PG-13, for sweet spy action. Captain America, but he's black ops. Does he have a codebook? Sure...but he threw it out the window. But then he went and picked it back up and put it in his front pocket because he's Captain America! It's not so bright as the other movies. America isn't painted in the prettiest of pictures. Things explode and there's a guy who is a living computer, but this movie is pretty tame for a spy movie. There is some intense action and my kids would probably get bored by it. PG-13.
DIRECTORS: Joe and Anthony Russo
It's the Russos' entry point into the franchise. I shock a lot of people when I tell them that I'm pretty sure that this is my favorite movie in the series. I love this movie. I love this movie so much. I might watch The Winter Soldier more than I watch The Dark Knight. (Note: The Dark Knight might forever be the best made superhero movie. The Winter Soldier just hits so many personal notes for me that make it one of the most beloved superhero movies for me ever. Besides Superman: The Movie.) I think that everyone really likes this movie. I'm not saying that I'm alone in lauding this movie high and low. I just really like it more than most people like it. This movie does with Cap something that most people are afraid to do with Cap. Captain America was made to be a tool for propaganda. However, he kind of became the ultimate critic of America and that's pretty awesome.
Now I'm going to get all of the people accusing me of being anti-American. I'm not that, I don't think. But I do like when a character is pushed outside of his or her genre into something far deeper. I mentioned The Dark Knight. Same deal. Superhero gangster movie. Captain America is first and foremost an action star. He's meant to be cheery and fight Nazis. He works really well there. Considering how well loved The First Avenger was, I'm really dumbfounded that The Winter Soldier didn't try hitting a lot of the same beats that made the first movie work. I know. World War II is over. He's in the future. The Avengers already happened. But how is this not a story about Cap trying to fight a time-travelling Red Skull (which I also want to see)? Instead, this is a black ops spy drama with hints of The Manchurian Candidate woven into it. The movie starts off (not the running sequence, which I love) with Cap in a muted costume with a muted shield. He takes on this undercover mission where he has to take people out silently and violently, a la James Bond. Oh my gosh, I love this so much. It's actually a little bit weird that wholesome Cap is willing to work with S.H.I.E.L.D., especially in this capacity. But it also makes an odd amount of sense. He's still a soldier, but fighting in what he has to view as a future war. He's saving hostages. He's still the Stars and Stripes, but he's also a very practical and tactical Captain America. And then what do we get? I remember when I saw this in the theater and I had to step back. I was watching a movie where Captain America was fighting Batroc the Leaper. Not only was he fighting Batroc the Leaper, but Batroc didn't come across as ridiculous. I read an io9 article recently that said that it couldn't forgive The Winter Soldier for changing Batroc so much. I don't meant to be crass, but shut up, io9. I love your reporting and you inspire me to like off-the-grid cinema sometimes, but the interpretation of Batroc the Leaper was as good as it was going to get. He is a profoundly silly character that really has the level of respect that he deserves in the comics. But Batroc might be a telling sign about what makes The Winter Soldier work. Captain America is inherently silly. He's way too optimistic. He's unashamedly a piece of propaganda. Superficially, he is such a boy scout that Superman can appear grim. But none of this is really true in the comics anymore. The Winter Soldier is heavily influenced by Ed Brubaker's run on Captain America. I loved Brubaker's run. It is absolutely cinematic storytelling. (If you look carefully, Brubaker even cameos in the movie.) Captain America is a character that has grown with age. A few characters stay fundamentally the same with slight tonal shifts. Some characters grow with their ages. I think that Batman and Captain America have done that. Batman, based on what age he is in, looks really different from the previous generations' Batman. The same can be said about Cap. Cap comics tonally shift quite a bit, but the root of the character stays the same. When Batman films become dark and gritty, it is because they are mirroring the tonal shifts in the source material. The same thing can be said about Captain America. It's why I have a problem with dark and gritty Superman. He is almost the same character that he's been for 80 years. (I know, those early books had him killing people. But lets put all the comics where he's a blue boy scout versus those that have him rip people in half and see which pile is higher.)
P.S. I also love Superman.
I like Phase Two in retrospect. This is the era where the genre experimentation really happened. I talked about The Dark World and the smart choices it made, despite lacking in complete success. What I can say is that Cap is an example of experimentation really working. I honestly find more in common to The Winter Soldier with the Daniel Craig Bond films. Both Bond and Cap live in fantastic worlds that don't really look like our own. Both guys should have died a long time ago. The idea of supervillains is inherently kind of stupid. But both the Craig Bond films and the Captain America movies treat these worlds as fantastic while looking for moments to ground them. There are explosions and helicopters and skydiving, sure, but the directors find excuses to treat them as realistically as possible. I don't know if there is a term for this. Grounding the fantastic? But it creates something really cool. We can kind of guess the rules of the universe. While I think that Spectre has some room to grow as a movie, there was a moment where I actually thought that they might have killed off James Bond. I forget what that moment was and I just really inspired myself to watch that movie again. But Captain America becomes kind of vulnerable. There are moments that larger than life and I can't believe. Cap's shield, first and foremost, is absolutely absurd. Spider-Man points this out in Civil War. But Cap nearly dies in this movie. I kind of believed it. There is a romance that exists outside of the realm of "They should get together." Okay, I don't know if Sharon is the most convincing love interest, but the male protagonist doesn't feel deserving of the female foil's love. Cap is honestly conflicted about the whole situation too. Black Widow just highlights all of the flaws of simply following orders in this story. That's great. It also is a brilliant set up for Civil War because we now know that Cap has a line that he cannot cross. That's awesome.
The best thing that ever happened to the MCU is The Winter Soldier. SPOILER: I'm talking about the end of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It made Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. way more watchable and it also completely messes with the political landscape. I can't help but think that these Marvel movies are formulaic as get out, but they do some really gutsy things considering that they are so successful. Nothing is too precious in this series. The takedown of S.H.I.E.L.D. led to Nick Fury disappearing. That guy was everywhere for the longest time. I love Nick Fury. I love Sam Jackson. But I also think that taking that entire secret organization off the board was extremely smart. We don't always know that the good guys are always good and that the bad guys are always bad. People are more complex than what most action movies lead us to believe. There are moments where Cap's biggest problems are "How do I beat these guys?" but more along the lines of "I don't know who to punch." We get it. Putting Cap against a brawler villain will eventually lead to Cap beating him. But when there is a moral crisis, that's when Cap doesn't know how to operate. (Okay, Infinity War has him completely outmatched by Thanos, but that's a different scenario. One that I'll talk about hopefully this week or early next week.) There's this great moment in Winter Soldier where S.H.I.E.L.D. agents have to pull guns on each other. Not knowing who is Hydra is this tense feeling. The real S.H.I.E.L.D. agents know that Captain America stands for liberty and honesty and they fundamentally know that Cap wouldn't betray them. But they also know that they treated traitors and criminals as their friends. That moment reflects a difficult choice. There is this nerdy little guy who is in mission control. The guy probably had basic weapons training as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative, but that's about it. He has to tell a guy who has a gun on him that he can't follow a direct order. I know that scene has been done before, but it is compelling for a reason. That scene works great and I absolutely dig it. Captain America: The Winter Soldier does this great thing where nothing is sacred. Storytellers shouldn't be beholden to people liking something. I mean, Avengers killed Coulson. I still love Coulson. S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't exist anymore and one of my favorite characters is barely in the MCU anymore. I know that these are tough choices, but it makes the franchise grow when it should be at a standstill. This movie makes the gutsiest choice out of all of them.
The individual elements also work. Things that I comment on in every review. Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson is just a perfect addition to this universe. Scarlett Johansson (spelled it right the first time!) (Never mind. There are two T's in her first name.) really understands the character in this one and gets some depth. Robert Redford came back for a Marvel movie. That's something in itself. Sebastian Stan gets the story he needed and I love that. But these elements simply make a good movie. What makes The Winter Soldier great is that it chooses to break the mold and do its own thing. I love that the Russos replaced Whedon as the go-to guys in the franchise. They have this eye for drama that makes these movies compelling without losing their fun. That's just the best.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.