You should probably avoid reading any review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier until you have seen it at the cinema. No matter how much care is taken to avoid giving out spoilers, unwanted revelations are almost inevitable. Of course to the dumb, everything is a spoiler.
Completely spoiler-free review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is enthusiastically recommended. In the current Marvel Universe, we would place it higher than Iron Man 3 and almost level with The Avengers (it may still pull ahead).
Watch out for two additional sequences, one in the middle of the credits and one right after the end. And pay special attention to a certain gravestone.
In the hands of lazier, less-skilled filmmakers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier might’ve been a series of gags in which the world’s strongest recently-defrosted 95-year-old (Chris Evans) deals with young whippersnappers and their pesky technology. Thankfully, Community alumni Anthony and Joe Russo and their writing team have the smarts to take Captain America’s defining quality—his unquestioning patriotism—and put it in situations where questions must be asked.
Appearing as Cap’s adversary is an actor who has built a great career playing characters who question the authority of the red, white, and blue: Robert Redford. Redford’s presence makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier rather more serious and relevant politically (See NSA surveillance, drones, etc) than its fellows in the current Marvel universe.
“Serious” here does not mean ponderous—this movie is witty, funny, and packed with jokes within jokes. It is also very thrilling—for a pair of TV comedy directors, the Russos sure know how to mount complicated action scenes.
Another good call: pairing off the “Sentinel of Liberty” with the ex-KGB assassin Black Widow/Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), the most morally compromised character in the Avengers (Or is that Nick Fury?). Johansson had already been nominated for an Oscar when she signed on as Romanov, but playing the Widow in The Avengers has made her a more interesting and nuanced performer. We could argue that she was the star of The Avengers. Johansson and Evans have appeared together in many movies, and as allies they have an easy rapport. She needles him about his comatose social life, he fends them off good-naturedly. Granted, it’s hard to get insulted when one looks like that.
In a recent review, we noted the difficulty of playing a good person onscreen without looking like a sap. Evans steers clear of that by giving Captain America/Steve Rogers a wistful quality, an air of melancholy as befitting a man out of time. His scene with a former ally who has gone on and aged without him is particularly moving.
In World War II, Captain America’s mission was crystal clear: Kill the bad guys. You could tell which ones they were by their swastikas. In the present day it is not as easy to spot them, especially since their avowed concerns seem no different from Cap’s. Whose side is anyone on anyway? Russians have made a big comeback as big-screen baddies, which is great because the cinema really needs them. Here they are represented by The Winter Soldier, whose true identity any self-respecting comics fan knows and should not reveal. (We are severely disappointed in the fanboys sitting behind us, who giggled knowingly at everything, and then were surprised at the revelation.)
Anthony Mackie joins the team as a veteran of the Iraq War struggling to make sense of his recent past. Samuel L. Jackson is Nick Fury, which is to say Samuel L. Jackson. Why the Winter Soldier is in the title escapes us; he’s not the scariest villain in the piece. Our friend noted the profusion of product placements, but that’s the American Way, is it not?
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is so enjoyable that we went to the cinema with a horrific migraine, forgot about it, and only remembered it when the credits began to roll. All this means is that we have to watch the movie again with a clear head.