For once I'm reviewing something before it's out of the theaters, rather than a decade later. Not bad. THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. The Spoiler-Free review: Awesome. If you liked the first one, you'll like this one too.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, for those hiding out from too much Internet publicity, the sequel to Captain America and The Avengers. Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America, is sent on what seems a simple, if dangerous, rescue mission to free some hostages held by a group of terrorists – held on a ship that seemed innocent but is actually a SHIELD intelligence gathering vessel. But even as the Captain and his team succeed in their basic mission, it is put in jeopardy by the actions of Natasha Romanov (Black Widow), who spends significant time recovering data from the ship.
Still, the operation is overall a success. Steve is extremely annoyed, however, that Fury gave Natasha a separate, secret directive which led to a potentially dangerous situation. Fury does agree that he should be kept more aware of the situation, and takes the Captain on a tour of a secret facility which is developing the ultimate counterterrorist weapon: a network of satellites linked to three SHIELD helicarriers with a massive array of pinpoint weapons.
Such a massive flying force is, to Cap, clearly an indication of government overreach, a threat in the sky which can hardly have any good purpose, no matter how Fury tries to spin it. He leaves, but in a terrible frame of mind.
And then someone tries to assassinate Nick Fury – many someones, a coordinated force disguised as police, and ultimately backed by a mysterious assassin who detonates a mine under Fury's car and then rips the door off with his bare hand. Fury escapes this, meets up with Steve in his apartment… and then is shot by a sniper.
This is the beginning of the descent of Steve Rogers into a darker and more terrible hidden world of espionage than he had ever dreamed existed… a dark world with an all-too-familiar origin. The Red Skull may be gone, but Hydra has not died; they went underground and became manipulators par excellence, easing their way into positions of power. They have been in on SHIELD's development from the beginning, and their intention is to make a peaceful world… by wiping out any possible dangers pre-emptively. The networked helicarriers can actually predict the most dangerous and disruptive elements of society – those likely to lead or participate in opposing a government takeover, and can target hundreds of thousands of individuals at a time.
Against nearly the entire might of SHIELD and their allies, now under the control of HYDRA, Captain America has only three assets: Natasha Romanoff, now also a hunted woman, Sam Wilson, a military man with a useful secret… and his own unswerving dedication to the America in his heart.
The darker tone of this movie, so very apropos to the darkness in our own world that has been promoted by our own government ever since 9/11 (and already in development before then), does not detract from Captain America's character; instead, it allows him to shine more brightly than ever. One of the things I loved about this movie was that despite the desperate nature of the situation, Steve Rogers refused to compromise on any of his ideals. He recognized that such compromise is anathema to anyone who wants to fight for America as it should be, and his companions – even those, like Natasha, with a far more pragmatic view of the world – know and accept that this is what makes Captain America worth following, worth fighting alongside… worth dying with.
The Winter Soldier himself is a formidable adversary, but not the major one of the film – something I found both surprising and gratifying. The REAL enemy is Hydra, and the Winter Soldier is merely Hydra's pawn. He represents Captain America's past and his need to come to terms with it – and how he comes to terms with that ghost of his past is once more a defining moment of his character.
The discovery that his best childhood friend and fighting comrade Bucky is now a brainwashed weapon working for their worst enemy is one of the most horrific events of the movie, but there is not a single moment of doubt on Cap's part that he will – that he must – find a way to get through to Bucky, bring him back to himself, regardless of the cost to Cap himself. Captain America doesn't give up on people. Not now. Not ever.
The grand finale is appropriately dramatic and cataclysmic – and multifaceted, as befits a story so complex. While much of the action focuses on Captain America and the Falcon trying to disable the helicarriers, it is mostly Black Widow who drives the confrontation. Black Widow plays a HUGE part in this film, and does so with panache, humanity, and total awesomeness. She is actually the one who strikes the deadliest blow against Hydra, and even manages to negate an attempt to take her hostage in another awesome fashion. Natasha Romanov needs her own movie, so I hope the Black Widow movie comes to fruition soon.
I have said that the first Captain America was the best of the Marvel solo movies (The Avengers sitting in a slightly different category). Now I have to say that it will be VERY hard for any of the "second wave" of these Marvel films to beat out Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the crown in this category. I'm not sure if the second one is better than the first, but if it's not, the race is very, very tight indeed.
Five stars for this one, and I'm buying it when it comes out!