When it comes to would be blockbusters, spring is now seen as just as viable a time to unleash the oversized spectacle most associate with movies released in the summer months. Last month we got things like "300: Rise of an Empire" and "Noah," movies stuffed to the gills with movie starts, sophisticated special effects, and the kind of budgets that could rescue the economies of most third would nations. The latest in the springtime frenzy is "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," the sequel to 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger," that stars Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, a wimpy kid who, during World War II, is injected with a super soldier serum that turns him into an agreeably square super-soldier.
In the sequel, set in the modern day, Cap is dealing with the moral nebulousness of the current intelligence programs and, of course, the fact that he's somewhat unstuck in time (some of the greatest humor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes from the fact that many of the characters are fish-out-of-water). Plus there's an evil giant conspiracy he's got to contend with.
But is this one of the better Marvel movies or a placeholder until next summer's "Avengers: Age of Ultron"? (Those looking for a connection to this summer's "Guardians of the Galaxy" will be hugely disappointed. Sorry folks.) Read on to find out!
1. It's One of the Best Marvel Movies Yet
Thankfully, last winter's abysmal "Thor: The Dark World" (seriously guys what was that?) was a fluke -- the unparalleled excellence of the Marvel movies is back on course. This is a very different movie than the rest of the Marvel movies, and that's a good thing. Throughout production, the creative types at the studio were saying that the movie was based on the conspiracy thrillers of the '70s, and that is mostly true. It's a taut, expertly calibrated suspense piece that has Cap uncovering a very dark conspiracy at the heart of the Marvel Universe. It's also the most fun you'll have at a movie theater this spring.
2. It's Basically 'Avengers 1.5'
And more than a straight sequel to "Captain America: The First Avenger," it serves as a stopgap between "The Avengers" and next summer's "The Avengers: Age of Ultron." This mostly has to do with the movie's setting, since the first film was primarily placed during World War II, and the fact that Scarlett Johansson (as the Black Widow) and Samuel L. Jackson (as S.H.I.E.L.D. heavy Nick Fury) are prominent supporting players. But it gives the movie a lively, lived-in feeling and unexpected emotional punch. Even though many of them are basically cartoons, I came to the realization, while watching "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," that I cared deeply for them. And what happens to them...
3. Chris Evans Has Never Been Better...
Seriously, Evans is kind of the man right now. Between this and this summer's breathtakingly brilliant sci-fi thingee "Snowpiercer," Evans is one of the most exciting actors working today (which makes all the talk of him retiring following the conclusion of his Marvel commitments all the more troubling). In "Winter Soldier," Evans still does the aw shucks, Dick Squarejaw shtick (he says "ma'am" a lot), but he's able to go deeper -- the filmmakers have given him something of an edge. That doesn't mean that he's Christian Bale in "The Dark Knight." But it means that he questions authority while striving to uphold it, and that he knows how to break a few rules to make sure the ones worth enforcing actually stick around. It's a performance that is wonderfully nuanced and will, sadly, get overlooked.
4. ...But the Supporting Cast Steals the Show
One of the reasons Evans will get overlooked is because the supporting cast is so, so good. Scarlett Johansson is basically the second lead, which is great because she has been so painfully marginalized in both "Iron Man 2" and "The Avengers" (and, as one of the few kick-ass female characters in the Marvel universe, this is even more egregious). She is outstanding. And makes you so excited for her hopefully-expanded role in the "Avengers" sequel. This is actually the most female-positive Marvel movie yet, with equally great, much smaller performances by Cobie Smulders, Emily Van Camp as Agent 13, Hayley Atwell in old lady make-up, and even Jenny Agutter. Girl (super) power! And what's more, Jackson gets more to play with in his pivotal role as Nick Fury, and we even get a second black character (!) in the form of Anthony Mackie's Falcon character. When I spoke on the phone to directors Anthony and Joe Russo, I said, "You made a Marvel movie full of black guys and girls!" And one of them demurely said back, "We're very proud of that."
5. Oh, And Robert Redford's Not Bad Either
Of course, you can't talk about the supporting cast without talking about Robert Redford, whose Alexander Pierce is the de facto head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Redford is obviously the link to those classic thrillers of the '70s (things like "Three Days of the Condor" and "All the President's Men") and after seeing him suffer through the brilliant "All Is Lost," it's great to see him have fun in a three-piece suit in this. He absolutely eats up the scenery. I'm not sure if he even stops to chew it.
6. There Are Tons of References
Seriously -- get out your Marvel reference book before heading to the theater. It would probably be an act of malice to reveal any of the references, although sorcerer supreme Dr. Strange gets a shout out, and a weird secondary character from "Iron Man 2" pops up again for reasons that are still unclear. Trust me, this stuff is just superficial. It goes deep.
7. It's Really Funny
The Russo Brothers got their start directing things like "Happy Endings," "Arrested Development," and "Community," and that commitment to comedy really shows. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is funny. Again: I'm not going to ruin any of the jokes. But when the Falcon suggests an album to Cap and Cap pulls out a small notebook collecting all of the pop culture miscellanea that he needs to catch up on and one of the lines reads, Rocky (Rocky II?), you just can't help but giggle. There are more laugh-out-loud funny moments in this superhero sequel than in most big-budget studio comedies.
8. The Action Soars
There is a sequence early in the movie that showcases how well the action in this sequel works: it involves Nick Fury, a car chase, and malfunctioning S.H.I.E.L.D. equipment. And it's totally brilliant. Easily one of the better action sequences in recent memory (outside of anything from "The Raid 2") and there are a number of sequences that follow that are just as good (if not better). There's an overt reliance on shaky cam immediacy, which could have been swapped out by longer, more fluid camera movement (it would have made the 3D pop even further, too), but mostly these action sequences rank amongst the best in the canonical Marvel Cinematic Universe.
9. The Third Act Gets a Little 'Big'
By the movie's climax, the central mystery has been wrapped up, so that, of course means that a whole bunch of screen time is given over to giant airships crashing into each other (airships that, to my untrained eyes, were barely discernible from one another). It's kind of a disappointment that a movie that is so contained and, relatively speaking, grounded, explodes to such a degree, but hey... This is what people pay for. It is a superhero movie after all, and the ending is pretty super.
10. Stay Through the Credits (of Course)
There are two sequences in the credits -- and both are essential. The first leads into the events of "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (and it's worth noting that the reemergence of a magical weapon from the Marvel universe elicited groans -- it seems that people actually appreciate the "grounded" approach) and the second directly suggests what's in store for the already-announced "Captain America 3."
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" explodes into theaters April 4.
Photo courtesy Marvel