Halfway through Marvel's Phase Two, it's almost funny to think about how this epic juggernaut known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe came to be. Before Iron Man set the box office on fire back in 2008, many die-hard fans were uncertain if Robert Downey Jr. could carry a blockbuster on his own, or if the guy who wrote Swingers and directed Elf and Zathura (Jon Favreau) was the right choice to direct what would be Marvel's first Phase One movie. Time after time, Marvel continued to give fans reason to question their motives, such as a little-known British actor playing Thor or the cinematic Johnny Storm double-dipping as Steve Rogers. Yet, time and again, expectations have been subverted and billions of dollars have been earned. With Captain America: The Winter Soldier, their eighth MCU movie, this cinematic powerhouse is firing on all cylinders, delivering, arguably, their best, biggest and smartest film yet.
After introducing fans to Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) in 2011's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this beloved character returned in Marvel's The Avengers, now stuck in present-day after spending 70 years on ice, literally. One of the many things that makes Cap unique, though, is while all of the other Avengers have a home to go back to, Steve is stuck in the present, working for S.H.I.E.L.D. alongside The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), although Cap doesn't quite believe in Fury's methods. The film starts with an introduction to a new but integral character in this sequel, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who first meets Cap while he's out for a morning run around the National Mall in Washington D.C. Given how serious the movie becomes, this light and fun scene is the perfect way to kick off the movie, which becomes very important later on when Cap realizes there are very few people he can actually trust, while facing his greatest enemy yet, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).
Honestly, there is so much that happens in this movie, I don't want to say too much more about story specifics. It's well worth noting, though, that the script by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is probably Marvel's best, finding a way to keep an astronomical amount of proverbial plates spinning, while delivering a complex and incredibly intelligent story in the same vein of a 70s political thriller, that will have serious ramifications for the rest of Marvel Phase Two and beyond. While Phase One was dubbed "Avengers Assemble," Phase Two seems to have a "disassembling" theme, perhaps not quite as much in Thor: The Dark World, but definitely in Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that leaves you wondering what the hell is going to happen in Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
There is something else that struck me about this movie, and the way that Marvel approaches secrecy, when it comes to certain characters. Given the title, and the long history of the comics, when Sebastian Stan was cast in the sequel, everyone knew he would play The Winter Soldier, because, you know, he played Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The First Avenger, and in the comics, Bucky becomes The Winter Soldier. Nobody made a big deal about it, at least not when compared to Benedict Cumberbatch being cast as "John Harrison" in Star Trek Into Darkness or Joseph Gordon-Levitt as "John Blake" in The Dark Knight Rises. Despite repeated denials from the studios and filmmakers, many fanboys knew right away Harrison and Blake were actually Khan and Robin, respectively.
After I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I realized that, in the hands of an uber-secretive filmmaker like Abrams or Nolan, they could have easily kept Winter Soldier's true identity a secret, since Cap himself doesn't realize it until more than halfway through the movie. Yes, it would have been difficult to keep Sebastian Stan's involvement a secret for so long, and fans would have been guessing how Marvel was changing the comic book story around for the movie, all for one reveal. In the grand scope of this story (and Star Trek Into Darkness and The Dark Knight Rises, for that matter), the reveal doesn't hold nearly as much weight as everything else. My point is, Marvel keeps finding new and innovative ways to surprise the audiences, by giving audiences what they think will be a certain story rooted in comic lore, before punching you in the gut and flipping the script in ways you never see coming, instead of denying that one character is another for two years, when most die-hard fans know those denials are bullshit anyway. While there are several fans still disappointed that Ben Kingsley's character actually wasn't the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, you didn't see that coming at all, did you? I know I didn't, and I also had no idea how simply massive the implications of this story have on the future of the MCU.
The cast is chocked full of fine performances, from our old favorites (Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Sebastian Stan) to fantastic new additions such as Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/The Falcon, who gets the big role he so truly deserves with such a fantastic performance. Robert Redford shines as S.H.I.E.L.D. luminary Alexander Pierce (a.k.a. Nick Fury's boss) and, although we don't see too much of them, I quite enjoyed Frank Grillo as Brock Rumlow (a.k.a. Crossbones), Emily Van Camp as Sharon Carter and UFC fighter Georges St. Pierre, who barely speaks but has one hell of a fight scene with Cap as the nefarious Batroc the Leaper.
The biggest surprise of all in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that two guys best known for their work on sitcoms such as Community, Arrested Development and Happy Endings, delivered the best pure action out of any of the Marvel movies. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo simply excelled in verything from the hand-to-hand combat scenes between Cap and Winter Soldier, to The Falcon's amazing manned flight suit, to the epic, destructive climax, the Russo's deliver on a staggeringly impressive level, especially considering that their only two features are the comedies Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me and Dupree. Oh, and make sure you stick around for the mid-credits and end-credits sequence as well, but if you're a true Marvel fan, I probably didn't need to tell you that, did I?
To be perfectly honest, I didn't go into Captain America: The Winter Soldier thinking it would be a bad movie, but I undoubtedly had no idea it would be THIS good, cementing its status in the upper echelon of superhero movies while shattering and subverting expectations and setting the bar astronomically high for all other superhero movies to come.