Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures present a film directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo. Screenplay by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeeley. Based upon the Marvel comic book by Joe Simon, Jack Kirby. Produced by Kevin Feige. Music by Henry Jackman. Photographed by Trent Opaloch. Edited by Jeffrey Ford. Production designed by Peter Wenham. Starring Chris Evans (Captain America), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Sebastian Stan (Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill), Frank Grillo (Brock Rumlow), Emily VanCamp (Agent 13), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury).
It’s hard to think of a movie sequel – let alone a superhero sequel—that is so markedly different from its predecessor than Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The original 2011 Captain America: The First Avenger was an old-fashioned throwback to 1940’s era adventure films, and stayed true to the origin story of its titular hero, a soldier granted maximized bodily potential through the use of a super-serum. After surviving the icy arctic, emerging into the present day and enjoying a stopover in The Avengers, Cap is back in his own sequel, struggling to acclimate to the world that has changed around him. And if Captain America has one foot in the present and one still in the past, then so does this movie, which evokes the aura of a 1970’s Washington conspiracy thriller. Call it All the President’s Supermen.
Returning as Captain America (aka Steve Rodgers) is Chris Evans, square-jawed, stalwart and true, once again able to convey relentless idealism and integrity without coming across as a dweeb. His back-up team consists of the glowering Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the spy organization SHIELD, and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who still has no superpowers–as far as I can tell–except for her lethal arms, lithesome figure and smoker’s rasp. New to the fray this time out is Falcon (Anthony Mackie), a veteran paratrooper who makes use of a winged exoskeleton and computer graphics to fly the skies. The rest of the Avengers are no-shows, but passing references to Iron Man and so on provide nice little indicators of a larger world—each new Marvel movie is like a party at a different person’s house, where someone familiar may stop by for a drink, or at the very least will call to say they can’t make it.
Picking up a thread from The Avengers, the plot this time around involves Captain America’s optimism directly butting heads with SHIELD’s penchant for draconian solutions and shiftiness. There’s a line between efficient compartmentalization of secrets and trusting your compatriots, and Cap and Fury stand on opposite sides of it. SHIELD’s latest project is a state-of-the-art information-gathering network that, once deployed, will invade the privacy of millions of people—and keep the world “safe,” of course. The primary SHIELD proponent of this plan is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who is stern and shadowy. The casting of Redford, in addition to recalling the lean socially-minded thrillers of his own past, makes a subtle point about how eventually all rebels, if they live long enough, become the establishment.
A crisis happens. Soon an assassin targets Nick Fury, and Cap is plunged into a world of paranoia and fear. Who is working for whom, and why? He himself comes under suspicion for refusing to release trusted information (he has reasons). He becomes a fugitive from SHIELD, which puts him straight into the path of The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a masked killer with a cyborg arm, about whom I cannot safely say very much else. Does he have obscure roots in Captain America history? Is he a force for Hydra, the presumed-dead Nazi organization that was once the bane of Cap’s existence? Has Hydra possibly infiltrated SHIELD? It’s certainly possible.
What is also possible is to welcome every new Marvel movie with a smile rather than a groan of monotony. The Winter Soldier is the ninth in the line of Marvel studios movies that feature their interconnected properties, and this one expertly balances forward plot motion with better-than-average character development. It makes choices with big repercussions, dotes on serious issues, and makes a statement or two. And it still covers that core with a tasty action movie shell: the apocalyptic finale is done with considerable skill, not because the special effects are good (although they most of the time are) but because the stakes stay concurrently grand and intimate. Cap and his compatriots fight for security and freedom and personal values, and the characters are so strongly drawn that these feel like real issues they grapple with, not abstract concepts designed to fuel mindless action.
What makes the growing Marvel Movie Universe work is that it is a choir made up of distinct voices. There’s no mistaking the glib utilitarianism of Iron Man with the Shakespearean theatrics of Thor, and so on. And although they will occasionally unite for an overwhelming chorus, their solo acts are valuable in and of themselves. Credit to that goes to the complex vision that Marvel Studios has been forwarding since 2008 – one that treasures its characters and strives to give them each their due. For the third time in a row now, they have resisted the undeniable temptation to turn Captain America into some sort of campy goof, and they honor the Marvel tradition of good stories, told with conviction and craftsmanship. There’s a decision, for example, made late during this movie that could only—only–be made by Captain America, and we love him for it.
By now, the actors inhabit these roles like a pair of comfortable shoes. Evans is this sub-franchise’s secret weapon: he can play cocky, but here he purges any insincerity without dialing down. His Captain America is good-hearted, just and lovable; he slips through our ironic defenses in an age when that is seldom allowed. Johansson succeeds at increasing both her confidence and vulnerability each time out; the way she and Cap needle and toy with each other is like a brother/sister pairing, give or take decades of (technical) age difference. Jackson has proved that he has now joined the ranks of actors who can steal scenes just by appearing in them, although he does meet his match with Redford, who is the invaluable elder statesman of that particular group.
Behind the camera, Joe and Anthony Russo have stepped in to replace Joe Johnston as director. The Russo brothers are television veterans with ambition, and they make their first feature film a stylish and confident job well done, staging elaborate sequences in an urban jungle of highways, skyscrapers, elevators and rooftops. While the cinematography occasionally toes the line of messiness that has flavored most post-Bourne action movies, the fight choreography, when we see it, is terrific. While many superheroes have long lists of abilities, Cap’s bread and butter are simply agility, reflexes and strength…well, that and his incredibly versatile shield, of course. This means the fistfights, martial arts sequences and discharges of weapons fire must have weight and might, because those things don’t bounce off of him.
As I was watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it occurred to me that we’ve come a long way since Superman (1978) broke ground on the comic book movie. Once a genre with limited prospects, it has evolved now into a platform from which one can launch multiple genres: coming-of-age story, urban crime, pulp fiction, psychological horror, domestic drama, comedy, and now the conspiracy thriller. And it works. As if proving the point, Marvel’s next movie is designed to be a go-for-broke old fashioned space opera. And then, what next? Maybe they’ll try a musical. B+