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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ outdoes predecessor

Published: April 11, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

If there was ever a comic book character who faced terrible odds of getting a real, good big-screen adaptation, it was Captain America. As the series of cheesy late-’80s and early-’90s TV movies showed, it is very difficult to take a man dressed like a flag who throws a giant Frisbee seriously. And from a modern, post-Cold War jingoism view, the Captain is at the very least a literal representation of American imperialism. A six-five, ultra-muscular white guy with blonde hair and blue eyes who again, dresses like a flag and throws a shield? Who can take that seriously in this day and age?

Well, based on the box office returns of “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and “The Avengers,” apparently the whole world can. Both of those films deserved it, too; they’re both a ton of fun and do great justice to the source material. They have pushed the limit of what audiences expect from blockbuster films in terms of scale and quality. With “The Winter Soldier,” Marvel again outdoes itself, bringing the fantasy ideal of Captain America into the very real world.

In this sequel, based on the comic book story of the same name, Chris Evans returns as Captain America, now officially working for S.H.I.E.L.D. and its leader, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Still trying to fit into the modern world after the events of “The Avengers,” Captain has a problem with the lengths being taken by America’s intelligence apparatus, but is shooed off as idealistic by his superiors. However, when an attempt on Fury’s life apparently succeeds, Captain is branded a traitor by the powerful politician Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and must go on the run. Now, with the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), he must uncover a vast conspiracy stretching back to World War Two and battle some very literal ghosts of the past.

The first thing that surprised me about “The Winter Soldier” was the near-complete tonal shift from the first “Captain America.” Rather than a series of large, classic Hollywood-style battles against robotic Nazis and Hugo Weaving, the action and plot of this film are much more condensed and fast paced, in the style of an espionage thriller. Much of the film is dedicated to developing the Captain America character into something more than a cartoon, specifically during the dialogue scenes between Evans and Johannson. The two have great chemistry, and the quick and witty script succeeds in creating two real human characters who are not invincible and definitely not infallible. This comes in sharp contrast to the good-hearted yet cheesy storyline of the first film.

The pace of the story is a slow burn rather than a rollercoaster, especially in regards to the titular Winter Soldier, who is never overused. He makes his appearances on screen very mysterious and effective. The story’s twists and turns aren’t too predictable, and the film’s overall feel is much more tense than its predecessor. Unlike the Nazis, the American military-industrial complex is not a monolithic villain, and “The Winter Soldier” reflects that. As a result, there are several surprisingly deep insights into the nature of empire and surveillance within the film, which I never expected from a Captain America movie.

Of course, the film is still a comic book movie at heart, and as a comic book geek, I was far from disappointed in this area. While I liked “The First Avenger’s” retro approach, the action scenes here have much higher stakes and actually feel dangerous and often brutal. The tight cinematography gives weight to every punch and gunshot, and sometimes I actually wondered if the Captain and his merry band would make it out intact. Evans is still perfectly cast in the lead role, Jackson is as cool as ever, as is Johannson, and Redford brings his A game as well. But the real breakout star is the Mackie, who is utterly charming as the Falcon. His robotic wing-suit is incredibly cool to watch, and it is great to see a character who isn’t white stand equal with familiar superheroes. Hopefully, Mackie will get his own movie, because he deserves it.

Overall, I think it is fair to say that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is my favorite non-“Avengers” Marvel movie to date. It again raises the bar and reminded me why the Captain was always my favorite Avenger as a kid. There are hints to future films everywhere, a great post-credits scene and promise that the Captain America franchise can only get better. All I can say is that with this movie and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which also looks great, coming in August, Thor and the rest better shape up, because slapstick and Gwyneth Paltrow just won’t cut it anymore.