This year’s been really good for movies so far, hasn’t it? Usually the start of the year is where bad movies go to die, and to be sure, there’s been plenty of I, Frankensteins and Winter’s Tales, but there’s also been the best animated comedy in years with The Lego Movie, a new high point in Wes Anderson’s ouvre of quirky dramedies with The Grand Budapest Hotel, and a go-for-the-broke auterist epic with Noah. I haven’t even gotten to see acclaimed limited releases The Raid 2 and Under the Skin yet. And now it’s barely even Spring, but we already have the first great Summer blockbuster-style movie of the year with Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
What Marvel’s doing with Captain America is what Warner Bros. should have been doing with Superman: preserving him as the moral beacon that he is while mining drama out of the conflict between his upstanding virtue and a world that’s morally compromised. He’s what we should be as a nation, as opposed to what we are. Throw him into a paranoid conspiracy thriller dealing with questions of liberty versus security as related to surveillance and drone warfare, and you have the perfect way to make this 1940s relic relevant.
The movie’s themes are the most topical Marvel Studios has gotten, even more than the Iron Man movies, but like Iron Man Marvel’s still mainly focused on providing fun entertainment. The movie manages a good balance; one climactic reveal in particular perfectly straddles the line between disturbing and silly gloriously. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo haven’t had much success with movies up to this point but have contributed much to beloved sitcoms Arrested Development and Community, and sitcom experience is actually quite fitting for the Marvel franchise of episodic character-driven serials with a wide ensemble. Winter Soldier‘s cast isn’t Avengers-big but it prominently features old favorites (Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury are both major players alongside Chris Evans’ Cap) and new characters (Anthony Mackie plays The Falcon, and in a big casting coup, Robert Redford is the suspicious SHIELD agent Pierce), all of whom get a chance to shine. Directing paintball battles in Community also gives the Russos the experience to pull off the best action scenes in any Marvel Studios movie yet, combat that’s tough and high-stakes but appealing human-scaled.
(They also include a specific Community call-back, which was cool. Cool cool cool.)
The serial nature of the Marvel movies might be both their greatest strength and weakness. The Winter Soldier, oddly enough, is only a subplot in the movie bearing his name and his story seems to serve as a mere sequel hook. This universe installment doesn’t provide the satisfactory relative completeness that The Avengers had. But it’s smart successful popcorn entertainment, and probably the second-best movie the studio’s made so far.
Also, how the hell do they continue Agents of SHIELD after this?