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A Return to Form in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier"—Dir. Anthony and Joe Russo (Marvel Studios)—4.5 Stars

Captain America
Courtesy Marvel Entertainment

Chris Evans stars in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

It seems like forever since Marvel Studios was the new, cool kid on the block with Tony Stark as its punchy right-hand man. Unfortunately, a lot has changed since then. Faced with post-“Avengers” films bloated with bad characterization, lazy plot conveniences, and erratic storytelling, the question arose, thought but unspoken: had Marvel lost its magic touch?

Thankfully, the answer is no. Injecting the franchise with an emergency shot of introspection, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” proves to be the film Marvel so desperately needed. With an intricate, smart script and a more nuanced moral compass, “Winter Soldier” is not only one of the best—if not the best—additions to the Marvel cinematic universe but also a great stand-alone film about order in an imperfect society and the measures people will take to achieve it.

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When viewers are re-introduced to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Captain America is working for SHIELD, the government’s top-secret intelligence agency. Despite Rogers’s loyal work for the organization, he soon begins to question the motives of his boss, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), after he finds out about Project Insight, a preventative weapons initiative. When a mysterious group savagely attacks Fury and SHIELD accuses Rogers, Rogers must go rogue to look for answers. On the run from SHIELD and its chief, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Rogers also faces the enigmatic Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who has been tasked by an unknown enemy to kill him.

Early in the film, Fury tells Rogers, “Don’t trust anybody.” The warning reflects the film’s smart move to deconstruct Marvel’s typical categorizations of good and bad. The effect is a suspenseful plotline and a much more complicated, exciting ethical gray area. In a particularly tense scene, SHIELD agents, after realizing there is a rat in their presence, draw their guns on each other. When the camera zooms out, every agent is on the defensive, but it’s not clear who belongs to which side. The result is a fascinating dilemma that motivates the film; the villains on the surface are not so different from the so-called good guys. When the primary antagonist finally reveals himself, it is the realization that his motive is essentially the same as that of our heroes—peace—that creates a sick feeling of fear.

While the film can be sometimes too quick to rebuild the boundaries of black and white, such as when enemies are shooting at Captain America and his ragtag group of misfits, it is not to the film’s detriment. People will be eager to pit “Winter Soldier” against Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” critiquing the former for not hitting the same levels of moral ambiguity. But it’s simply not Marvel’s style. And it’s not Captain America’s style.

Steve Rogers’s appeal is that he is an anachronism—a bastion of honest-to-God goodness displaced in a sullied world that perhaps doesn’t deserve him. Evans acquits himself beautifully to a Cap who is a bit wearier, frustrated, and aware of the life he has irrevocably lost. In a heartbreaking reunion, Rogers visits his former love, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), now aged and in a retirement home. She wheezes out, “It’s been so long,” and Evans responds with the appropriate amount of silent grief, eyebrows furrowed and eyes just a little sadder. The world of “Winter Soldier” is one of consequences. It is Captain America who must sort through the rubble, and Evans’s portrayal effectively evokes the burdens of that responsibility.

That is not to say that “Winter Soldier” is lacking in lighter moments; it’s a Marvel flick, after all. With delightful chemistry, the cast works wonderfully together to navigate the film’s emotional ups and downs. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow strikes the right balance between deadly and warm as she simultaneously kicks grown men off skyscrapers and cheekily advises Rogers on his love life. Equally as engaging, Anthony Mackie has an electric rapport with Evans as veteran Sam Wilson, who becomes the Cap’s partner-in-arms—so much so that it is hard to believe that the two characters have never met when they bond over their experiences at war. On the other hand, the Winter Soldier may be the franchise’s most terrifying villain yet thanks to Stan’s performance. With a ferocious display of physicality, Stan portrays the shadowy character as a rabid animal stalking his prey, inspiring terror in whoever is unfortunate enough to stand in his way.

The action scenes—while not particularly innovative—are slick, polished, and gripping. Fury’s nail-biting car chase on the streets of D.C. towards the beginning of the film is one of the finest Marvel has done. As Fury’s assailants try to forcefully break into his car, slowly but surely cracking the car window’s glass, anxiety and terror start to settle in as the seconds pass. The success of the film’s action sequences lie in the anticipation of what has yet to happen. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have also found infinitely more interesting ways to use Captain America’s shield. Whether it is ricocheting off bad guys like a pinball or being used to take down an entire helicarrier, the shield is much more exciting and deadly this time around.

Sure to leave ripples in the Marvel cinematic universe, “Winter Soldier” accomplishes what the franchise’s two previous films failed to—it actually matters. Thematically dense and narratively tight, the film breathes life into a series that was in danger of flatlining.

—Staff writer Neha Mehotra can be reached at nehamehotra@college.harvard.edu.

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