It doesn't hit theaters for another two weeks, but reviews are already coming in for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," the third installment in Marvel's Phase Two (following "Iron Man 3" and "Thor: The Dark World") and the second standalone adventure of the red, white and blue-clad super soldier (Chris Evans).
So far, critics are almost unanimously saluting the film directed by Anthony and Joe Russo (best known for their solid TV work on "Community" and "Arrested Development") from a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also penned last fall's "Thor: The Dark World"). In fact, Armon Warmann of HeyUGuys calls it "Marvel's best standalone film yet and easily the best representation of the character on screen thus far."
"Cap 2" has been hyped as more of a "political thriller" than a "superhero movie" seemingly since its inception, and it's a plot-and-tone gamble that seems to have paid off for Marvel. Alonso Duralde of The Wrap is impressed as "the corporations behind one of the most lucrative series in contemporary cinema dare to step outside of their safety zone" in creating a film that feels "downright subversive" as it "bounds along excitingly, keeping viewers guessing, launching some successful switcheroos and bringing real stakes to the game."
Emma Dibdin of Digital Spy finds this approach puts "The Winter Soldier" in a league of its own as a film "tonally distinct from its Marvel forerunners, more spy thriller than superhero sequel." Edward Douglas of ComingSoon.net agrees, saying the film "gains huge points by working as a standalone movie set in the world of espionage and world politics that's different enough from previous Marvel movies to be more accessible for non-comic fans than anything Marvel's done thus far."
Mark Adams at Screen Daily concurs and actually finds "Cap 2" somewhat unrecognizable in comparing it to its Marvel movie predecessors, saying that "without the larger-than-life 'superhero' element its storyline could as easily have been a 'Bourne' movie as it ruminates on identity, loyalty and betrayal while also layering in a goodly amount of gunfire, explosions and general mayhem."
The players in this deadly game are getting high marks as well, with Scott Foundas of Variety praising the film's leading man ("Evans excels at showing us the melancholy soul beneath the gleaming Pepsodent smile") and Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter approving of the "very good chemistry" between Evans and co-star Scarlett Johansson, with banter that's "charged with a fun flirtatiousness."
Johansson gets a lot more to do in "The Winter Soldier" than in her previous Marvel outings, and she handles the demands of her expanded role as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow splendidly. Foundas at Variety says she brings a "real wistfulness" to her role, with Dibdin at Digital Spy remarking that the script "makes the best use of Johansson's duplicitous Black Widow yet ... cutting a straight-talking contrast to the stiff Steve, she finally feels like more than a character outline."
Warmann at HeyUGuys is especially pleased with Natasha's character development, saying "though it would be nice to see a Black Widow solo feature somewhere down the line, it doesn't feel as necessitous now."
Some new cast members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are being praised for their performances as well, with Douglas at ComingSoon.net saying Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/The Falcon takes the movie to new heights, "bringing a kinetic energy to the action scenes in the second half as well as delivering some of the best one-liners to bring some levity to what could have been a pretty dark and serious movie."
But critics are especially taken with Robert Redford as shady S.H.I.E.L.D. bigwig Alexander Pierce. A veteran of his own '70s-era political thrillers like "Three Days of the Condor" (1975) and "All the President's Men" (1976), Redford plays his role to "oily perfection," according to Foundas at Variety. Adams at Screen Daily says Redford "helps add gravitas to the proceedings" and shows he can "bring his own brand of charisma to hold his own amongst the leather suits, explosions and gunplay."
Finally, it's the action scenes that are garnering the biggest praise, with Jordan Hoffman at ScreenCrush claiming they're "some of the best of the Marvel Movie Universe outside of 'The Avengers.'" Dibdin at Digital Spy says the fight sequences are "choreographed with brutal elegance and focused almost exclusively on hand-to-hand combat over superhuman spectacle" and McCarthy at The Hollywood Reporter describes the film as "brimming with vehicular chases, surprise attacks, shootouts, fist fights, Energy Baton takedowns, miraculous rescues and surprising demises."
It's the characters that make a lot of the action work so well, with Warmann at HeyUGuys saying that "Cap has never looked or felt more powerful, and the impressively choreographed hand-to-hand combat — not to mention some wonderful usage of his iconic shield — contribute to some of the most thrilling action sequences in this, or any Marvel movie." Warmann adds that "Black Widow and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) both get to show why they're regarded as two of the world’s greatest spies, and any time Sam Wilson aka Falcon takes flight is a joy."
However, Oliver Lyttleton at The Playlist is a little more reserved in his praise for "The Winter Soldier," saying that it "ultimately proves too muddled and frantic to match the heights of 'The Avengers.'" He also says that while "the choreography is consistently strong" and the film is "certainly the most action-packed of the Marvel movies," it eventually gets bogged down by "action fatigue" and a superficial approach to its politically subversive elements, which "smacks of being afraid to have a real viewpoint for fear of alienating some of [Marvel's] audience."
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" opens April 4.