It's a pretty safe bet to say that since Marvel started making their own movies under their own banner (unlike Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Daredevil and … Ghost Rider), it's hard to say that there's been a stinker in the bunch … well, Iron Man 2 for me has been the worst of the bunch. So expectations are exceptionally high for the second outing for the First Avenger in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Whereas the first movie played out like a 1940s war movie with comic book overtones (in the guise of Red Skull himself and the super soldier program), The Winter Soldier has a nice 70s political thriller vibe to it. Think The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor and even All the President's Men; and two of the three star Robert Redford who is not so coincidentally cast as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Alexander Pierce, Nick Fury's right hand man. (And it seems that Three Days of the Condor is especially required viewing to further appreciate The Winter Soldier.)
The Winter Soldier is set some time after the events of The Avengers, but the battle that ravaged New York City is the jumping off point for the story as S.H.I.E.L.D. is preparing to launch a new global security system called Insight which, in a sort of Minority Report kind of way, scans every human on the planet, examines all of their personal data and then determines if they will eventually commit a crime with the end result being their elimination. Fury tries to convince Cap/Steve Rogers that this is the way the world is now and without this we don't have freedom. Cap comes back at him with a line sure to stir up some folks, “This isn't freedom, this is fear.”
But something causes Fury to ask Pierce to delay the launch of Insight and after an attempt is made on his life, he tells Rogers to trust no one … but why? That's pretty much all I'm willing to say about the plot because there are some major developments that completely destroy everything we know about S.H.I.E.L.D. (and if you've been watching ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the ramifications are going to significantly alter the series as well).
My expectations for Captain America: The Winter Soldier were very high, and I can confidently say that they were exceeded. I know some folks want more connection between the films, but I see these solo character movies as their own thing with threads to the other movies. The Winter Soldier does prominently feature Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, but there's no Hawkeye, Hulk or anyone else besides Fury. The film does introduce Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/The Falcon, Emily VanCamp's Agent 13 (who may eventually be named Sharon Carter if they follow the comics), Frank Grillo's Brock Rumlow (who may become Crossbones), while bringing back Sebastian Stan (the presumed dead Bucky Barnes), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill) and Maximiliano Hernández as Jasper Sitwell. Sitwell has appeared in Thor, The Avengers and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and has a very pivotal role in the events which drive the movie. I'd love to know if this has been in the cards since he was introduced into the filmic Marvel Universe.
Since I can't say much about the plot, I will say that the film itself looks spectacular (and I can't judge the 3D version since the press screenings were only 2D this time around). Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have done a terrific job of grounding the story in reality while shooting on actual Washington, D.C. locations (and Maryland's own Fort Meade even gets a shout out). While I'm sure there are a ton of digital effects throughout the movie, they are virtually invisible, helping to sell the realness of the story. The story itself is pretty deep, a bit dark, very violent and not at all cartoony. I would actually hesitate to take small children to see this just because it is so realistic.
The performances are all terrific as well, but I would have liked to have seen just a little more character development for Pierce. I think his part in the story's events would have been even more surprising had we seen him in some of the previous Marvel movies. As it stands, though, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is now at the top of the Marvel movie heap for me. I loved the style and tone of Captain America: The First Avenger, but I enjoyed even more all of the plot twists and turns and the “where do we go from here?” feeling we're left with at the end.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Marvel movie without a post-credits stinger, and we get two this time – one sets up The Avengers: Age of Ultron (introducing “the twins”) and the other all the way at the end of the credits maybe setting up the future of Captain America himself. And do take note: if you are a viewer of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., do not watch any more episodes until you see the movie! You have been warned.