Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a great comic book movie, a great action movie, a great comedy/drama, and a serviceable political thriller. I’d argue this is the best stand alone Marvel movie yet, with Iron Man III running a close second. Here’s what Winter Soldier did right:
This sequel is character-based.
Winter Soldier has tons of action. But the movie isn’t about action, it’s about character. The central problem of the movie isn’t “How will Steve (Captain America) stop that helicarrier from killing everyone?” The central problem is, “Can Steve continue to play a heroic role in a complicated, morally ambiguous and corrupt world?” One way Steve can play a heroic role is, in fact, by stopping a helicarrier, so there’s plenty of action, but all the action seems to come organically from the results of the character’s decisions, and all the action counts.
Marvel has been following a pattern in which they use each character’s origin story to tell us what makes this character comfortable. Tony Stark feels powerful in his suit? Make him fear the suit and then take it away altogether. Steve Rogers feels comfortable with honor, teamwork, and a fight against evil? Throw him into a situation in which morality is ambiguous and everyone lies all the time. The approach is genius because it allows the audience to have that sense of comfort with the known (Steve still likes honor) while creating a fresh set of conflicts that are based around his character (Steve has to live in a world that is murky and corrupt).
Every major side character has their own story, even if that story isn’t fully explored.
This is especially important because we still haven’t gotten a stand alone movie featuring a woman or a character of color. This is beyond annoying. If I don’t see a Black Widow movie in, oh say, five minutes, heads will roll. Also I’d like a Falcon movie, please. Lately Marvel has many triumphs and few failings, but the fact that so far all their movies feature straight, white men is a failing.
But what Marvel DOES do right is avoid having side characters be merely accessories or tools to further the hero’s story. This is most true in the Captain America movies. Peggy, Sharon, and Natasha have lives and dreams and missions and accomplishments that have nothing to do with Steve. Natasha’s emotional journey in the film is so powerful that they could just as easily have flipped the credits and called it “Black Widow: The Reckoning, also starring Captain America”. The female characters aren’t there for decoration and they don’t revolve around men, although they are deeply influenced by the powerful men in their lives. Meanwhile, while The Falcon and Nick Fury lack Steve’s augmented soldier abilities, they are both extremely skilled at combat and The Falcon is much better at living life than Steve is, while Nick Fury is much better than Steve at manipulation and survival. I would LOVE a Falcon movie – I found him to be a compelling character on his own aside from being that guy who can truthfully say, “I do everything he does. Only slower”.
The film manages to balance humor, angst, and fun.
Somehow this movie manages to combine some fiercely painful drama with truly suspenseful action, hilarious lines, and a sense that while some things about superhero life suck, having super powers can be pretty fun. It’s hard to keep all this tonal stuff balanced. In a lot of movies that try combining drama and comedy, either the drama feels forced or the comedy feels forced, but in this movie they meld seamlessly. Remember how I said this movie is character based? Part of what keeps these elements balanced is that everything everyone says feels genuine, whether they are saying something heartbreaking or funny – or in some cases , both, as in Steve Roger’s response to whether he’s doing anything Saturday night: “Well, all the guys in my barbershop quartet are dead, so…no”.
The fact that the movie is so rooted in character is also what helps create a sense of tension and menace. We’re all pretty sure that Captain America will survive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll end up OK, and we care about that. While I thought the basic premise of the film was pretty ridiculous, it’s ridiculous in a way that’s consistent with the crazy Marvel Universe, and I was truly worried about some of the characters.
This movie is fun, it’s painful, it’s emotionally engaging and visually exciting, and it’s fun. I wish they had done more with the political angle – while Robert Redford tries really hard to sell the idea that what he does is morally grey, it’s quite clearly not grey at all (whether it’s black or white you’ll have to discover on your own). But overall this movie was the kind of movie that I want to rush right back into the theater to see again. Well played, Marvel, well played. Now get me my Black Widow movie.