We're reaching Everest-level heights here, the kind rarely seen by superhero movies of any sort. Richard Donner's Superman, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, and now Captain America: The Winter Soldier: the best adaptation yet from Marvel Comics' already impressive array of cinematic adaptations. With the epic brilliance of The Avengers behind it, it charts a route into new territory and shows us just how much a simple "funnybook" movie can say about the world we live in.
It takes its cue from the downbeat political thrillers of the 1970s, when America grappled with a loss of faith in its leadership and organized dissent gave way to seething despair. Captain America found some of his most potent stories in this era, as the man held up as a paragon of national values suddenly started questioning his orders. So it is with this brave new Cap (Chris Evans), now working for SHIELD and trying to adopt to a 21st Century life. He’s not thrilled with his bosses and their capacity for secrecy, especially when they unveil plans for a new fleet of Helicarriers that can monitor anyone, anywhere at any time. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) claims that the vessels will save lives, but Cap isn't so sure and his suspicions prove well founded when a conspiracy arises testing every inch of his resolve. It manifests most directly in a silent assassin with strangely familiar eyes, who seems to know our hero’s moves before he makes them. (A free No Prize if you can name him; I'm guessing you can, secure in the knowledge that the film's real surprises run much deeper.)
The echoes of surveillance state and sacrificing freedom for the illusion of security feel more pertinent than ever, and The Winter Soldier's distrust of those hideous compromises grants it a very potent bite. Cap's a straightforward guy. He knows good from evil and he's never had a problem telling them apart. Suddenly, he's dropped in a world where his closest friends may be trying to kill him. Their reasons come cloaked in justifications and greater-good hand-waving that sound far too real for comfort. One figure's horrific explanation that people won't fight back when they get too scared hits home in ways that no comic book movie ever has before.
And yet the film remains a comic book movie at all times, and those uninterested in the more troubling questions will still find plenty to geek out on here. The Winter Soldier expertly expands and enhances the Marvel cinematic universe, proving that you can tell numerous different kinds of stories with these characters without missing a beat. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo stage some of the most potent mayhem yet seen in a Marvel movie, topped by a crackerjack car chase in the middle of Washington DC and some fantastic flight scenes featuring Cap's new buddy The Falcon (Anthony Mackie). The conspiracy has some real villains at its heart, and as always, they may prove more than a match for Cap and his friends (including Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, seeing more character development here than in her first two movie appearances combined). The mayhem they orchestrate is quieter and more personal than The Avengers or the Thor movies, but the serious stakes involved more than makes up for the lower decibel levels. (I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Jackson finally gets off the bench, and watching him kick some ass proves well worth the seven-film wait.)
At the heart of it all sits Steve Rogers, a figure who might have become a boring cipher in less careful hands, but here finds the right blend of skepticism and ethics to act as an ideal audience surrogate. Evans once again puts Rogers' humility at the forefront: still the skinny kid from Brooklyn doing the best he can with a shitty situation. His plucky underdog status further endears us to him, and his various costars make for terrific company (even without the addition of Robert Redford, who proves once again that they don't make movie stars like him anymore).
More importantly, the film embodies the best of what superhero stories are supposed to be about: filtering the troubles of our world through a prism that helps us look at them more clearly, and perhaps find the strength to confront them with a little more spunk. Sometimes, the biggest heroes don't need to bash the bad guys. They need only stand up and say "this isn't right," a position that The Winter Soldier wears like a badge of honor. This franchise has already done the impossible with the precedent it established. Judging by this amazing new entry, that may be just the beginning.