REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Enjoyable if uninspired, Captain America’s second solo adventure proves a solid entry in the Marvel filmic universe despite an overlong running time and too few new ideas.
SYNOPSIS: When S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury is attacked by a strike team, Captain America finds himself enmeshed in a conspiracy that could test his very loyalties.
PROS: The cast, especially Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson; quieter, character-driven elements in the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, efficient action sequences filmed by directors Anthony and Joe Russo; a couple of strong reveals.
CONS: Routine thriller script, including a bland conspiracy plot.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has entered the modern world, and, at the beginning of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, appears to have adapted quite well to a world that has seen the advent of the moon landings, disco, and, as he meets veteran and post-traumatic stress disorder counselor Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) during his morning run around Washington, D.C., Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man (Wilson recommends the album to him). It has been two years since the events of Marvel’s The Avengers, yet Cap remains determinedly idealistic, his sense of patriotism, duty, and honor unwavering even after working with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D. The decent, honest hero views much of this morally ambiguous period with no small piety—remember, Rogers, despite his youth and vigor, belongs to the greatest of generations—especially as he and Fury discuss Project Insight, which links three airborne aircraft carriers to spy satellites in an attempt to bring the Bush Doctrine to the Marvel universe. Whether they wear a swastika or Old Glory, Rogers still doesn’t like bullies.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s setup suggests an intriguing internal conflict for the first of the title characters. As he, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and a group of commandos led by Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo) save a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel from Algerian pirates, he spies Romanoff retrieving data from the ship’s hard drive, causing Rogers to question his loyalties to Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. It also adds some mystery, at least initially, to Fury’s motives, especially as they relate to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long, shifting to far more standard thriller fare. Shortly after Fury attempts to access information retrieved by Romanoff, he becomes involved in a high-speed chase, winding up ultimately at Roger’s apartment. There Fury warns Rogers that a mole has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and to trust no one (in a scene where Fury circumvents wiretaps by texting on his smartphone, in a sort of homage to Three Days of the Condor) before gunfire erupts in his apartment. Rogers chases the assassin, whom he learns from Romanoff is the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a Cold War cyborg assassin with a mechanical arm who never misses a target. After Fury seems to die in hospital, Pierce asks Rogers what information Fury might have had. When Rogers refuses to divulge, he goes on the run with Romanoff to learn what secrets Fury might have been hiding.
When Captain America: The First Avenger introduced the grand old soldier to a contemporary audience, part of its charm rested in the fact that it was a very old-fashioned movie, right down to its period—after all, the Nazis, with their fetishistic imagery and iconography, make for built-in villains, even with the rather silly inclusion of H.Y.D.R.A., the National Socialist’s super-science arm. Though it included superheroes and its own share of American super-science, it remained primarily a war movie at its core. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, by contrast, follows the narrative of the conspiracy thriller, at times too closely. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely offers a few surprises—the return of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), his consciousness downloaded into a 1970s mainframe computer, and one major spoiler that will not be revealed here—though its car chases and shootouts (of which there are many), despite being filmed with brisk efficiency by directors Anthony and Joe Russo, bog down the movie’s more interesting, quieter aspects, as when Rogers visits former flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), now in her 90s, her brain addled by Alzheimer’s, and when he visits his own exhibit at the Smithsonian. The conspiracy Captain America, Romanoff, and Wilson (who, when he dons a winged exoskeleton, becomes the Falcon) let down. Perhaps such global threats have become banal.
As with the best Marvel Comics movies, casting makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier work. The regulars—Johansson, Jackson, Cobie Smulders as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill—all perform well, especially Johansson, whose role never stops developing with each movie. Good too are newcomers Mackie (who brings a good deal of wit to a classic sidekick) and Emily VanCamp and Sharon Carter, better known to most comic fans as Agent 13, though she gets too little screen time. However, the movie belongs to Chris Evans, who returns for his third appearance as Cap, slipping into the role as effortlessly as he did the first time, though with even more earnestness than he brought initially. Evans finds the right balance of stranger in a strange land and present-day hero, with just enough uncertainty and angst to give him extra dimension, adding weight to what otherwise could have been a forgettable entry. Captain America: The Winter Soldier breaks no new ground, but it renders its service admirably.