Simply put, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is easily the best comic book movie since 2008’s The Dark Knight. The reason why this film is such a roaring success to me, a harsh critic of Marvel movies in general, is because it is focused on being a movie first and a comic book movie second.
I’ve seen every Marvel film but always felt they’ve tried far too hard to service comic book fans’ thirst to see their heroes on screen, and neglected those of us who are just looking for a good time at the movies. The Iron Man series is too tonally uneven, always relying on Robert Downey, Jr.’s charm to paper over the massive cracks left from a wanting screenplay; the Thor films are just too idiotic to be tolerated; The Avengers was a nice idea without any real thrills or anything believable at stake. But with The Winter Soldier Marvel have finally given me a film to really enjoy. Maybe I’m 6 years later than the rest of you, but here I am nonetheless.
Despite naming and shaming the Marvel films above, I really did like Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011 for its genuine earnestness, lack of ‘city in peril’ finale, and the 1940s setting which gave it a charm missing from the other films. I was concerned the sequel, set in the present day after the world changing events of The Avengers, would lose that charm and become just another carbon copy, CGI-laden mess like all the rest. But this film is essentially a good old fashioned, big-budget action movie whose sole aim is to thrill its audience. I mentioned above this is the highest level a comic book movie has reached since The Dark Knight; the film undeniably owes a debt of gratitude to the screenplay of Christopher Nolan’s film, for the pacing, action beats, ‘real world’ scenario, minimalist humour and character arcs are very familiar, especially in the case of Nick Fury's participation.
The action is made up of car chases, gun fights, hand to hand combat, RPGs, and lots and lots of explosions. At times I was reminded of the outstanding bridge battle or elevator fight in J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III, which only helped me to realize another reason why the film was impressing me so much: the complete lack of CGI vs CGI action sequences. At no point are we forced to watch robots or aliens involved in the conflict; instead we’re treated to ‘action movie action’ where people die, people bleed, and the stakes are always high. That’s not to say the film is breaking any new ground here or that it’s showing us things we’ve never seen before, but what it does it does very well.
Yes, there are comic book elements infused but they never take center stage; we know Steve Rogers is a comic book hero but compared to the other Avengers he’s more like Bond, Hunt, or Jason Bourne for they are still grounded in some sort of internal reality within their respective worlds. When Rogers puts on the iconic costume it’s more like a cop putting on his badge than a superhero transformation. Moreover, Rogers doesn’t have stupid romantic strangleholds to weigh him down like Iron Man and Thor, and the film doesn’t end with a pretty woman in peril. In the film, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is every bit Rogers’ equal and they make an effective team, sharing responsibility for both plot development and delivering kick-ass action. Also, the running gag of finding Rogers a date is consistently amusing in the film's brief lighter moments.
Of course, the film is not perfect but it more than does enough to be forgiven for some small missteps. The character of Sam Wilson aka The Falcon has too little screen time before he springs into action in the final third with mechanical wings, flying about like, well, some kind of comic book hero.The finale’s set up calls for a third character, yet the screenplay is forced into introducing, using, then dumping him whilst Cap A takes center stage. That said, the flying sequences and his final escape are thrilling. Also the exposition-heavy sequence in the middle which ties this film into previous films drags slightly and the storyline panders to fan service, where it could have been totally separate from the other storylines and still worked perfectly well.
But in the end do I care how this links into The Avengers: Age Of Ultron? No, all I care about is how good this film was; sequels, tie-ins, rumors, and cameos be damned. Let’s just enjoy the sheer entertainment this film provides and let it be the benchmark from here on. This is the Marvel movie made for all of us, not just the few.