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Captain America: The Winter Soldier by Anthony & Joe Russo (dir),
Review by Drew Bittner
Marvel Studios  
Date: 07 April 2014 /

Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, is adjusting to life 70 years after he "died" saving the world. It's a difficult adjustment. Things aren't black and white any more, if they ever were, but the past isn't done with Rogers just yet...and in the 21st century, what you don't know can pretty much destroy freedom as we know it.

CAST:
Chris Evans/Steve Rogers (Captain America)
Samuel L. Jackson/Nick Fury
Scarlett Johansson/Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow)
Robert Redford/Alexander Pierce
Sebastian Stan/Winter Soldier
Anthony Mackie/Sam Wilson (Falcon)
Cobie Smulders/Maria Hill
Frank Grillo/Brock Rumlow

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap (Evans) is up against an array of threats, few of which he's prepared to handle. On a battlefield, there's nobody better; in the shadowy world of spies and global conspiracies, however, Cap's a little out of his depth.

The story begins with a chance encounter between Rogers and Sam Wilson (Mackie), a vet and counselor at the Veterans Administration in Washington DC. We see Rogers is trying to fit back in and catch up on what he missed, but it's as hard for him as it for vets trying to come back after a tour in Afghanistan. It's a nice bit of symmetry and forms a bond between the two men that feels wonderfully organic.

All too soon, however, he's whisked away by Natasha Romanoff (Johannson) to free a ship from a team of mercenaries. Rogers, Romanoff, and a strike team led by Rumlow (Grillo) take down the mercs and liberate the boat...but Cap learns that the Black Widow has her own mission: retrieving info from the ship's computer. Turns out the ship had a mission, too. Outraged, Rogers lashes out at Nick Fury (Jackson), only to be told that not everyone always has the same goals. This nurtures the seeds of distrust Rogers feels toward Fury, Natasha, even SHIELD itself.

It doesn't help when Fury shows him SHIELD's biggest project to date, a measure that's intended to provide ultimate security after the New York debacle (aka what happened in The Avengers). Rogers is aghast and says, "This isn't freedom, this is fear." And he's right. But, Fury points out, they have to be pro-active; they can't wait for threats to surface because by then it's usually too late.

Fury is then targeted by the Winter Soldier, an urban myth of the intelligence community--an assassin who's been active off and on for more than fifty years. Natasha believes he's real but few others do. After a harrowing car chase and battle in the streets of DC, Fury entrusts Cap with a flash drive and the warning "Trust nobody."

Easier said than done. Rogers is brought to meet Alexander Pierce (Redford), Fury's boss and now acting Director of SHIELD, and learns a number of things about Fury's past and Pierce's own worldview before being asked what Fury told Rogers. Unfortunately for Cap, Pierce doesn't like his answers and soon Cap is on the run with all of SHIELD attempting to kill him at all costs.

What unfolds next is an action-packed political thriller for the new millennium, a superhero tale that is wonderfully complex and yet has a straightforward theme (the tense contradiction of freedom vs. security in a democratic society), and a deeply etched character study of a man out of his element who nevertheless has core principles...and loyalty. As he learns more about the Winter Soldier, who turns up again and again to fight Rogers and his allies, he learns that this is an enemy he cannot dispatch with one swing of his shield. In fact, this may be an enemy he can't beat.

He's going to have to find an answer, though, as the truth about some shady doings comes to light, a monstrous plot rears its head and everything Cap ever believed in is in danger. Sometimes the worst threats are the ones that were always right under your nose.

Chris Evans absolutely owns this movie as Cap and Steve Rogers both. He's not just a credible superhero, he's a bold and thoughtful presence whose nuanced performance gives emotional weight to this patriotic icon. Cap isn't just a paragon or a marble statue; he's a guy who struggles and has his own anxieties and uncertainties, yet faces life with unflinching optimism, good humor, and bravery. He's an old-fashioned GOOD GUY, and Evans knows how to make that work without being corny, jingoistic, or condescending. This is almost certainly his best work yet.

Scarlett Johannson resonates as the Black Widow, whose moral complexities power her own bravura performance. She has a lot to lose by doing the right thing and defines "heroic" in her choices and actions. Her ultimate doings are very much of the moment, almost ripped from the headlines, and presage the world where there are no secrets. Beyond that, she truly cares about Cap and her concern for him shows in how she tries to fix him up with various women; it's a running joke through the movie and works well, given the easy camaraderie and chemistry between Johannson and Evans.

Redford made these kinds of movies himself back in the '70s, so it's appropriate seeing him in action here. His role may surprise some viewers, confounding their expectations, but it reminds us that Redford is first and foremost one hell of an actor. He sells the convictions of Alexander Pierce as solidly as anything he's ever done, and the character arc of this fellow truly powers the movie especially toward the end.

Anthony Mackie is tremendous as Sam Wilson, and we can only hope this is the start of his long-running association with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He not only sells the action element of being the high-flying Falcon, but he's a guy whose dependability and loyalty are immediately there. He's the guy you turn to in that moment of need, who will never let you down. Mackie makes that guy--a Special Forces soldier trained in rescue--the one who's already a superhero, with or without a codename. We want to see a lot more of him in movies to come.

Sebastian Stan, the Winter Soldier, appears less than a viewer might expect, given his prominence in the movie's title. However, his role is a delicate one; he's a killer in the service of the bad guys, who nevertheless has lost himself and struggles toward regaining his past, the way that Cap struggles to get used to his present. Cap and the Soldier are often mirror images of each other, and their shared history may not come as a surprise to informed viewers, but Stan and Evans really make it work.

Samuel L. Jackson has never had more to do as Nick Fury than in this movie, with twists and turns that will come out of left field. We learn more about him here than ever before as well, getting a peek inside what makes him tick. Where he leaves off is also startling, as it is perhaps the biggest game changer so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With one action, nothing can be the same after this.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo--perhaps best known for directing sitcoms and character-focused smaller features--nail the movie from the very beginning. Marvel will almost certainly keep them on-board as much as they can, as they've proven themselves A-list talent by far. And it doesn't hurt at all that they had an ingenious script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who knocked this out of the park.

With support from Marvel vets like Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill), Maximiliano Hernandez (Agent Sitwell) and a few surprise visitors, the movie is paced so that its two-and-a-half hour running time flies by. This may well be the best Marvel Studios movie yet and surely one of the top three superhero movies ever made.

Stay for the mid- and post-credits scenes, by the way. They're worth it.

Highly recommended.

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