A Somber, Super Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel's latest offering is among its most ambitious—and most satisfying

All hail Kevin Feige!

I’m kidding, of course, but barely so. Like many filmgoers (most?), I've spent the last decade waiting for the superhero-movie bubble to pop. Sure, a few gifted auteur/enthusiasts—Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan—had proven they could be successful within the narrow constraints of the genre. But talented directors move on to new projects, and ultimately, I assumed, the superhero genre would collapse under the weight of its own ridiculousness. It had happened before, after all.

Then along came Marvel Studios, and—more particularly—Feige. Named president of the studio in 2007 at the age of 33, he’s since had a run of almost Pixarian success. In six years, he’s produced nine Marvel movies by eight different directors, all of them interconnected even as they vary radically in tone and locale, from the interstellar fantasy cityscapes of Asgard to the bitter alpine forests of WWII Germany. His misfires (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2) have been mild ones, and his hits (almost everything else) have been remarkable. According to Bloomberg, a flow chart on Feige’s office wall has Marvel releases mapped out all the way to 2028. If he maintains anywhere near his current standard, we may have to hold our obituaries for the superhero genre for a good long while.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier continues—indeed, elevates—Marvel’s strong run. It is easily the studio’s most ambitious undertaking short of The Avengers, artfully knitting together Cap’s WWII history and the present-day Marvel-verse, while also serving as robust connective tissue to next year’s Avengers sequel. The performances are good, the script (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) is sharp, and the action sequences are nothing short of superb. Those who don’t care for superhero flicks may not be won over. But those with any affinity for the genre are likely to emerge profoundly satisfied.

Where the first Captain America movie was engineered as a throwback 1940s war film, the new one is instead an espionage flick that self-consciously harkens to the political thrillers of the 1970s. Having been thawed out of his post-war freeze and then commissioned as an Avenger, Captain America—a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans)—is now working as a moderately reluctant contractor for SHIELD, the global spy service run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). When pirates highjack a SHIELD vessel in the Indian Ocean, Rogers and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are sent on what appears to be a routine hostage-rescue mission. It is not, of course, routine at all, as Fury has another, secret agenda for the operation: SHIELD has been compromised at a high level, and he’s trying to find out how and by whom.

I’m going to leave it there as far as the plot goes. Many of the narrative surprises and Big Reveals have already been widely circulated, and they’re a pleasure even if you see them coming. But the less you know going in, the more pleasurable I suspect they’ll be. (Read—or better yet, don’t—accordingly.) Suffice it to say that in addition to the familiar characters already mentioned—and SHIELD agent Maria Hill, played by Cobie Smulders, who has a small but important role—we’re also introduced to former paratrooper Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and to Nick Fury’s boss, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). An important new friendship for Rogers is inaugurated, and another from his past plays a crucial role in what unfolds.

The Steve Rogers of this film is no longer the plucky underdog raring to fight “bullies” like the Nazis. He is, as one adversary notes, “out of time”: a man with a black-and-white disposition in a world of grays, encumbered by nostalgia and plagued with regret. Though he allows that the contemporary world has its advantages—“Food’s a lot better. We used to boil everything”—he is struggling to find his place in it. When someone asks him what makes him happy, his response is “I don’t know.”

The political themes of the film—involving the surveillance state and governmental misuse of personal data—are likewise grimmer and more sophisticated (relatively speaking) than the usual Marvel fare, featuring notable echoes of the Bourne saga. The movie’s message is exquisitely calibrated to the political moment and is one that speaks to apprehensions shared on both left and right: In a world as chaotic as this, the temptation to trade freedom for security is ever-present.

Though largely shot in Cleveland and Los Angeles, the film is set predominantly in and around Washington, D.C., with the 60-story SHIELD headquarters (the “Triskelion”) looming amusingly, if preposterously, across the Potomac from the Kennedy Center (and, as it happens, the offices of The Atlantic). It’s fun, too, to imagine Steve Rogers living in an apartment just above Dupont Circle. And wait until you see where SHIELD’s secret helicarrier hangar is hidden…

It’s unclear how much Avengers director Joss Whedon might have contributed to the script. (He did direct one of the post-credit sequences—yes, there are two, bring extra popcorn.) But the movie has a decidedly Whedonesque flavor: the snatches of recurring dialogue, the sudden narrative reversals, the strong female characters (there are at least four instances when a last-second rescue is engineered by a woman), and, yes, one shocking death.

Evans offers another solid outing as the All-American hero, even if he lacks the gravitational charisma of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Johansson and Jackson fulfill their customary roles with aplomb, and Redford lends his ‘70s-conspiracy-flick cred to the proceedings. But it’s Mackie, as Cap’s new friend Sam Wilson (you may know him by another name) who steals pretty much every scene he’s in.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is directors Joe and Anthony Russo. Their experience lies primarily in television comedy (Arrested Development, Community), so the crisp dialogue makes perfect sense. But who could have guessed they’d have such a knack for directing action scenes? Foregoing CGI for live stunts more than previous Marvel films, Winter Soldier sets a high-water mark for the studio, with sequences that are fluid, dynamic, and exceptionally well choreographed.

The movie has its moments of levity. There are gags about War Games and Pulp Fiction and just how long it’s been since Captain America’s last kiss. (70 years?) Stephen Strange gets a quick name check, Garry Shandling reprises his Iron Man 2 role as a potato-headed U.S. Senator, and Stan Lee has what may be his best cameo to date.

But for the most part, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an unexpectedly grown-up thriller: taut, suspenseful, moody, and, on occasion, even sad. The result is a film that is—in the best, Kevin-Feige-ian sense of the word—a Marvel.