When I reviewed Captain America: The First Avenger, I noted that the big lead-ins to The Avengers all do a little bit of genre-blending rather than being “pure” superhero movies (if such a genre could be considered pure in the first place.) Thor is fantasy (no matter what sci-fi trappings they tack on), Iron Man is sci-fi, and the first Captain America movie was a war movie. The Winter Soldier holds true to this rule, but shifts its genre. Instead of being a superhero war movie, it’s a superhero spy movie.
It’s probably a necessary change, with the modern setting, and it makes for a better movie than it otherwise would be. Though not quite as good of a film as the first one, it’s still quite solid.
Telling an espionage story with Captain America is an interesting approach, because although the themes of espionage stories naturally mesh with the themes of Captain America stories, Cap himself is not a spy. This has a two-fold benefit on his role in the film. First, it contrasts Chris Evans’ portrayal of an open, honest hero with the more clandestine approaches of both the villains and his allies. And secondly, it means that the super-soldier, even with some superhuman help, feels outmatched because it’s not his milieu — it’s always good if the hero doesn’t seem like he can just steamroll his way through the opposition. This additionally helps the roles of Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie as the Black Widow and the Falcon; this is more their arena, and so while their roles are smaller than Evans’, they don’t feel as if they’ve been relegated to the role of “sidekick”. It helps out on the villain side as well; Sebastian Stan’s role as the Winter Soldier might have felt unsatisfying in a different type of story, as he doesn’t get to do much beyond act as a threat, but in a story with a heavy spy-vs.-spy element, the air of mystery works. And of course, the film is further helped out by solid supporting performances from Samuel L. Jackson, as always, and Robert Redford, no stranger to non-traditional spy movies.
All the things the movie needs to do, it does well. It has occasional beats of humor, but mostly is a serious film and successfully communicates the gravity of the situation. The action sequences make sense and are a lot of fun to watch. And the character development feels like a natural progression from previous Marvel Cinematic Universe entries and like a natural development from the events within the film. There’s no moment that stands out where an audience member — whether a casual movie fan or a long-time comic book reader — is going to say “That’s not what this character would probably do in this situation.”
The one partial complaint I have about the film is that while it does come to a natural conclusion, it is perhaps a little too obvious about its tie-ins to future franchise installments. Its ending has clear hooks for the following (now ending as I write this) season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Avengers: Age of Ultron, and its own sequels. This is nothing new for Marvel movies, of course, and the Avengers hook is pretty much line with earlier examples, but in the other cases it had the small downside that by leaving things for Agents and Cap 3 to resolve, it doesn’t quite feel as though it resolved things itself quite as much as it needed to. So it feels like a lot of “Part 2” films do, as if it’s a bridging film more than a complete entity in its own right. But even with this complaint, it’s still a solidly entertaining film.