The first Captain America film, The First Avenger, was one of the best films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and holds up as such upon repeated viewings. The sequel is not as good. Yes, it is still fun, and there’s more to it, intellectually, than any of the previous eight movies, but it’s less fun, far too long, and contains too many “nothings” to be truly worthwhile. It’ll make its money and it is certainly still fun, but unless you’re already “in” — in respect the being a fan of these movies, and have a pretty decent knowledge of the universe — it’s going to be both confusing and not particularly entertaining.
Picking up some time after The Avengers, the film follows Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), who now lives in modern-day Washington despite now being in his 90s. He was frozen and thawed in the present day, and now works for the agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), fighting evil. An early scene includes a funny and action-packed mission to take back a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship which had been hijacked by pirates.
Things can’t stay peachy forever, however, especially in the MCU. After some early seeds are planted in regard to what freedom truly means, we find out that there is a secret threat hidden inside S.H.I.E.L.D., and that this entity — Hydra, which if you recall was also the villainous group from The First Avenger — will become our villain. No points for guessing which members of S.H.I.E.L.D. are actually evil, as it’s pretty obvious right from the start.
At this point, you might be wondering exactly how the titular “Winter Soldier” fits into the mix. So does the film. The character — played by an actor whose name is a spoiler, so I’ll keep it hidden — is essentially just a soldier. He’s a mercenary hired by Hydra but that’s it. His ties to a certain character add unnecessary back story that hurts the running time. Either do something with the character, or don’t make him anything more than an elite soldier. We don’t need a half-hearted approach.
The same is true of another character, Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp), who is introduced and has a couple of big scenes but otherwise sits in the background and does nothing. Her role in the film could have been filled by anyone. A third new addition, a former military man named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) — and later dubbed “Falcon” — is basically in the film because Iron Man couldn’t be, and “that flying stuff looks really, really cool, hey, you guys?”
The primary storyline involves stopping the government (okay, Hydra, but it’s functioning as a stand-in for the government) from preemptively targeting “undesirables,” because, and I quote, “I thought the punishment came after the crime.” At least, I think that was the quote. At worst, it’s a paraphrase. The film is more political than any other film in the MCU, but even so it still dances around the issue instead of diving deep into it. This is still a summer blockbuster, after all, even if one of its characters is almost literally wearing the American flag.
I’ve said enough negative things about the film already. The truth is that it’s still good fun, especially if you are already enamored with the property or the previous eight films of the MCU. While there’s a lot of talking — more than it felt like in any earlier film, but that might just be because of the 135+ minute running time — there’s also a good chunk of action, and much of it is quite exciting. A big set-piece at the end looks incredible, and some of the hand-to-hand combat scenes are … okay. One of them involves on-hiatus MMA fighter George St-Pierre, so that was fun to see.
When The Winter Soldier truly excels, it’s in the small moments, and the ones that allow for humor to take part. The ship segment is a good example of this. The action is great, but there’s also a comedic aspect to it. Some scenes give us a glimpse into what Captain America does during his off-time, and his interactions with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) are often funny. It’s here when the film really comes alive. Captain America doesn’t need to be all doom-and-gloom.
When Chris Evans started playing the lead character in the first film, it came as a surprise. Not because he’s untalented, but because his perceived persona did not seem to fit someone like Steve Rogers. He played it perfectly and continues to play it perfectly. Apart from the actors I’ve already mentioned, supporting roles go to Robert Redford, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Hayley Atwell (briefly), and Toby Jones. That’s a good cast, and they all deliver.
While it has slightly more on its mind than its predecessors — politically and intellectually, at least — Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still primarily an action movie for fans of superhero films. It doesn’t do enough with its high-minded aspirations to make much of an impact in that respect, and it wastes more time than it should both with those and with secondary characters who add very little, including the titular Winter Soldier, who is very underused. It’s mostly fun, and if you’re a fan of these things, you will likely have a good time, but it’s not hard to see how it could have been much better.