As fun as it is to see one of their favorite characters on the big screen every few months, even diehard Marvel fans might have to admit that the individual Avengers films feel a little empty, now that we’ve seen the whole team in action. The Beatles’ solo albums were never as good as the whole band’s efforts, and Iron Man or Thor in isolation is at best manna to the promised land of the full-scale “Avengers” sequel set for 2015.
But that’s why “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is such good news. “Winter Soldier” is easily the best of the post-“Avengers” films so far, and better than many of the pre-"Avengers" stand-alones. It’s definitely a significant improvement on its own original installment from 2011.
You may still pine for Hulk or Iron Man to join the fight, but “Winter Soldier” stands quite well on its own.
Like 2013’s Iron Man and Thor sequels, “Winter Soldier” picks up in the aftermath of “The Avengers” climactic Manhattan battle. Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still acclimating to life in the 21st century, checking off a list of movies and albums friends have recommended to get him up to pop culture speed, and deflecting matchmaker efforts from co-workers like Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson).
One such deflection happens early in the film as Romanoff and Rogers team up to rescue a group of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who have been taken hostage on a freighter. After a fan-pleasing sequence that gives the Captain ample opportunity to display his genetically enhanced super-strength, Romanff raises Rogers’ suspicions when she palms some top-secret intelligence on the sly. Things get stranger after S.H.I.E.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, playing vintage Samuel L. Jackson) introduces Captain America to a new project that seems to be compromising freedom in exchange for national security.
Things quickly go from bad to worse. Fury is attacked on his morning commute and flees with a panicked message for the Captain: S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised. No one knows who to trust, and the meddlings of Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), another high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. authority, aren’t helping the situation. To cap it off, a mysterious warrior called The Winter Soldier is responsible for the attack on Fury, and he may have a connection to Captain America’s distant past.
The plot isn’t mind-blowing, but it’s intriguing enough to connect a series of excellent action set pieces. Fury’s drive time showdown is impressive, and the words “elevator brawl” should inspire fond smiles in the coming months. There’s plenty of CGI at work, though to its credit, you never really feel like you’re watching someone’s animation project.
Throughout its narrative, the protagonist also offers a nice foil to the snark and sarcasm so plentiful in the Iron Man series. Captain America is a true dinosaur of a hero in the 21st century, but it is refreshing to see him in action. The big winner here is Evans, who has made a massive leap from his first Marvel role as Johnny Storm in the mediocre “Fantastic Four” films. The second big winner is Chevy, which manages to showcase the majority of its 2015 automobile lineup over the course of the film.
Another highlight is the addition of Anthony Mackie, who brings the same appeal he showed in 2001's “The Adjustment Bureau,” to his role as Sam Wilson, a vet who has experience with a very special kind of tech. And if you stick around for Marvel’s obligatory post-credits Easter Egg scenes (there are two), you’ll get a peek at a couple other new characters set for debuts in the near future.
All in all, “Winter Soldier” is a deserving entry in the Marvel universe, and much more satisfying than the majority of the solo efforts thus far. It feels a little strange to reference the beginning of the summer blockbuster season so early in April, but the Captain has clearly gotten the jump on the rest of his peers.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence, as well as some mild sexual content.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.