#1 in my Ranking of The MCU Phases 1-3.
The first twenty minutes or so of this movie establish so much so well, it feels like the Marvel franchise has finally grown up.
The opening scene takes place around the Mall in Washington D.C. as Captain Rogers takes in his morning run, lapping a young ex-soldier several times. When the two finally speak, there’s a grounded sense of community between the two stemming from their dual tours of duty in wars separated by decades. It’s the physical detail that Sam brings up about the over-softness of mattresses contrasted against the reality of their sleeping arrangements in the theaters of war that sells it so well. Rogers and Sam have this immediate connection because of that shared experience that makes Rogers showing up to a group therapy session for veterans instantly believable. He’s not showing up because he’s Captain America and it’s what Captain America would do. He’s showing up because he’s got his own scars and wonders if spending time with others who have similar experiences could help.
That’s the kind of grounded reality that storytelling should reach for. It’s not about being grounded in a recognizable physical reality but in a recognizable emotional and human reality. The movie around that emotional core is still ridiculous with a super soldier created by a magic blue serum, another soldier with a metal arm that’s been repeatedly frozen over the decades, flying aircraft carriers, and a suit with jets and wings, but because it pays attention to the human element so well that crazy stuff gains a more entertaining dimension because it’s at service to an actual story dealing with characters that feel real.
What’s most interesting about the film’s construction is that it uses the human element so well in a paranoid thriller context. The presence of Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce is no accident. His presence calls to mind Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.
Captain America is sent on a mission into the middle of the ocean to rescue some SHIELD operative on a boat that’s been taken over by French-Algerian pirates. Cap succeeds, of course, and his partner Natasha (Black Widow) is there with a secondary purpose, to steal information from the ship. Rogers rankles at this undermining of his authority over the mission and confronts SHIELD director Nick Fury about it. Fury insists that secrets are necessary in order for him to effectively lead the organization and that Rogers is going to have to get used to compartmentalization in the modern world. After Fury brings some concerns to Pierce, a member of SHIELD’s governing body the Council, Fury gets attacked on the streets of D.C. He escapes to Rogers’ apartment, gets shot through a wall, and Rogers gives chase to the assailant, The Winter Soldier, who is actually Bucky Barnes, Rogers’ best friend from childhood who had been brainwashed into being a killing machine.
Rogers and Natasha begin to suspect that SHIELD has been compromised and after a couple of instances of SHIELD proving that beyond a reasonable doubt, the two go on the run. They essentially go back in time in finding the original bunker that SHIELD operated out of, inhabited by the computerized brain of Dr. Zola, the Swiss scientist who had helped Hydra in the first Captain America movie. Hydra, he reveals, had infiltrated SHIELD decades before, sowing chaos around the world and taking control of the organization as a whole.
This is one of the only times Marvel dealt with geopolitical issues in any meaningful way. The idea that an intelligence apparatus that nominally represents the will of the people is actually deeply rooted in its own version of state interests feels almost ripped from the headlines. The idea of outsourcing killing decisions to a program and using drones feels just the same. And yet, the movie never gets bogged down with it. It takes a side against these things and plows forward, understanding that it is more action movie than political treatise. What this does is create an interesting canvas on which to tell this story, lending credence to the emotions that Rogers is going through as he sees an organization that had earned his trust fall before his eyes.
Of course, Rogers decides to fight it out, and he recruits Sam, the Falcon, as well as Natasha. We get a great extended action sequence across three helicarriers as they rise against a ticking clock that the heroes are fighting to beat. It really comes to a head on the third ship when the Winter Soldier and Captain America face off. These aren’t just two people on the opposite sides of good and bad at the dictates of a screenwriter, these are people with pasts and ideals that throw them in conflict. But, instead of wanting to see Rogers simply win against Bucky, Rogers needs to save Bucky from the fate he’s found himself in. It’s a non-traditional way to end a large action sequence, and it works really well because of the emotional work done early. It all fits as well because of the thematic underpinnings. Rogers is haunted by his past and worried about his future. Bucky is a physical manifestation of that worry and concern. He was the friend he lost in battle, but he also represents a more hopeful future if Rogers can reach him.
Action scenes overall range from being filmed too close to coherent within that shaky-cam box. They’re edited really well, but I just wish the Russo’s has pulled the camera back a bit more and kept it a bit more still from time to time. There’s a visual thing that feeds into everything as well. Captain America begins the movie in blue suit (as he’s doing SHIELD’s dirty work without realizing it), but when he decides to fight SHIELD in order to reclaim his own ideals, he grabs the World War II era suit in the Smithsonian, fighting his final battle in the good ole red, white, and blue.
It’s intelligently assembled, emotionally assured, and overall a very good time at the movies.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 3.5/4
Check out ALL of David’s MCU Rankings for Phases 1-3 here!
Originally published here.