This past Friday, after opening worldwide a few weeks earlier and performing like gangbusters, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," the ninth Marvel Studios movie to date, arrived in the U.S. and swiftly proceeded to be the biggest opening of 2014 to date, smashing April records with a hefty $96 million weekend. That's a big step up for the second adventure to topline Chris Evans' super-soldier Steve Rogers to date, no doubt helped by very positive reaction from fans and critics alike.
Our official review was a touch more cautious than some, while still finding a lot to like, but when we ranked every Marvel movie last week, we acknowledged that it's among the best of its sort. All that said, with the film now widely seen by many of you, we wanted to tighten our focus a little and delve into spoiler territory by examining what was good, bad, and just kind of baffling about the movie. The team have weighed in below, and you can let us know what you think about the film in the comments section. And if you haven't seen it yet, heavy spoilers follow, so you may be better off bookmarking and coming back when you've discovered the film's surprises for yourself.
The Evolution of Captain America's Patriotism
With 'The First Avenger' getting to play in period territory in delivering the Captain's origin story, and "The Avengers" being part of a team up in which the interplay between the characters was more important than any one of their stories, the real proof of whether Captain America could survive his own franchise was with this sequel. And in fact he thrives, as the writers made the canny choice of, if your character is called Captain America and you don't want to induce eyerolls, better make sure he stands for a fairly progressive idea of America. And so this is a Captain America who, far from being a government lackey/mouthpiece for the machinery of power, in fact brings down existing power structures (S.H.I.E.L.D. included), necessitating a period in which he goes apparently rogue. It's a timely, clever move, aligning the Cap with the "America" of everyday people who both in that universe and our own, are having their freedoms eroded, rather than the "America" of the government, its politicians and institutions (the fact that they're H.Y.D.R.A. is almost an afterthought) of whom distrust is already widespread. It's also emerging that decency, and a common-sense, common-man idea of what's right is actually Captain America's real superpower (along with leadership), especially important when his own superstrength has been somewhat outdone by the Gods, robots and big angry green monsters that he's recently met.
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow
So with two of the most straightforwardly entertaining (read: tricksy, rug-pulling) scenes in "The Avengers" under her belt (her introduction in the warehouse and her outwitting of Loki), and no movie of her own to overexplain her background, we were already anticipating good things from this story in terms of Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff. But those expectations were in fact slightly surpassed, with 'Winter Soldier' delivering the most individualized impression of the character to date, carving for her superspying abilities and conflicted background an actual deserved place in the Marvel pantheon of more supernatural/scientifically enhanced/otherworldly superheroes. While of course she's still second fiddle to the guy who's got his own franchise, Romanoff, abetted by the fact that Scarlett Johansson seems to be growing ever more comfortable and convincing in the role, is the one to face down the movie's Big Bad at the end (with Nick Fury) while Cap's away battling a more personal nemesis, and it's her strategic smarts that eventually wins the ground war. And as a personality, what's refreshing about Romanoff is that despite the fact she's, you know, Scarlett Johannson, she's not some brazen seductress (not that we don't believe she's done that kind of spying in the past)—in fact her kiss with Captain America is a ploy, and provides her with some friendly joshing material later, as well as more fuel for the running gag of trying to set him up with a woman. Romanoff, this time out, as well as being usually the smartest person in the room, is conflicted and secretive yes, but she is also nice. It's almost subversive, to be given a female superhero who we're not just "rah rah yeah, she kicks so much ass!" but who we actually like, the way it's expected that we like her male counterparts.
The Conspiracy Thriller Tone
There was a lot of talk before "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" came out that the movie was going to be an homage of sorts to '70s conspiracy thrillers. And no one really ever believed this because, hey, it's a Marvel movie and Marvel movies aren't Marvel movies unless there's some kind of mystical doohickey that throws the universe into jeopardy. But this movie really does fit the genre, with much of the first two-thirds of the movie devoted to Captain America and his confidants uncovering a vast conspiracy, whose complexity is somewhat ungainly (but never becomes too much to bear). The down-to-earth tone is refreshing and does much to humanize the Captain America character (and the Marvel universe as a whole). It also makes things a whole lot easier to figure out. (It's also a complete 180 from the intergalactic hooey that cluttered "Thor: The Dark World," arguably the worst Marvel movie since "Iron Man 2"). At our screening, during the mid-credits sequence that reintroduced Loki's scepter, pulsing with some kind of otherworldly energy, you could feel the audience roll its eyes (there might have been a handful of audible groans too). It turns out that a Marvel movie focused on mystery, centered around actual human beings and free of unnecessary cosmic MacGuffins is outrageously appreciated. In fact, it's downright super.
A Welcome Degree Of Diversity
Diversity should be a given in a superhero universe as vast and complicated as the one that Marvel is taking great pains to establish. But so far almost every project has been centered around a bunch of white dudes. Which makes "Captain America: The Winter Soldier's" emphasis on female and African American characters all the more refreshing. Not only is Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow basically the second lead, but we also get sharp, finely tuned supporting performances from Emily VanCamp (as Sharon Carter—this will probably be a much bigger deal in future movies), Hayley Atwell, and Cobie Smulders. Hell, there's even a nice moment with Jenny Agutter, who plays one of the members of a mysterious global security council. Additionally, Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury sees an expanded role in the sequel, offering up an actual character instead of a black-leather-clad cipher who just screams at various superheroes to attack things. And what's more—Anthony Mackie's Falcon is introduced. Falcon was the first African American superhero in mainstream comics, and proves a more memorable and better used premise here than, say, Don Cheadle's War Machine in the "Iron Man" movies—his presence not only expands things in interesting ways but feels like a better message to be sending kids. Up until now, it seemed that the Marvel Universe was saying that anyone can be a superhero… as long as you're white and male. Now anybody can truly be a superhero. Or a kick-ass secret agent. Or a daredevil pilot. Why it took so damn long to diversify the movies is really the issue… and one that we hope they continue to address.