While the second solo screen outing for stars-and-stripes super soldier Captain America, THE WINTER SOLDIER is the first “real” franchise installment, for the previous film, THE FIRST AVENGER, with its entirely
(save literally the closing minutes) WWII era setting was clearly conceived and executed as a backstory vehicle–not just for the character of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) but THE AVENGERS film that immediately followed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe chronology.
In a way, that film can be somewhat seen as buying time, given that a square-jawed do-gooder icon of middle-of-the-road Americana doesn’t easily lend itself to a unique solo series identity like fellow Avengers Iron Man, Thor, or the Hulk. But directors Joe and Anthony Russo and returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have cracked the code, which can be boiled down to two key decisions. First, they take a comparatively more reality-bound approach than Thor’s literal mythology, Iron Man’s techno-fantasias, and Hulk being Hulk; and second, crafting a hotbed of shifty motives and outright corruption around such a paragon of old school virtue.
The film recalls another old school vibe, that of paranoid thrillers of the ’70s, in how a routine S.H.I.E.L.D.-assigned rescue mission for Cap and Black Widow (a now-fully-settled Scarlett Johansson, her third time in the role indeed being the charm, literally and figuratively) opens the door to some shady and perhaps sinister goings-on within the espionage outfit.
Traditional comic book action is certainly not in short supply as Cap, Black Widow, and a new comrade, soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), gradually uncover the truths about a questionable new S.H.I.E.L.D. project as a masked assassin, the Winter Soldier of the title, goes after various targets, among them Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, getting a more active role this time); Wilson is, after all, better known to Marvel Comics fans under the moniker Falcon, and his literally high-flying derring-do makes for a nice complement to Cap’s shield-throwing and Black Widow’s gun and fight skills. But Mackie’s ease with Evans and seamless integration into the MCU ensemble speaks of how the Russos and the writers get a lot right on a nuts-and-bolts character level, lending a solid foundation to the visceral thrills and plot twists.
Ironically enough, the turn involving the Winter Soldier is probably the film’s weakest element (inherited from the rather contrived retcon of a storyline from the comics) and doesn’t have quite the emotional payoff that was clearly intended. But between the lively Evans-Johansson byplay (who knew we’d ever see THE NANNY DIARIES co-stars reteam as a buddy action duo?), high class cast (in addition to Mackie, no less than Robert Redford joins the mix as a S.H.I.E.L.D. head), and impressively mounted action set pieces, this is a solid example of meat-and-potatoes popcorn film-making–befitting that most meat-and-potatoes of comic book heroes. Grade: B
By Michael DeQuina