The best thing about Captain America is that he’s a human being, protected by nothing more than a thin layer of spandex. Where Bruce Banner turns into the impenetrable beast that is the Incredible Hulk, Tony Stark is shielded by his iron suit and Thor is an otherworldly god here on Earth, Steve Rogers is just a man, driven by a relentless need to serve and protect his country. This simple fact is what ultimately helps The Winter Soldier work so well, both as a part of The Avengers series and as a stand-alone piece of cinema. Joe & Anthony Russo’s first foray into the Marvel Universe never loses sight of the fact that beneath the red, white and blue exterior is bona fide flesh and blood, with a pulsing heart that can be wounded. In many ways, The Winter Soldier is a catalogue of the lacerations that Rogers has endured, both as a solider and as a man completely out of his own time.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder isn’t necessarily a topic that one would imagine a bombastic, $170 million dollar tent pole action picture-taking on, but that’s the focus of Steve Rogers’ journey. Spending most of the one-hundred and forty minute runtime outside of his star-spangled suit, we watch as Rogers attempts to reconcile his present as a lonely superhero with the past he’s quickly realizing is all but gone completely. His best girl, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, completely unrecognizable under still subtle geriatric makeup), is on her deathbed — a helpless victim of time’s cruelties. Meanwhile, a Smithsonian memorial has been erected in honor of the First Avenger, detailing not only his rise to donning the winged mask, but also how he lost the only friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who was supposed to be with him “to the end of the line”. It’s a melancholia that’s impossible for the ultimate All-American to shake, making him question if he’s even supposed to be amongst the living at all.

To make matters worse, Rogers has all but lost his drive to defend the country he so loves. The objectives of his missions are becoming increasingly vague, causing him to question whether he’s working toward “freedom” or “fear”. But what purpose does the Boy Wonder serve beyond the flag his shield so proudly dons? There are no women in his life, outside of Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), who urges him to ask out just about every woman he sees. Yet Rogers is unsure that he could ever live a normal life outside of combat, as the world surrounding him is not his own. It’s a classic case of the military robbing a man of his purpose beyond being a solider; an existential crisis of being that’s more difficult to defeat than any of Hydra’s goose-stepping servants.

That’s the genius of returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script. They take a simple concept (based on crime comic legend Ed Brubaker’s title redefining run) and expound upon it in ways that feel deeper than the average “comic book film”. There’s a near bottomless sadness to the first half of the movie that’s sold completely by Chris Evans’ performance and lends The Winter Soldier a weight that hasn’t yet been felt inside of the Marvel Universe. While you never once doubt that Cap will prevail once the more traditional and “adventurous” aspects of the superhero story kick into gear, it’s uncertain whether or not the philosophical and spiritual dilemmas Rogers faces outside of the suit will ever be peacefully resolved. Rogers is a damaged man, searching for a renewed sense of purpose in his life that doesn’t seem as if it will ever-present itself.

Enter Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Another dutiful GI who has just returned home following two tours of duty, Wilson is also dealing with his own post-war issues. What begins as a playful friendship developed over Wilson’s inability to keep stride during morning jogs with Captain America quickly turns into a bond over shared loss. During his service to his country, Wilson also lost a brother-in-arms, making Rogers feel as if he’s less alone in the world. But a friendship doesn’t fix the fact that Rogers is ever distrustful of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who keeps so many secrets that the super soldier can’t tell when he’s serving the United States or the personal interests of the S.H.I.E.L.D. leader.

It’s a bold move to combine this crisis of conscience with the somewhat antiquated conspiracy thriller that makes up the other half of The Winter Soldier. Thankfully, Chris Evans continues to be the best casting decision out of a plethora of incredible choices Marvel has made. Beyond being the physical embodiment of corn-fed America, he sells Rogers’ constant feeling of never being given the whole truth by his superiors. Whenever he’s forced to face off with top S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, in a bit of casting that feels somewhat subversive given the extra-texual baggage of having previously played Bob Woodward), you can feel Evans positively exuding righteousness to counter his superior’s sometimes shady actions. Evans channels Rogers’ inherent earnestness effortlessly, while also being a complete physical specimen once the action kicks into high gear. He’s perfect.

More than matching Evans is Johansson, who once again proves that it’s time for a female-centered Avengers film, dammit. One of the greatest feats The Winter Soldier accomplishes is that it finally gives a meaty action role to a woman, without robbing her of her femininity. While we’ve certainly had women be the brains in these Marvel movies (just look at Pepper Potts’ tech-company CEO), they’ve never had the chance to also be the brawn. Romanoff is not just a sidekick or some bullshit “Bond Girl” knockoff, she’s the guide to Rogers’ journey back to finding his faith in the organization he once loved; a shaman on his spiritual quest who can also kick the crap out of eight no-necked goons without breaking a sweat before hacking into the mainframe of a government computer. Johansson so owns this role that it’s a crying shame she doesn’t have her own set of adventures, going toe-to-toe with the bad guys and giving every girl in the audience a strong, leather-clad hero of their own to idolize. 

The Winter Soldier is certainly a bit more po-faced than previous entries into the Marvel Universe, yet it still retains the humor that helps keep even the most bone-crunching action and self-serious plot twists feeling fun. The emotional beats are painful at times (especially once Rogers is faced with the true identity of the titular, trained assassin), but Marcus and McFeely find a nice balance between these poignant moments and the same lightness that the rest of the Marvel movies have floated on. There’s also a keen awareness that we the audience keep showing up to these two-hour-plus shindigs because we love the characters. A great moment in which Rogers reminds Romanoff that they’ve “borrowed” (not “stolen”) a car while being pursued by their enemies is a great illustration of this. Some have already been calling The Winter Soldier Marvel’s Dark Knight, yet it never strives for the same interminable dourness in which Nolan’s Bat-films are rooted. In short, the screenwriters (along with the Russos) keep the movie in line with the brand we’ve come to know and love, while also adding an edge and groundedness to the proceedings that has mostly been absent.

Unfortunately, along with “sticking to a brand” comes a somewhat pedestrian approach to maintaining uniformity with the visual aesthetics of the “Marvel Movie”. While undeniably polished, there’s a flatness to some of the cinematography by Trent Opaloch (Elysium, District 9) that borders at times on becoming monochromatic. The action scenes are impeccably filmed and cut, with the Russos focusing on keeping their shot selection in the medium range. So even when the style threatens to become the dreaded “shaky cam”, there’s still a fluid coherency and sense of geography to the violence. The rhythm of the action beats is also incredibly well-timed, as each character (including Nick Fury, who arguably gets the best early set piece with a ridiculous “Michael Mann by way of Marvel” car chase) is allowed a moment to shine, with the escalation leading to a full-blown aerial attack on Washington, D.C. It’s just a shame that scoring it all is a rather bland, themeless soundtrack by Henry Jackman, whose cues come this close to being “canned”.

Is The Winter Soldier the best Marvel movie yet? Perhaps. It’s certainly the most dramatically compelling of both Phases, containing a focus on theme and character that hasn’t been this fully realized inside of the Shared Universe until now. However, repeat viewings seem to be a requirement, as so much information is dumped onto the viewer that it’s near impossible to keep up with the emotional beats as they occur. This breathless pacing leads to a cliffhanger that only promises more trials and tribulations for Steve Rogers, whose past is seemingly doomed to haunt him throughout the future in which he may not belong.

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