not dead, so perhaps he'll end up cellmates with Trevor Slattery.
ED BRUBAKER CAMEO -- The co-creator of The Winter Soldier has a "Don't Blink" cameo as one of the scientists overseeing Bucky's mental conditioning. Very appropriate.
OBLIGATORY STAN LEE CAMEO -- In a fun moment, we find Smilin' Stan serving as a security guard at the Smithsonian Institution, bemoaning that he's going to lose his job after Steve Rogers takes his original Captain America uniform.
BARON STRUCKER, QUICKSILVER AND SCARLET WITCH CAMEOS -- Thomas Kretschmann, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen appear in the mid-credits bonus scene. Inside a HYDRA lab, we see Baron Strucker admiring Loki's scepter left over from The Avengers and two prisoners very familiar to Marvel fans. The Avengers: Age of Ultron can't get here fast enough.
Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a welcome upgrade over the previous two lackluster Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. It has the far-too-rare distinction of being a sequel that's better than the first film, with some genuine game-changing implications for future Marvel movies as well as ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. It may be a little convoluted for someone who walks in cold with no knowledge of all the various characters and previous movies, but pay offs huge for those who are.
And for those who may be wondering, here's the updated list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:
1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Man of Steel (2013)
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
6. Spider-Man (2002)
7. Batman Begins (2005)
8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
9. Watchmen (2009)
10. Iron Man (2008)
11. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
12. X-Men: First Class (2011)
13: The Wolverine (2013)
14. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
15. X2: X-Men United (2003)
16. X-Men (2000)
17. Thor (2011)
18. Batman (1989)
19. Superman II (1981)
20. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,