Two years have passed since the Battle for New York and the Avengers have scattered back to their own lives. The exception is Captain Steve Rogers, who remains working for the intelligence and security agency SHIELD. Rogers is uneasy with the murky world of espionage and counter-terrorism, preferring the old days of fighting Nazis and HYDRA agents. When a mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier tries to kill Fury and SHIELD itself looks like having been compromised, Captain America is forced to go on the run and unearth secrets stretching all the way back to WWII.
The Winter Soldier is the ninth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the second to focus on the character of Captain America. It's also the first since The Avengers to focus on SHIELD, Nick Fury and the bigger plot of what's going on in the world now that the existence of aliens, superheroes and other threats is widely known.
It also takes a different tack to previous MCU films. A formula of sorts has appeared with these films, with a lot of set-up (usually accompanied by humourous dialogue) culminating in a big CGI slug-fest, usually with a couple of fan-pleasing cameos and movie cross-references. The Winter Soldier doesn't have much truck with this formula, instead creating an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia throughout the opening of the film as Rogers realises he doesn't know who he can trust. Even the motivations of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) appear suspect. Much has been made of the film's nods to 1970s thrillers and its preference for real stunts over CGI, and these do add a lot of weight to the film. It's interesting that one of the most impressive action sequences involves a car chase featuring Nick Fury which relies on real effects and stunt-driving with only marginal use of CGI.
The film builds up an atmosphere of murky paranoia and, impressively, shows that whilst Captain America is uncomfortable in this world he is still capable of handling it. A sequence where he, without dialogue, gradually becomes aware of undercover enemies gathering around him is particularly well-handled and gives rise to one of the film's best action beats. The characterisation for Rogers is nicely-handled by the writers and played with charisma by Chris Evans, improving on his straightforward performances in the first Captain America and The Avengers. Scarlett Johansson and, in his biggest role in the MCU movies to date, Samuel L. Jackson also impress. There's also a strong turn from Robert Redford as one of the men in charge of SHIELD's existence. As a veteran of 1970s thrillers, Redford adds gravitas to proceedings.
The story is fairly engrossing, benefiting from being (relatively) based around themes of espionage, technology and surveillance. The "big threat" in the film is fairly straightforward, even mundane, and perfectly understandable (no glowing mystic cubes from beyond time here). There are a few plot twists and surprises that are either predictable or implausible, but for the most part the film stays relatively grounded. There's also a nice line in the bad guys not underestimating Captain America, bringing almost ludicrous amounts of firepower to every attempt to kill him and not believing for a second that he's dead until they see his body. The bad guys are - relatively - fairly smart and more sinister a threat because of that.
The film falters a little bit in several areas. First of all, the "Winter Soldier" storyline is, despite the name of the film, more of a subplot and more of a setup for follow-up movies (such as Civil War and Infinity War) than a strongly-defined storyline in this film itself. Several times it feels incongruous in terms of the narrative. There's also the fact that the movie's final act involves a massive aerial battle involving helicarriers, fighter jets, guys in winged suits (an ordinary soldier puts one on and turns into a superhero almost instantly) and huge explosions, where the CGI overload missing from the rest of the movie comes back with a vengeance. The directors hold it together reasonably well, but it does feel like, after a more twisting and interesting narrative, the ending is much more "standard Marvel" than it could have been.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (****½) is the least Marvel-like of the MCU films and is all the better for it, touching on real-life themes and trying to stay more grounded in (or at least in vague touch with) reality. It's also (arguably, still) the best of the Marvel films to date, and even played a key role in helping the Marvel TV show Agents of SHIELD develop into something more interesting in the last few episodes of its first season. In retrospect, this films marks a major turning point in the MCU as the Russo Brothers turned out to be the collaborators Kevin Feige needed to make his "Infinity Saga" really work, and lifted the quality of the entire series up a notch.
Note: The original version of this review was posted in 2014.