Cap is back in our next stop on the #RoadToInfinityWar series! What a return this film proved to be! While there are small touches in this film that harken back to the yesteryear of Captain America: The First Avenger, this film confidently places Steve Rogers, the man out of his own time into our modern age, his red-white-and-blue existence trying to exist amongst shades of gray. Believed by many to be the premier film in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’ll look to see if I felt that to be true.
Without a family and decades away from all he knows, Steve Rogers is existing as an operative of S.H.I.E.L.D., the same government agency that found him and allowed him to lead the Avengers Initiative team. No longer emblazoned with the bright colors of his past, Rogers yields a more muted blue-and-gray, and it reflects his current state, running ops because he can. As one shows him early in the film, he is on a “need-to-know” basis, and this begins to make him question many things of his superior, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Fury has led the security force for many years, but as he knows all too well, one does not get to make the world as they see fit. Clandestine operations executed with the intent of keeping international stability necessitate doing and saying things one wouldn’t want to do. Compromises are made, lies are spoken often, and all of this is done in the effort of a greater good. This wars on Steve, as he is from a simpler time when a man’s word was good for what was said. Beyond these things, Steve is troubled by the S.H.I.E.L.D. initiative of threat prevention from the skies: three heli-carriers with eyes in the sky for dealing death to those who would harm the greater good. In a landscape of society that freely gives up its rights for convenience, Steve sees this as an infringement on the basics of American freedom. So much has changed, but Steve refuses to.
On top of this new effort, trouble brews when a mysterious foreign operative strikes out at Fury and causing havoc in Washington, in and around S.H.I.E.L.D. He is called the Winter Soldier, and he wields skills and a metal arm that challenge Rogers as much as anyone he’s faced. Still, there is something about him that harkens Steve back to the time he knew. The emergence of the Winter Soldier and the elements he brings out in the plot lead to some of the most interesting, game-changing revelations audiences had seen up to this point of the MCU. As I try to maintain a “no spoilers” standard (yes, even a few years out from the film’s release), I will stop there. This may be a shorter review because there are surprises aplenty!
Chris Evans, already two films deep into his portrayal of Captain America following his first film and The Avengers, is given so much more to do here. You can see the struggle of finding his place without saying a word. He has the same do-gooder charm he’s always had, but throwing all of that into a more complicated world is instantly more interesting. Scarlett Johansson is much better utilized here as a supporting character than she was in her debut in Iron Man 2. As an agent in S.H.I.E.L.D. for years now, she is much more in line with lying and ethical flexibility, and she plays a nice accompanying presence to Steve throughout. One of the few people with a connection and understanding of Steve proves to be his running buddy, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who as a soldier himself develops a natural friendship with Steve. His past work proves to provide a useful set of tools that make Wilson very useful to Captain America, beyond the friendship, and firmly cement him as a vital piece of the MCU. Mackie makes a great debut here, and it’s hard to imagine these films without him, honestly.
An exciting addition to the cast here is Robert Redford. A screen legend in his own right, he comes to this film ably playing the S.H.I.E.L.D. bureaucrat, Alexander Pierce. Just being in the film brings to mind his political films of the 1970s, and that’s exactly the tone this film is going for. Amazingly, this is the first film where we begin to see the incredible versatility of tailoring each film with its own tone and feel. Sure, Thor: The Dark World was a fantasy piece, but it still played to the stylings of the other Marvel films before it. This film feels remarkably different, and it makes it all the stronger as an entry in a larger series of films. Fury warns Rogers to not trust anyone, and especially the first time you see this, you see just how true this is here within the film itself. There is a lot going on, and everything we knew about S.H.I.E.L.D. gets changed by the time the credits roll. The beauty is how well it is all believably executed. Phase One films were all about building up to the Avengers; here, in the very middle of Phase Two, even though this is a Captain America film, we see it the entire MCU explode, and the fractures are felt from now on. The repercussions of this film’s events can’t be overstated.
If one doesn’t want spoilers at all, they need not look at the cast list. I know that most everyone knows this film and has watched it by now, but seeing so many vital threats and believable plot elements come in from Steve’s past made this film an enrapturing experience. The Winter Soldier, whose identity is revealed by film’s end, is a vital part of Captain America‘s history, and that is felt here. With little to no words, it’s a great performance, cutting to the heart of who Steve is and how far he will go for what he feels is right. This element continues beyond this film, and it’s such an important part of his place in the MCU. It makes him more than just some Boy Scout do-gooder; he’s a rootable hero because we see his struggle and understand it.
The action comes in oodles and gobs here. I still think this film is one of the most entertaining action films I’ve ever seen. Brawler fights, car chases, military operations, motorcycle stunts, aerial acrobatics, and the list goes on and on. There’s an energy that comes through the fight scenes that make you see that things don’t have to CGI-explode to entertain, even if we get all of that in abundance as well. The fight choreography is just beautiful to watch, especially the elevator scene. That is still one of the best-directed sequences in all of the MCU films, hands-down.
On that point, the Russo Brothers KILLED IT here! Television comedy directors come out of nowhere as a tag-team force and completely crush it in this film. Their pedigree of comedy never takes over inappropriate to this film’s tone. Every light moment is in line with what’s going on, and that is a great thing to see. Not every Marvel film needs to be a chuckle-fest, and they get that here, for sure. They take extraneous and the sometimes (frankly) ridiculous elements of Captain America’s lore, and they believably weave them into this story. That’s an accomplishment all to itself. By the time Avengers: Infinity War comes out, they will have directed more films than anyone else. I didn’t know they had this versatility in them, and they seem to have much enthusiasm going forward. Who knows where their involvement will end? I’m looking forward to much more from them.
Content-wise, there is language and just a mature feel to the whole film that makes it one of the least “kid-friendly” of the MCU films. That said, I don’t think it’s entirely inappropriate for an older child to watch; I just think that the material is pretty deep, and they may not be as engaged in the political debates here, even as they are handled with expert precision. This is one of the smartest blockbusters in decades, so don’t take this as a critique of what the film is doing. I want many more films like this. I just don’t think selling action figures was the Russo Brothers‘ goal here, and I respect them for that. There’s some slight innuendo and kissing, but nothing that pushes the PG-13 rating. As a person of faith, for a film that exists within espionage and lies, it’s good to see a character try to stay true to his principles amidst all of that.
Overall, this is a film that needs to be seen in any rewatch of the MCU. It’s one of the most important films of them all, because it takes what we know, flips it all over, and charts the course for themes and plot elements that follow it in films beyond just Captain America. I count it as one of my favorites, for many spoilery reasons I can’t list here. The direction is flawless, the pacing is deliberate, the action is varied while continually intense and creative, and casting fits from top to bottom. There’s a real resonance with everything that happens here, and all scenes and elements are essential to the story it’s trying to tell. I have no real critique, other than that the film unavoidably loses some of its edge in knowing how everything falls into place in subsequent viewings. The enjoyment isn’t lessened; it just changes. The film still blows me away with how solid it is, every time I see it. I can’t recommend it more highly.