Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a better-than-average Marvel superhero bash, intriguingly plotted and pretty clever in its speculations about 21st-century life for Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, the greatest of the Greatest Generation warriors, as he contends with contemporary American geopolitical ideals run amok.
The movie does its duty. It’s a reliable commodity, delivered efficiently and well, like pizza. In its frenzied action style and overall visual approach, the film is interestingly different from the first Captain America, my favorite of the Marvel franchisees alongside the first Iron Man, which has been carbon-dated to a time when Robert Downey Jr. seemed like novel casting. But I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed Captain America 2 as much as I did Captain America the first.
Many are praising the sequel for its harsh realism and frenetic approach to hand-to-hand combat, both in the staging and the editing. The directors are siblings Anthony and Joe Russo, who haven’t made a feature since You, Me and Dupree eight years ago, but who are about to become big deals in Hollywood thanks to the inevitable success of this thing. (They’re already attached to a sequel.)
The new Captain America copies the pummeling sales tactics of The Avengers, which made a billion and a half dollars worldwide two years ago. May 2015 brings the sequel to that all-star variety show, to be titled Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s beginning to feel as if the Age of Ultron, which could be another name for Hollywood’s Marvel-dominant era, will never end. Long after life on Earth has been extinguished, there’ll still be an Iron Man sequel coming out the following spring.
This Captain America works for several reasons, beginning with the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. It pauses occasionally to remind us that these are supposed to be human beings, however genetically enhanced, coping with real-world problems of trust and job insecurity, and battling trauma and fish-out-of-water loneliness.
Chris Evans is back as Rogers, who is now 95 years old but looks 30ish thanks to the deep-freeze process initiated by his S.H.I.E.L.D. overseers, led by eye-patched and anger-fueled Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), whose temperament suggests he’ll someday be revealed to be the real Incredible Hulk. The first Captain America was set in and around World War II, with Cappy and his boomerang-y shield fighting the sinister forces of Hydra. The Winter Soldier follows Cap into the present day, alongside Scarlett Johansson’s wily S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Black Widow. Their nemesis is the Soviet supersoldier known as the Winter Soldier, who is in fact none other than … a fellow named Spoiler Alert.
There’s the tiniest hint of a romance, though Black Widow is plainly too much for Rogers’ emotional circuitry to handle. The new day that Rogers/Cappy must negotiate is one of rampant, escalating paranoia, never much of an aphrodisiac. Robert Redford lightens the film’s load as the trusted, respected, well-tailored S.H.I.E.L.D. overseer who’s mixed up in the World Security Council. America’s latest secret weapons, hiding deep beneath the surface of Washington, D.C., are a trio of flying battleships armed to the teeth and able to kill “a thousand hostiles a minute,” Fury mentions to a skeptical Rogers. Soon our hero is hung out to dry by his own team, and like a Redford character in a ’70s thriller, he doesn’t know whom to believe.
The shortlist of the trustworthy includes an Army paratrooper played by Anthony Mackie. With a pair of sleek metal wings he transforms into the Falcon. Mackie’s a real asset here, and in general the cast is fully engaged, with only trace elements of sequel-itis afflicting the tenor of the storytelling. They find ways to deliver the welcome wisecrack or the leavening zinger just so, before the next round of slaughter begins.
The worldwide success of these movies is in their superheroics, of course, and in the crazy degree of overkill involved. There is no “just enough” in today’s computer-generated Marvel marvels; there is only “too much.” And there’s a stealth element of hypocrisy in a film such as The Winter Soldier, which bemoans America’s bloodthirsty, weapons-mad impulses even as it exploits all the hardware and an obscene body count for fun and profit. Something about even a good Marvel movie is starting to feel a little bit enough-already. But in Captain America 2 at least our own skepticism and ambivalence regarding where it’s all going is mirrored by a protagonist who favors swing-era standards, even if his buddy Falcon has the excellent taste to recommend he give Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” a listen too.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (PG-13): ★★★☆☆