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Reel Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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**WARNING: This review contains major spoilers. Read at your own will**

Captain America: The Winter Soldier blends top-notch storytelling and some of the best action sequences out of any superhero flicks on the market today.  Picking up where Marvel’s The Avengers left off, but also tying up loose ends from The First Avenger, Steve Rogers must live in a modern world where the line between right and wrong is blurred and very few can be trusted.

After the battle of New York with The Avengers, Steve Rogers now resides in Washington D.C., where he fights alongside S.H.I.E.L.D., as Captain America, for the greater good.  However, in a modern world which Steve is still adjusting to, “good” is a very vague term.  When a Soviet mercenary known as The Winter Soldier makes an attack on American soil, Cap must team up with Black Widow and the newly-recruited Sam Wilson (aka the Falcon) to help defend S.H.I.E.L.D. as foreign forces attempt to dismantle the organization.

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To start off right away, The Winter Soldier is a phenomenal film.  Marvel Studios has previously created movies focusing on real-world difficulties, such as the Iron Man trilogy with terrorism and nuclear weapons.  This time around, Joe and Anthony Russo have delivered us an adventure that takes heavy influence on the political thriller genre, and turns out being the most suspenseful, most well-thought-out movie in the Marvel franchise to date.

This is simply put the best-utilized installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Phase 2 of the MCU (the films after The Avengers) have dealt with each character and their lives after the events in New York.  Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World focused on character development, though it has been fairly agreeable that the stories of each were not nearly as strong as they could have been written.  The Winter Soldier has found a way to focus on development of all its characters, tell a massive story, as well as reminding us that there are other events occurring outside of this particular movie.  How was this accomplished?  The surprising results of the Russo brothers at the helm.

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Joe and Anthony Russo are completely new to the comic book world.  With a career that has focused mostly on television up until now, let alone comedy, there seemed to be a lot riding on their shoulders coming into this project; especially after Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor took on the Thor sequel, and action/thriller-rooted Shane Black taking on Iron Man 3.  Known best for their work on hit TV comedies Arrested Development and Community, the Russos have surprised many with Captain America.  In fact, their work on the film has gone over so well that they are already working on writing (as well as set to direct) the third Cap film, set to hit theaters in 2016.  The pair took a more serious and dramatic story and mixed in jokes with comedic timing that didn’t feel the slightest bit forced.

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The relationships and banter between characters is just as witty, if not more so than in The Avengers.  Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson actually wrote a number of the scenes where Steve and Natasha had dialogue together.  The consistent theme of Natasha trying to find Steve a date, when she gives him a kiss to cover their identities in public and later poking fun at him for it being his first kiss since World War II, are all perfectly written and never feel like the theme of Steve’s age is overplayed.  Evans and Anthony Mackie also have strong on-screen chemistry, as Steve and Mackie’s character Sam Wilson instantly become friends with similar backstories of war and hardships.  When Wilson got his mechanical Falcon suit, his flight and mid-air action left you wanting to see more of his character, similar to War Machine/Iron Patriot in the Iron Man movies.

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The Winter Soldier definitely deals with Steve’s adjustment to the world around him, rather than adjusting directly to modern technology.  The story does make time to revisit some of the key aspects from the past, though, such as flashbacks of him and Bucky, as well as Steve visiting a now-elderly Peggy Carter, who very sadly has Alzheimer’s.  The way that Steve looks back at his past feels very organic as a recurring theme, but does not take over the fact that this is a modern story.

On a surprising note, Samuel L. Jackson’s recurring role of S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury probably got more screen time in this film than he did in the entire collective of movies before it.  He played a big role in the downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D. and had a few great action sequences, between his integral car chase through D.C. and flying a rescue chopper towards the end of the film.  Frank Grillo was a nice addition as Brock Rumlow, a tactical character who would later turn into the villain Crossbones (though not shown in the film, it is safe to say we will be seeing more of him in the future).  Even the brief, but story-driven baddie Batroc the Leaper (played by martial artist George St-Pierre) had a cool fight with Cap towards the beginning of the movie.

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Now, here’s where things get spoiler-y.  While the movie focused on S.H.I.E.L.D. and how it as an entire organization was being torn down from the inside-out, a surprising amount of the film focused on just how it was being taken over; that being by the Nazi-based organization HYDRA, previously established in the first Cap film.  Robert Redford’s character Alexander Pierce, the “leader” of S.H.I.E.L.D. is discovered early on to be the man who is controlling the motives of The Winter Soldier, as well as planning to replace S.H.I.E.L.D. with HYDRA.  Also, the return of Colbie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill was a nice return, especially as someone Cap and Widow can trust.

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Those of you familiar with the comics would already know going into the film that the Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan) is actually Bucky Barnes, Steve Roger’s best friend and World War II sidekick.  However, if you weren’t already aware of that fact, the film does a great job of, again, tying his backstory together from the first movie.  While Bucky has had his memory wiped through shock therapy, he slowly becomes more and more self-aware about his true identity through confrontations with Steve.  Although when he does, and starts asking questions, Pierce is there to make sure his memory is wiped once again.  Each fight scene between Steve and Bucky are some of the most intense hand-to-hand combat offered on-screen, and the final climatic fight leaves a lot to question about Bucky’s future (and we know he has one, as actor Sebastian Stan has confirmed he has a 9-movie contract with Marvel).

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One of the best twists in the movie’s plot was the reappearance of Arnim Zola.  Zola was the partner of Red Skull during World War II, when HYDRA was first established.  When the U.S. took Zola captive in The First Avenger, later on they offered him a job to help the early-on S.H.I.E.L.D. with their tech, though little did they know that HYDRA was still functioning within the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization way back then.  Before Zola died somewhere down the line, his intelligence was put onto a computer system that has allowed him to communicate and plot decades after his death (in The First Avenger you can very briefly see Zola frantically grabbing blueprints for his mechanical body design while fleeing their Nazi base).  Again, another Easter Egg of the Marvel Universe that never fails to be explained later on.

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The Easter Eggs that were written into the movie were very well-planned and clever.  Iron Man was mentioned a couple of times, including his help designing S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new helicarrier engines, after having a “face-to-face” interaction with one of the engines (referring to a scene in The Avengers).  Bruce Banner’s name also pops up once or twice, though the most surprising name to surface, one that will make fans very giddy, is Stephen Strange.  Although mentioned in passing, Agent Sitwell-secretly working for HYDRA- mentions that Bruce Banner and Stephen Strange were seen as potential threats to S.H.I.E.L.D.  Obviously with Marvel President Kevin Feige confirming a Doctor Strange movie is coming, odds are we will likely see one in 2016 or 2017, as part of Phase 3.

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With two post-credit scenes- one in the middle, and one after all of the credits roll- only true Marvel fans seem to know to stick around until the lights go on.   A great bridge into the events that will take place in Avengers: Age of Ultron next year, the first scene introduces HYDRA honcho Baron von Strucker.  He introduces Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, the twin heroes who will appear in the Avengers sequel, as well as bringing back the scepter that Thanos gave to Loki in The Avengers (remember S.H.I.E.L.D. confiscated the scepter at the end of the movie, so now naturally HYDRA has it in their possession).  The very last scene shows Bucky at the Smithsonian, trying to figure out his identity at the Captain America/World War II exhibit hall.

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As for now, Marvel’s TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will continue dealing with the direct aftermath of the film, starting this Tuesday, and each Tuesday after at 8:00 p.m. on ABC.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier strives not only as a super hero movie, but as an outstanding political thriller.  Its suspense, courage and confidence is what makes it a success.  While personally not as epic as The Avengers stood, The Winter Soldier is definitely one of the best films Marvel has released to date.  The writing, acting and overall interweaving story are all at the top of Marvel’s game, and leaves high hopes for what’s to come in the MCU.

My Rating: 9/10

Written by Josh Sazin on 4/5/14

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