Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford
When many of us think about "grown up" superhero movies dealing with themes that evoke real-world issues, we tend to think first of Christopher Nolan's Batman series, which dealt with many ethical questions and issues which became especially prominent in the post-9/11 decade. With The Winter Soldier, the Captain America series stakes its own claim on being the serious, grown up superhero story by spinning a yarn about national security, the military-industrial complex, and the corruption of institutional power. That it does this so successfully while still managing to tell an entertaining story about superheroes, supervillains, and their allies battling it out in the streets and in the air gives it a pretty strong claim to the title of the Marvel Universe's best film to date.
Set two years after the events of The Avengers, the film catches up with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) as he works for S.H.I.E.L.D. under the direction of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and alongside Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson). S.H.I.E.L.D., headed up by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), is on the verge of activating Project Insight, which will see the launch of three Helicarriers linked to spy satellites that will ostensibly fortify national security efforts. After Fury asks Pierce to delay the project, which he's come to believe has bugs that still need to be worked out, he's ambushed by a team led by the masked Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and barely escapes with his life. He seeks refuge at Rogers' apartment but, after entrusting Rogers with a flashdrive and warning him to trust no one, he's attacked once again by the Winter Soldier and dies of his injuries. Afterwards Rogers is summoned to a meeting with Pierce, who is curious about why Fury went to his apartment, and when Rogers proves unforthcoming with information, Pierce declares him a traitor and sends the S.T.R.I.K.E. team after him. Hunted by S.H.I.E.L.D. and convinced that a conspiracy is afoot, Rogers has no one to turn to for help but ultimately decides to put his trust in Romanov and together they discover that S.H.I.E.L.D. has long since been compromised by Hydra, which has now fully taken over.
After enlisting the help of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former airforce pararescueman trained to use a Falcon wingpack, Rogers and Romanov get hold of a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who is also a Hydra mole and intimidate him into revealing Hydra's plans to turn the planet into a police state under its control by using Insight to identify and destroy individuals the world over who might become a threat to Hydra's future plans. Before the trio can do anything with this information, they're attacked by the Winter Soldier, who becomes unmasked and is recognized by Rogers as his friend, Bucky Barnes, long thought dead. After being rescued from Hydra's clutches by Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), one of the seemingly few S.H.I.E.L.D. agents truly working for S.H.I.E.L.D., Rogers, Romanov and Wilson are taken to a safe house where they learn that Fury faked his own death and has a plan to sabotage Insight and flush Hydra out of the agency. Rogers, however, has other ideas. Since S.H.I.E.L.D. has been corrupted, he insists that it must be destroyed along with Hydra so that they can begin again from scratch. Fury is reluctant, but ultimately cedes control to Rogers and they, along with Romanov, Wilson, and Hill, set out to expose Hydra and take it down before it can seize control of the world.
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also wrote the screenplays for Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor: The Dark World), The Winter Soldier is, at least partially, a film that benefits from the luck of good timing seeing as it was already filming when Edward Snowden's NSA leaks began making headlines and made government surveillance the hottest political topic in the land. Yet, even if the film lucked into a premise that taps into concerns that are at the forefront of many people's minds, it is also designed to evoke an earlier period in American history when the veil was pulled back to reveal the lengths those in power would go to in order to remain in power. 38 years ago Redford was playing one of the crusaders exposing government corruption in All the President's Men and here he plays the face of corrupted power, and were it not for the inherent earnestness of Steve Rogers/Captain America, I would say that there was a cynical commentary there about power turning yesterday's heroes into tomorrow's villains. The Winter Soldier repurposes the 1970s paranoid thriller to fit the current political and social context, touching on feelings and fears that have been present for decades and intensifying them by filtering them through our experience of the increasingly rapid advancement and pervasiveness of technology. This element functions to add context and color to the action, but it also lends weight and depth to the story.
Despite that thematic weightiness, The Winter Soldier nevertheless moves swiftly and efficiently and it manages to tell a story that is satisfying and doesn't get tripped up by the fact that it's serving multiple masters. The Winter Soldier is not a film that exists for its own purpose; as the middle film in a planned trilogy, it must build on the themes and mythology set up by The First Avenger and it must lay the groundwork for the next film, and as part of the Marvel Universe it must similarly build on the narrative threads rooted in the films which preceded it and set up threads which will be woven into the films that follow. It's a multi-purpose film, in other words, and it manages to meet each of its objectives without seeming to strain for any of them and, most important of all, it remembers that above all it must be entertaining. The Winter Soldier puts a lot of effort into developing its themes, and it puts an equal amount of energy into unfolding its action sequences. It's the whole package.