Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Film Review

A less super Marvel player steps up.

Chris Evans returns as the titular superhero in Marvel's sequel.

Captain America may not flex as much box-office muscle as his Marvel stablemates Iron Man and Thor, but there's a steadfast band of fans who pledge allegiance to Captain America: The First Avenger as possibly the best of all the Marvel superhero films — other than The Avengers. These true-blue enthusiasts will not be disappointed in this second entry in the series, which takes the bold (for Marvel) step of reducing CGI spectacle to a relative minimum in favor of reviving the pleasures of hard-driving old-school action, surprising character development and intriguing suspense.

If The First Avenger was a solid World War II action film with a Hydrated twist, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has one foot in superhero territory but the other in Washington, D.C., Cold War spyland. The first series entry grossed $371 million worldwide and this one could well do more.

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Notable for having induced Robert Redford to take a (significant) role in the sort of blockbuster franchise that he has studiously avoided throughout his illustrious career, the film actually uses an important aspect of the veteran star's iconography as stylistic inspiration, that being the ethos surrounding Sydney Pollack's 1975 Redford-starring espionage thriller Three Days of the Condor. And like its hero, at least one of the story's villains also has his roots in a real historical conflict, one of the factors that provides the cartoon-based characters with a bit more resonance and real-world weight than is the norm.

When last seen in his own film, in 2011, Captain America, aka U.S. Army officer Steve Rogers, had just dispatched the malignant Nazi offshoot Hydra, only to then be frozen in ice. With his splendid physique looking none the worse some 70 years later, Rogers (Chris Evans) has some amusing cultural adjustments to make, but his natural instinct to remain an analog rather than digital kind of guy corresponds nicely with the appealing throwback nature of this outing.

This is not to say that the film is devoid of major hardware. The big event on the boards for SHIELD is the imminent launch of three giant “helicarrier” gun ships that can stay aloft indefinitely and are so loaded with weapons that they promise to render all previous modes of warfare obsolete. Eying the progress from their new D.C. highrise offices are organization director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Redford's Alexander Pierce, a SHIELD luminary who also heads the World Security Council.

From the start, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote the first Captain America adventure as well as Pain & Gain and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, resourcefully shuffle the dramatic deck, connecting important dots from before (the presumed demise of Hydra, Rogers visiting his 1940s flame played by Hayley Atwell, now a bedridden invalid), developing the enjoyable relationship between Rogers and Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, introducing doubts about the true allegiances of certain SHIELD officers and gradually building up to the full emergence of Captain America's new nemesis, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), whom Marvel fans know is the reincarnation of Rogers' closest wartime buddy, Bucky Barnes.

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Featuring these and other opponents of sometimes-obscure identity is more than enough to keep Captain America: The Winter Soldier brimming with vehicular chases, surprise attacks, shootouts, fist fights, Energy Baton takedowns, miraculous rescues and surprising demises. The action is voluminous, and when it involves machines, it's fine. However, when humans go at it one on one, directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Welcome to Collinwood on the big screen, Arrested Development on TV) go nuts, forsaking credible and exciting action within the frame for overcutting of such intensity that you can't tell what's going on. It's as if the filmmakers were obsessed with making Paul Greengrass look slow-footed. The intent may have been to create an impressionistic account of action rather than a lucid one, but it winds up looking not only confusing but like a cheat, as you can't believe anything real is happening; all you see is cuts, not physical contact.

Fortunately, the story develops some genuine intrigue; as in the best such yarns, it's hard to know who's really pulling the strings and who, other than the characters who wear costumes, is sincere and who might be up to no good. For sheer plotting and audience involvement, this is a notch above any of the other Avengers-feeding Marvel entries, the one that feels most like a real movie rather than a production line of ooh-and-ahh moments for fanboys.

After looking rather like the odd man out in The Avengers with his campy old costume and less-than-super powers compared to his cohorts, Steve Rogers gets a new outfit and asserts himself as a likeable figure more than capable of carrying a huge enterprise like this on his muscular frame. A little self-deprecation can take you a long way with a character like this, and Evans delivers it, along with the wholesome and genuine sense of virtue that's at the core of this ever-youthful wartime hero.

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Evans and Johansson exhibit very good onscreen chemistry, and their banter is charged with a fun flirtatiousness. Anthony Mackie flies aboard in the new, sometimes-goofy role of a former paratrooper who, upon donning a giant pair of wings, becomes The Falcon, able to swoop around dramatically when not struggling with the mechanics of his rig. Stan's Winter Soldier, outfitted with a devastating metal left arm, proves a well-matched, and equally good-looking, antagonist for his old friend.

But from a dramatic point of view, the greatest interest lies with Jackson and Redford, two great veterans whose presence lends weight to the fantastical proceedings and whose characters take some interesting twists and turns before it's all over. Their roles are hardly demanding or multidimensional, but both actors seems invested in what they're doing and are fun to watch in this context.

When it comes, the spectacle is, in a word, large. For fans who might forget to stay to the very end of a Marvel film, there are not one but two teasers embedded in the end credits, one at the beginning and another at the conclusion.

Production: Marvel Studios
Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones, Georges St-Pierre
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Louis D'Esposito, Alan Fine, Victoria Alonso, Michael Grillo, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Trent Opaloch
Production designer: Peter Wenham
Costume designer: Judianna Makovsky
Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt
Music: Henry Jackman
Special effects supervisor: Dan Sudick
Rated PG-13, 136 minutes