Superheroes are all around us. Not in the sense that you’re going to run into Batman any time soon, but in the sense that pop culture is currently overwhelmed by people in colorful costumes and capes. The superhero film is no longer a novel concept, and in many cases, the genre has grown tedious—the recently rebooted “Amazing Spider-Man” trilogy being perhaps the best example of this. In a world where there’s a new comic book movie in the theaters every three weeks for an entire summer, it’s easy to forget that there are some genuinely new things going on in the genre. Marvel’s current wave of films—the “Avengers” cycle, if you will—have mostly been solid, entertaining blockbusters, with “The Avengers” standing out as the clear highlight, but the manner in which these films have become interconnected has never been attempted before on the big screen. Ever since Nick Fury walked on screen after the credits of “Iron Man,” Marvel’s movies have been different, with each new movie contributed to the larger world. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the ninth film in this universe, takes advantage of how this world, and this set of characters, has been built up to be the best superhero film since “The Avengers.”
We first met Captain America, played by Chris Evans, in 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Where the “Iron Man” movies have been technology-filled action flicks and the “Thor” movies large scale cosmic epics, the first “Captain America” was a war story, showing how the US government developed a super-soldier project to turn scrawny Steve Rogers into the studly Captain America we know in order to fight Nazis in World War II. That film ended with its hero frozen and lost at sea, only to be rescued in modern day for in “The Avengers,” during which he attempted to come to terms with a world that had radically changed in the sixty years he had been unconscious. And that all sets the stage for “The Winter Soldier,” the first film that deals with the question of how Captain America, a character whose stars-and-stripes aesthetic could easily come across as hokey in a modern setting, fits into today’s world. The answer, it turns out, is to look backwards: Directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have created a paranoid thriller in the vein of ’70s classics like “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View.”
The Russo brothers are best known for their work on cult sitcom hits “Arrested Development” and “Community.” Based on these credits, at first glance, the Russos may seem like an odd fit for an action spectacle with a gigantic budget; however, both of those shows—”Community” in particular—heavily rely on pop-culture pastiche, which makes the brothers a perfect fit to graft that conspiracy thriller aesthetic onto the standard Marvel movie style. Make no mistake, all of Marvel’s films share a similar look, with jumpy, handheld camera work in action sequences and frequent use of too-flat lighting. “The Winter Soldier” doesn’t do much to deviate from that style. Instead, its new direction comes in plot: When the film begins, Captain America finds himself increasingly doubtful of the work he is doing alongside SHIELD, the global peacekeeping agency headed up by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury. SHIELD is planning to launch a satellite system with clear parallels to modern drone warfare, and the political allegories continue throughout the film. From there, the movie takes a number of delightful twists and turns, so I’ll hold off on too much summary.
The film still needs an engaging cast of characters, a qualification it fulfills exceedingly well. The Marvel films have always been exceptionally well cast, and Evans continues to be one of their best finds. His Captain America is the perfect blend of the exceptional and the relatable, representing an American ideal not of jingoistic patriotism but of a willingness to question authority and stand up for what is right. He’s still a symbol of nationalist pride, certainly, but one with a refreshing amount of complexity. The film also makes great use of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, a character who got off to a rocky start in the generally subpar “Iron Man 2” but was a much better fit in “The Avengers.” Her playfully flirtatious dynamic with Evans is one of the film’s highlights, and hopefully she’ll get a movie all to herself soon. The only major addition to the Marvel cast of heroes is Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, who serves as a sidekick in the comics and here acts as a fun foil to the experienced duo of Captain America and Black Widow and adds a welcome degree of diversity.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” isn’t likely to change the mind of anyone who is completely sick of superheroes. It still follows many of the genre’s formulas, escalating the stakes in the third act so absurdly that the scale gets a little silly. This is still very much a superhero movie, but it is a very good one, which takes full advantage of the opportunities that the interconnected Marvel universe affords. This movie even ties closely to the television branch of the universe, ABC’s “Agents of SHIELD,” which has come a long way from its mediocre beginnings. None of these connections are essential to “Winter Soldier‘s” success, admittedly, but they reward a level of engagement that goes beyond typical summer blockbuster fare. That amount of ambition in a genre that could so easily be staid is absolutely worth experiencing.