Captain America: The Winter Soldier stands as the lone wide release this week. It didn’t take a whole lot of marketing savvy to figure anything going up against it was going to get obliterated, so everyone else just took the weekend off to let the dust settle. And, having seen the film at an early screening last night — 8:00 PM screenings the night before a release are a pretty good indicator of what Marvel thinks it has on its hands — those other studios made the right call. But Winter Soldier is going to hit not just because of residual goodwill from The Avengers, but because it’s probably the first really great Marvel film other than their 2012 jam session.
Mistrust is at the center of much of Winter Soldier. There’s Cap’s growing mistrust of SHIELD and what they have him doing. There’s Nick Fury’s mistrust of his superiors. There’s Black Widow’s mistrust of just about everyone. And there’s the manipulated trust that lies at the center of what the bad guys are up to with their scheme. But when the chips are down, it’s genuine trust that wins the day, from Sam Wilson’s trust in who and what Captain America is to Cap’s own trust that good people will eventually do the right thing. And as this played out, I couldn’t help but think the larger message here was Marvel asking us to trust them. “Yes, The Avengers is a tough act to follow,” they seem to be saying, “and yes, we’ve got a movie with a talking raccoon coming out. But look at this movie. We’re pulling it off. We’ve got this. Trust us.” And we should. Because Winter Soldier proves what I think Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World set out to prove with slightly less success: that being a super-hero movie doesn’t mean you can’t be another kind of movie at the same time. Much of The Dark World was swinging for outright fantasy, Iron Man 3 was equal parts techno-thriller and character study, and Winter Soldier is nothing less than the best Sixties-era James Bond movie never made.
That thought occurred to me as the grand climax got underway, centered around three massive helicarriers lifting off from a hidden base, with swarms of minions dashing about doing their masters’ bidding. It’s something right out of SPECTRE, and in that moment, it clicked. Cap is Bond, Fury is M, HYDRA is SPECTRE, and we’re watching a totally gonzo Connery Bond with secrets and double-crosses and a patented over-the-top finale. The credits even end with “Captain America will return in The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Marvel clearly knew what they were doing. It’s also got a total Seventies political thriller vibe to it, with the requisite paranoia and, again, mistrust that genre calls to mind.
I also loved the casual confidence with which this film embraces its shared universe. Nothing feels shoe-horned in. Names are dropped that are sure to send the Marvel faithful info fits of glee — one in particular provoked so much buzz that the dialogue that followed it was completely lost — and other films are called back to without the film needlessly holding the audience’s hand. If the film centers on Cap wondering what he wants and what his place is in our modern world, the film has no such doubts; it knows exactly what it is and what it’s part of, and never falters in that for a second.
The last half of the film plays as an almost mini-Avengers movie, with the various heroes uniting against a common threat. But it wisely doesn’t try to out-grandeur that previous film. For sure there’s spectacle, but it’s relatively contained, and much more focused on the personal stakes than the big picture, although that larger threat is definitely there. Because at its core, Winter Soldier is about individual purpose, about wanting to be part of something you believe in, and what happens when those beliefs are challenged. Do we cling to them, hoping we can maintain our beliefs? Or do we accept the change, that what we once held dear may not be worthy of our devotion, may not even be worthy of continued existence?
Aside from The Avengers, I’ve been fairly lukewarm on the Marvel universe films, more appreciating them than outright loving them. Captain America: The Winter Soldier changes that. This is two hours of super-hero bliss done on a scale and with an assurance that mirrors the studio itself right now. If this is an indication of the direction the Marvel cinematic universe is heading, Sony, Fox and Warner Brothers had better bring their A-games, or else they stand about as much chance as HYDRA against Captain America.