The greatest success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the realization of Captain America on the big screen. He’s the glue in The Avengers and he’s the star of the studio’s best film to date, The First Avenger. He’s also a silly character. He really shouldn’t work off the page and yet here we are. Chris Evans deserves a lot of the credit. He’s always been a charming actor. It’s why he made for a good Johnny Storm. But for his portrayal of Steve Rogers, he’s managed to turn that charm away from snark and toward an aspirational good. He’s never boring though because Evans knows how to play him as more than just a do-gooder. He isn’t pure, he’s an idealist with the powers to literally fight for his beliefs. Evans is careful to make the distinction.
But another reason the character works is how well the filmmakers bounce other characters off of the Captain. There’s a lot of good humor and strong drama to be had seeing our man out of time interact with deceptive spies and ruthless baddies. He was impatient with the rah-rah of a WWII USO show, now we get to see him try and deal with post-Patriot Act America. The Winter Soldier is basically a spy thriller with a super-soldier twist. The Captain and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson continuing to own this role) go rogue trying to figure out who infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. while also having to contend with a mysterious assassin. It’s a fine setup and the film is okay pilfering ideas from espionage classics as well as a few bits from RoboCop and X2: X-Men United.
With the functional plot and the exceptional lead, directors Anthony and Joe Russo are then allowed to have a lot of fun with the action. It can get a little choppy (a modern action film issue) but the big set-pieces have clear space and stellar pacing. Each chase scene or fight is both character and plot-driven so the stakes remain high throughout. The opening mission isn’t just a throwaway, it’s the catalyst. When the Captain fights the assassin, he’s fighting for his friends. He saves the world for personal reasons and because it’s the right thing to do. These are simple enough things but they mean the difference between a generic action film and a good one. And because we’re dealing with superpowers, scenes we’ve seen a thousand times can be spun inventively and thus made memorable. There’s a simple and perverse joy watching Cap kick some faceless henchmen and seeing him fly 10 feet farther than you’d expect. The film doesn’t hold back on letting Cap be Cap.
The story wisely stays tethered to the Captain’s WWII adventures while smoothly introducing new characters. Anthony Mackie is an absolute delight as Sam Wilson aka Falcon. He too is a goody-good but without Cap’s strength. He’s smart and loyal enough to know who is worth following, and he has most of the film’s best lines. It’s also nice seeing Robert Redford and Frank Grillo carve out small but effective performances. There’s maybe one plot turn too many but that’s part and parcel for the genre. It’s expectedly branded to a fault. This is still part of an assembly line. It must exist inside the MCU, so it doesn’t get to be too deep or personal. It’s a product, but it’s a bright and shiny one that goes real fast and won’t break after you open it. It still distinguishes itself despite the confines, and despite being the third iteration of something that shouldn’t have worked in the first place.