The Reel: ‘Winter Soldier’ heats things up in Marvel’s best film yet

By: Ben Conniff

As the 9th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one might expect “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” to be just another stale superhero flick. 

That kind of estimation couldn’t be further from the truth. 

“Winter Soldier” is exactly the post-“Avengers” kick that this franchise badly needed. Dare I say it’s even better than “The Avengers”?

As Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) continues to realize his place in the digital age, he and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) make a shocking discovery that rocks S.H.I.E.L.D. to its core. As demons arise from Steve’s past, the line between friend and foe becomes blurred.

One of those “demons” is a master assassin known as “the Winter Soldier.” His mission, simply, is to eliminate Captain America, but there’s a grander scheme afoot that slowly reveals itself through a series of twists and turns.

Directors Anthony & Joe Russo (perhaps best known for their work directing episodes of “Community” and “Arrested Development”) ditch tired CGI spectacle in favor of hard-driving, old-school action.  As such, it’s quite unlike any superhero flick to come along in the past few years.

The story from series vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely plays like a gritty espionage thriller in keeping with the recent James Bond incarnations, Bourne films, and even genre classics like “The French Connection”.

Some action sequences and themes of techno-paranoia (a la WikiLeaks) made me think that “Winter Soldier” could be as close as Marvel ever gets to Christopher Nolan’s take on Captain America.

Chris Evans’ portrayal of the First Avenger feels bone-deep throughout the film. He has the perfect look and understands that this is a character who is stalwart in his values. This makes Cap easy to sympathize with – perhaps in this situation more than most because he finds himself facing a new threat that isn’t made in a laboratory or from outer space. 

Anthony Mackie makes his Marvel debut as Falcon – one of the few people Cap can trust on his most daunting mission yet. Mackie is a perfect casting choice, and I can’t wait to see what he brings to the table in future installments.

There are lots of characters in “Winter Soldier”, so it isn’t surprising that some among them feel slightly underutilized, especially Batroc the Leaper (Georges St. Pierre). He’s a big baddie in comic book lore and is good for one badass fight scene at the film’s opening. After that it’s as if the writers just got bored with him and decided to move on to the grander scheme. 

Even so, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” features much that fanboys and newcomers alike should be excited about. Fans will enjoy the allusions to other films and characters, as well as a change in dynamic for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Newbies will stay for the breathless action sequences and riveting spy-thriller themes.

Alas the real “marvel” is that “Winter Soldier” is the studio’s finest stand-alone effort since the first “Iron Man” and one of the best superhero films in recent memory.