The trailers made it look awesome, but when it first got announced, I was somewhat skeptical because of the choice of the Russo brothers to direct. I'd never heard of them. It was just that simple. At least all the other Marvel films had directors I'd heard of. But then when I heard of the tone they wanted to take, that was when I got interested. Rather than make this a period piece like the first Captain America, the tone they were shooting for was more of a political espionage thriller that just happened to feature Marvel characters. It has ended up becoming the boldest move of the franchise since the decision to create a shared universe (which is working beautifully, I might add).
"The Winter Soldier" picks up in real time after the events of "The Avengers." Cap is living in our nation's capital and doing black ops missions for S.H.I.E.L.D. (for the sake of my sanity in typing it out as an acronym, I'll simply just refer to it as SHIELD from here on out). Of course, Captain Rogers happens to be so damn good at what he does that he just grows tired of it, either out of boredom or because he doesn't like getting used as a pawn, or both. It is in this boredom and frustration that Nick Fury, the SHIELD director, introduces Cap to a plan that involves not one, but three helicarriers that will perpetually be stationed at a high altitude to eliminate any threat that may occur. This plot point in itself is actually somewhat relevant to our own society, but I'll get to that later.
Now being a man from the 40s where everything was a little ... simpler, Cap doesn't like this one bit. He then talks to Robert Redford, who happens to be the actual mastermind behind the whole thing, and then it all goes downhill from there after Cap doesn't agree with that guy from "All the President's Men." To sum it up, it's all a government conspiracy, and people die (or do they?). So then eventually, Cap along with Black Widow from "The Avengers" takes a little trip and finds out that this isn't actually SHIELD's plan. It was HYDRA's. Except, HYDRA is operating as sort of a little subfaction inside of SHIELD because of the boneheaded decision to recruit Nazi scientists of "strategic value" after World War II. It's actually a pretty brilliant plot twist for a comic book movie. Then Cap goes all 'Merica on us, takes the fight back to D.C., fights some dudes in some of the best action scenes Marvel's done. Yeah, it's actually more complicated than that, but I don't need to give away the whole movie.
The thing that really makes "The Winter Soldier" one of Marvel's best is how relevant it is to us today. It was filmed around the same time that the NSA got busted for spying on American citizens via mass surveillance of phones, emails, internet, etc. Now those that know me know I run a little right of center, but regardless of politics, I think it's reasonable to say that most people probably don't like being watched constantly. And that was one of the big themes of the movie: HYDRA, working inside SHIELD, somehow managed to cause enough fear and paranoia that people would actually trade their liberty for uncompromised safety at the cost of, yup, mass surveillance. It's not all that different from some of the things that we see on the news today. So without getting too political, props on the social commentary, Marvel.
One might think that Cap is the most one-dimensional of all the Avengers. Nope, I think that sums Thor up better. Chris Evans does a great job playing a conflicted man who is torn between loyalty to his superiors and the oath he swore back when he enlisted in the 40s (any readers who have served in the military know what I'm talking about). Because of this, Cap is actually the most interesting of the Avengers, even more so than Tony Stark. Oh and he can really fight. Thanks to the hours of training Chris Evans probably underwent, "The Winter Soldier" also has some truly awesome fight choreography. Scarlett Johanssen was also praiseworthy. A woman who can kick ass, is actually kinda funny and sexy as hell. Talk about a triple threat package. More praise also goes to Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, sort of a fellow military vet who has a lot in common with Cap. They did a good job retconning the character's origin to be more relevant while not taking away from him. Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury is the same as in his previous appearances, and Robert Redford does a good job playing the guy who does have good intentions, but is really just an evil bureaucrat. The SHIELD black ops guys were cool but one-dimensional, so there's not much to say on that front.
Now the titular Winter Soldier. Wow. Out of all of Marvel movie villains, I think Bucky has to be my favorite one. Loki was more charming, and it doesn't help that Tom Hiddleston is the nicest person on the planet, but Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier is by far the most menacing villain in the entire franchise. Killian from "Iron Man 3" wasn't that scary, and neither were the dark elves from "Thor." Bucky, on the other hand, is kinda like a superhero terminator, inspiring the same kind of dread that Schwarzenegger probably did when he first appeared as the terminator. He's emotionless, cold and efficient. Not to mention strong as hell and able to give Cap a run for his money. As a family friend put it to me, "I'd rather fight the entire Chitauri army than one Winter Soldier."
Now if we put all this together, we have the finest non-Avengers entry in the MCU since "Iron Man" came out in 2008. 9/10