Of all the follow-up films possible, seeing Captain America's development since the Avengers was easily going to be the most interesting. Along with being a man out of his own time, he was the first Avenger and has a closer attachment to the American military. Tactics have changed, methods have developed, and the foe the United States is seeking to fight is completely unlike the Nazi Regime. Thankfully, all of these are emphasised in the plot.
Set some time after the Battle of New York, the film sees Steve Rogers still working with S.H.I.E.L.D. and initiating their more covert operations. Struggling to come to terms with this new way of war, he soon realises that operatives have become a target for a Soviet era agent: The Winter Soldier. However, there is far more at play than a simple rogue agent performing assassination attempts...
Effectively the superhero equivalent of a political thriller, The Winter Soldier makes a number of very bold moves within its writing. Among these is the suggestion that the United States' heavy militarisation could be doing more harm than good and how their efforts to seek out potential threats could be serving the will of others. Even in an era where much has been questioned following the decisions of the Bush administration and 9/11, it's still an interesting subject to approach for such a genre. A big part of what definitely makes this work is by only showing so much to the viewer. Rather than attempting to show this on some massive scale, it keeps its focus tight upon only a few specific elements - Mostly surrounding one specific first strike operation S.H.I.E.L.D. has on standby.
Along with this tight focus is the choice of actors. Anyone who has seen prior Marvel films will know that Chris Evans is the perfect Captain America, and both Scarlet Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson are solid choices for their roles. However, what truly works well is the decision to have the likes of Robert Redford taking a prominent place within the story, clearly channeling the 70s roles he is best known for, furthering this sense of a political thriller. Anthony Mackie also makes for a surprisingly good Falcon and there's no real problem with the cast themselves.
The balance between drama and humour here is definitely the best it has been at since the Avengers. In retrospect, Iron Man 3 felt as if it jumped off the deep end when it came to humour and making a joke of its subject matter, and much of Thor: The Dark World felt similar at times. Here though, while there are certainly funny moments and many scenes feel as if they're set up purely to end on a funny line, it still works. There's a great balance here between the two elements, and it really does set the standard to what other films should follow.
The issues instead begin to appear when it comes down to how the film uses them. Falcon for example is mentioned to be a part of a therapeutic group treating PTSD, but nothing ever comes of that. It really is just brought up and then never addressed. Similarly, Sharon Carter is introduced and mentioned to be a part of S.H.I.E.L.D. as she's built up to be something big, but nothing ever really comes of it. The one who comes off the worst is the Winter Soldier himself who, by the film's end, is very inconsequential to the plot and could have been replaced by generic hired muscle. It's almost as if this was an intentional misdirection on the part of the filmmakers similar to the infamous Iron Man 3 twist.
The problem clearly has not been from the actors' end of things, but the writing keeps trying to juggle too many themes and elements. Many of the ideas about politics and problems here are not pushed nearly as far as they should have been before we get to the action, and there are many points where it seems the mistakes of Iron Man 2 are being made. You know, where major plot elements and ideas seem only to be present in order to set up the next stage of the universe rather than truly integrated into the core plot. This is felt especially clearly with the frequent call-backs to other films, which are felt more keenly here than any other. This hardly kills the film, but it does prove to be a noticeable flaw which runs throughout it.
Despite this, when all else fails, the action holds up. While trailers have been showing off the vehicle combat and the sequences with the helicarriers the most, The Winter Soldier features some of the best hand-to-hand sequences in any Marvel film to date. While you catch a brief glimpse of this in the elevator scene, there are more than enough moments to show just why Captain America still has an edge of its own in terms of combat scenes. Especially when compared with the likes of Thor and Iron Man.
The real flaw here is more that the film just doesn't go that step further when it early could. What we get is truly great, truly well crafted and developed, but you can sense that something outstanding was just ready to break out. Should you see it? Definitely. While it holds up better if you have at least seen the Avengers, it's hard to really fault the film for what it accomplishes. Go out and watch it on the big screen, but don't entirely buy into the hype.