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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

April 4, 2014
Captain America: The Winter Soldier

If Thor movies are the seat of cosmic weirdness in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then Captain America is the stout, moral heart. Captain America is the least fantastic of the major superheroes we’ve seen so far, and he’s the one who will fight for “truth, justice, and the American way” even when American institutions don’t, as we see in The Winter Soldier.

After the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is living in Washington, DC, and working for S.H.I.E.L.D. out of its headquarters, the Triskelion, a towering building in the middle of the Potomac river. Also working for S.H.I.E.L.D. is Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). But it’s not clear that she’s reformed; on a rescue mission to a ship taken by pirates, Cap finds her downloading classified S.H.I.E.L.D. data for some unknown purpose.

When confronted, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) reveals a nearly-completed project to place three helicarriers in the air, able to rain down justice on the enemies of S.H.I.E.L.D. from above. If you think this sounds a little creepy, you’re not alone. Fury has his own concerns, and takes them to chairman Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Shortly after that, he is assassinated in Cap’s apartment by an intelligence community ghost story known as “The Winter Soldier”. Coincidence? probably not.

So Cap is in the wind, determined to figure out what’s going on and, with the help of Black Widow and a special-ops soldier turned PTSD counselor (Anthony Mackie), stop it. Though it’s anchored by big, booming action set pieces, the story plays out more like an espionage thriller in the mold of Redford’s own Three Days of the Condor, or even All the President’s Men.

The Winter Soldier is also notable for the way it brings minor Avengers team members to the fore. There’s evidently no room in a Thor or an Iron Man movie for more than cameos from other Avengers, let alone other A-listers, and even The Avengers relegates the non-super-powered heroes to the back bench for the most part. But Black Widow has a huge part to play here, and Johansson does a marvelous job with the character both in and out of the action. The newcomer Falcon also has plenty to do, and we can hope to see a lot more of him in future installments.

But I do have to give my highest praise to the Russo brothers’ depiction of Washington, DC. Everyone loves setting stories in the District, but nobody gets it to look right, if only because it’s all but impossible to actually shoot a movie here. The Winter Soldier doesn’t try to depict the Metro — the single worst failure of most DC-movie attempts — but it does get everything on the surface to look pretty much right. My best guess is that they did come to town, figured out where they wanted stuff to happen, and shot a ton of background and aerial footage. Then they shot the actual action scenes in Cleveland and did an amazing job of compositing them both together. It’s nothing most audiences will even notice, I’m sure, but District audiences will, and they’ll appreciate it.

The Winter Soldier is among the best films Marvel has ever produced. It’s technically a superhero movie, but Captain America is sufficiently limited to keep him from getting too silly. It has a thoughtful, intriguing story that’s more mystery than action. It manages to be “dark” without getting dragged down into adolescent self-indulgence like the worst of Frank Miller-era Batman. This is a comic-book-hero movie for comic-book fans who actually managed to grow up.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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