If Captain America: The First Avenger is an earnest and accessible take on the superhero genre, then its sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier is its serious older brother. Following Steve after the events of The Avengers, The Winter Soldier takes itself a little bit more seriously. This movie is always a delight to watch, taking on the genre of the Cold War thriller without making it too grim. Addressing themes of surveillance, corruption, terrorism, and international security, The Winter Soldier doesn’t shy away from the reality of a super-soldier working within the modern security apparatus. With Hydra serving as a nice throughline from The First Avenger, the world differs greatly from the one Steve grew up in: threats are no longer overt, but covert.
Carrying on the legacy of its predecessor, this film gets casting absolutely spot on. Chris Evans (Steve Rogers) remains charming and boyish even while dealing with a total and complete identity crisis. Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier) is tormented and desperate, playing his limited moments of active screen time to great effect. Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson) is such a delight to see on screen. His performance is reassuring and exceeding all at once (his introduction to the Marvel world was such a winning move). Scarlett Johanson is incredibly suave, with every word of dialogue having a distinct fluidity to it. You can tell that Samuel L. Jackson absolutely loves his role. Every word is interspersed with a foreboding warning or an ominous reference to a day long past — he was there at the start of the MCU, and god if he won’t see it through to the end. Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce) absolutely came out of nowhere when I first watched this film. But I guess it just goes to show how weighty Marvel has become. Either way, Redford is stalwart and beguiling prior to his unmasking and just the right level of smarmy afterwards. And finally, a shoutout to Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill). She may not be blessed with superpowers of her own, but boy does she facilitate those who do. Maria Hill is just such a fun little tag along, bringing certain scenes some much needed grounding. Like most Marvel movies, the characters and performances don’t miss a beat. They’re everything they need to be and in exactly the right amounts.
This is often hailed as one of the best films of the franchise. But what I love best about The Winter Soldier is that it manages to be both topical and loveable. There are so many moments which remind you that Steve Rogers is so much more than a soldier: he’s just a guy trying to do what he thinks is best. When Sam adds Troubleman to Steve’s little to do list, we get a glimpse into what he values: thai food, Star Wars, the Berlin Wall. Steve was never meant to be a soldier and he never will be one. In the words of Dr. Erskine, what makes Steve special isn’t his strength, what makes him special is that he is nothing short of a good man. It’s his eternal capacity for kindness that pushes this movie forward. While most Marvel movies don’t have many emotional beats, when they do, they do them right. When Steve lets Bucky punch him again and again, it’s not because he can’t stop him, it’s because he wont. Steve isn’t capable of seeing the world as a series of threats to analyse and eliminate. Unlike Project Insight, Captain America sees the world not as it is, but as it should be. Few action movies platform kindness as a valuable trait in its protagonist, but The First Avenger and now The Winter Soldier prove that the MCU’s most seemingly standard hero really isn’t standard at all: Steve Rogers is a character of contradiction, yet a man of simple virtues.