Film Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (spoiler-free)

Short version: this is the best Marvel film to date. See it. Yes, it’s better than The Avengers. I saw it without IMAX or 3D, in a theater about 90% full.

One thing I am loving about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is that they’re not afraid to do films that stretch the boundaries of what you think a “comic book film” should be. As other reviewers have stated, this is a movie straight out of the 1970’s political thriller genre, and you can see Three Days of the Condor, Black Sunday, and others in here. With the scifi-comedy that Guardians of the Galaxy seems to be setting itself as, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a “modern supernatural” film (such as Doctor Strange, who does get name-checked in this film) or even a straight contemporary romance film in the MCU at some point. They want to prove that the MCU is versatile, and they’re successful.

To break down the obvious: the action scenes are extremely well done, although I am very tired of the “shaky cam”. It’s not nearly as bad here as it is in some films, but it’s still there and it’s annoying. I want to be able to make out details in the action scenes, and the shaky cam makes that more difficult.

The special effects are impeccable. CGI has truly come into its own, and this film demonstrates it. There’s no visual indication that you’re not seeing aircraft carriers rise into the air, or Sam Wilson (the Falcon) fly on metal wings.

This is very much a plot-driven film, although there are great moments of character development, such as Captain America still coming to grips with the fact that he’s 70 years out of time, the playful banter between him and Black Widow, and his friendship with the Falcon that make this so much more than a shoot’em-up-and-explosions film. Speaking of Black Widow, she features enormously in this film, and people who have been saying she should have been given her own film might look on this and be sated. It could easily have been called “Captain America and Black Widow”.

One thing I particularly liked was that the trailers seem to have been deliberately edited to put viewers off the scent of what was actually going on. If, like me, you thought you had sussed out the broad outlines of the plot from the trailers and released footage, you are dead wrong, and it was a delight to realize it as the film unfolded. I like to think that was deliberate, and if it was, they’re operating on a meta-level that just increases my respect for the entire Marvel films team.

There are a ton of genuinely “what the HELL did he just say?” moments. There are plot twists that surprised the hell out of me, and apparently the entire audience, as there were audible gasps when certain characters said certain things. There is plenty of fan-service, and it’s great, being loyal to the spirit of the comics as well as consistent with the MCU mythology they’ve laid out thusfar. If you’re a fan of the MCU, and especially if you’re a fan of the television show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., you will know that it is no exaggeration that this film “changes everything you know about the Marvel Universe”. It does, and in so doing it opens it up to much greater possibilities that will make die-hard comics fans very, very happy.

As an aside, regarding Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this film plugs in perfectly with the show. There’s a line in last Tuesday’s episode, End of the Beginning, that directly ties into the film (as well as a shared character), and with the changes that this film wreaks in the MCU, I am beside myself wondering how it will impact the show. If you gave up on the show because the first half of the season was slow (and no denying it – it definitely was), the last couple of episodes really stepped up the pace, and the last six episodes promise to really explore the implications of everything that Winter Soldier set up. It’s worth sitting through ten or eleven slow-burn episodes to get to the final eleven or twelve OMG THAT’S GREAT episodes. The first half of the season was a sort of bridge between Iron Man 3 and Winter Soldier. If that’s to be the function of the show going forward (filling in the gaps between the various films), I think it’s a dandy one.

One more thing – this film manages to avoid the stereotypical “fish out of water” gags. Yes, Cap keeps a list of things that people tell him he should look into, but he’s adjusting. There’s no staring dumbly into a phone with buttons instead of a rotary dial, no gap-jawed wonderment at the Internet. He’s out of time, but he’s picking it up, quickly. Just like you’d expect most people to do. He’s much more dismayed by the moral changes in the world since 1944, rather than the technological ones.

They made *this* guy into a
credible villain

On the whole, in the context of the MCU, this is the best film that Marvel has come out with. It is better plotted, with better and genuinely I-didn’t-see-that-coming plot twists, than The Avengers. It has better character moments, especially the interactions between Cap and Falcon and Black Widow. You actually get to see Nick Fury in action, more the bad-ass top agent that’s been implied, than the bureaucrat that’s been shown, in previous films. There are smart nods to the classic comic book canon, and inventive uses of C-list characters (Baltroc the Leaper is actually a pretty impressive and even realistic foe, rather than a joke) that demonstrate a real love of the source material, but a willingness to go beyond a slavish reiteration.

There are two helpings of shawarma in the credits. Make sure you stay until the house lights come up. One features a character that comic fans will recognize, and a prop that film fans will recognize, and both of them in the 20 seconds they’re on screen could be the basis of a movie in and of themselves. And there’s another that neatly ties into one of the recurring themes of one of the major characters.

This is a perfect Marvel movie. Go see it.

PS: Bonus points for the first person who can point out the Butch Cassidy/The Sting Easter egg in the film.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

6 thoughts on “Film Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (spoiler-free)

  1. Thanks for the review! My sister just came back from seeing it, and she concurs with you. I aim to see it next weekend, and I'm a lot more excited about it now!

    Thanks for your site, by the way. Been enjoying it for some months now.

  2. whew…I thought I was the only one that thought it was better than The Avengers.

    I definitely thought it was at least as good at Iron Man 1 and The Dark Knight…and maybe even slightly better because I'm biased towards Cap

  3. By better than the Avengers movie, you mean, even more awesome. Pushing the metric by which we measure awesome past previous concepts of what awesome can achieve.

    The camera shots were a problem, I agree. What bothered me was the "over the fuzzy shoulder of someone/thing" shots.

    This was really not a super-hero movie. Yes, there were four super-soldiers, but that was incidental to the movie concept. It was, as you say, a political thriller, first and for most. They missed a good opportunity though. They gave Widow's birth year as 1980, rather than what it is in the "regular" Marvel Comics universe (just a few years after Cap's). This would have led to some good witty banter ("You've been calling me a fossil?" "Well, you're still older than me.")

    As for Easter Eggs, they are all over, but they go so fast, I could not catch them. Little points of focus, that tell you that a book on a shelf, or some such, is important, but I just couldn't get most of them in the time allotted. And, as it has been over 30 years since I watched either of Redford's movies, I couldn't even begin to get them.

    I liked the end run play they are doing around the X-Men license. That's all I will say about that, 'cuz spoiler, but it fits in with the language from the TV show.

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