The worst bit of 2012’s otherwise excellent superhero team-up The Avengers was its opening 15 minutes or so, which clattered with exposition, comic book jargon, and elaborate but not particularly inventive special effects. The movie quickly recovered, but the momentary misstep was still jarring: even a writer-director as irreverent and confident as Joss Whedon could be waylaid by the bludgeoning requirements of the contemporary blockbuster.
It’s all the more impressive, then, that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, also from Marvel Studios, starts so quietly. The movie opens on two men jogging in Washington, DC: Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former soldier, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a current one, who keeps lapping Sam, calling out “on your left!” as he passes him, first politely and then playfully. Rogers is a pure-hearted patriot who was enhanced with super-serum doing World War II, then frozen in ice and subsequently thawed out in modern times. Steve’s past was detailed in the origin movie Captain America: The First Avenger, so Winter Soldier only needs hint at it. Instead of direct exposition, we catch a glimpse of Steve’s catch-up list, to which he adds the Trouble Man soundtrack, at Sam’s suggestion.
Around that point, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) shows up to whisk the Captain off to the opening action sequence and advancing plot. The sequence, in which Black Widow and Captain America retrieve S.H.I.E.L.D. data from a pirated ship, is long and noisy and relatively predictable, as well as fun and exciting in its acrobatics. The movie shows real confidence by placing it second, after a quiet dialogue scene that reflects on a soldier’s mental state off the battlefield.
Of course, that quiet dialogue scene is also part of the movie’s sturdily constructed screenplay; it’s not less calculated than opening with a big attention-grabbing action sequence, but the calculation is smarter. The commentary track for the Winter Soldier Blu-ray, featuring directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, spends a lot of time on film’s screenplay. All four filmmakers talk about structure, character origins, arcs, beats—shop talk that emphasizes the technical work of constructing a crowd-pleasing blockbuster on the page. All their strategizing worked: the movie is sleek at 135 minutes, and the minimal deleted and extended scenes on the Blu-ray represent only some trimmed bits of fat. This all speaks to the care that Marvel Studios takes with its films pre-production; it also speaks to some of its limits.
To be sure, The Winter Soldier is properly constructed. Markus and McFeely mention, as they have in countless interviews, that they looked to paranoid ’70s thrillers like Three Days of the Condor for inspiration (and in Condor‘s case, basic structure). This Marvel megaproduction isn’t exactly a tense, jittery reproduction of a movie like Condor, but the influence is an inspired choice nonetheless. Steve Rogers still spends a lot of his life playing catch-up with the decades he lost (hence his pop-culture to-do list), so it makes a witty kind of sense to have him experience that ’70s post-Watergate paranoia for the first time in 2014, not having lived through it or even seen the movies associated with it)
The Captain America movies are well suited to mix and match time periods with a comic-book-y flair, and this one makes a neat counterpoint to the WWII fisticuffs of The First Avenger. One of the movie’s best bits of exposition takes place in an abandoned bunker, with Cap and the Black Widow surrounded by technology both retro and unimaginably advanced. It’s not much like anything out of Three Days of the Condor, but it’s a wonderfully pulpy touch.
To underline the Condor connection, the movie brings in Robert Redford to play Alexander Pierce, a government higher-up who clashes with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the head of SHIELD, and also a target for Captain America’s ire for building up a massive surveillance program that violates Cap’s ideals. The movie’s sorta-progressive, semi-topical politics aren’t so different than any number of thrillers, but Redford’s underplaying opposite Jackson (who has more to do than in past Marvel roles) as well as the reliably strong Evans and Johansson giving one of her best movie-star performances, makes the simplicity seem a little more shaded and human than it might otherwise. Evans and Johansson haven’t interacted much in previous Marvel movies, but their slightly flirty, mostly platonic rapport is a special effect on its own.
With Evans, Johansson, Mackie (who deservedly gets his own mini-feature on the disc), Redford, and Jackson, plus a variety of new and familiar supporting characters, the movie has a sizable ensemble before it even gets to the its other title character, a mysterious assassin with a connection to Captain America’s past. For a movie subtitled The Winter Soldier, it leaves that character a touch generic: the emotionless super-soldier who may have a soul buried underneath his memory wipes. But the Winter Soldier does jump into in some of the best action scenes in any Marvel movie: the Russos give the chases, fights, and shoot-outs immediacy, even if some computer-assisted stunts look cartoonier than they should.
The movie’s visual palette is less than perfectly sharp: the digital cinematography looks a little washed out, which doesn’t always mesh well with Marvel’s apparent insistence on shooting as much green-screen as possible. The Blu-ray’s bloopers reel shows just how much of the movie’s settings, even non-fantastical ones, were created or extended with special effects, which explains the movie’s slightly antiseptic look. This may be a style choice, but the Russos don’t say much about it on the commentary; when they do talk about visual style, they focus on how they “shoot options” for the edit.
It’s a standard practice, of course, but it indicates the studio-based, rather than filmmaker-based, vision behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Maybe that’s why the movie, even as it solidifies the Captain America series as an underdog candidate for best and brightest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, adheres to certain familiar conventions: the fate of the world, fake-out deaths, and another gigantic airship not long after The Avengers featured its own gigantic airship (and not long before Guardians of the Galaxy would offer another). The confidence from that first scene translates into confidence that audiences really do want to see a big, amped-up climax set on an airship. But after two strong movies, I’m ready to follow Captain America wherever—not just to the next superhero skirmish.