“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” continues Marvel Comics’ dominance over the recent spate of superhero movies that includes three Iron Men, a Spider-Man reboot, Thor and his sequel, the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, the Avengers collective, and what I figure must be more than a hundred X-Men movies. Most of these I have enjoyed, but I think I’m having a real blast with Captain America. Here’s a guy whose urgent need to defend his country took him from 90-pound weakling to Nazi ass-kicker in the time it took to inject him with a dangerous government serum, and who has, according to Wikipedia, taken down a series of bad guys with sinister-sounding names like Baron Blood and Superia. He’s patriotic, his shield could cut you in half if it wanted to, and he looks all kinds of fabulous in that red, white and blue suit.
If I consider “Captain America: The First Avenger,” with it’s beautiful sepia palette and period aesthetic, to be the best superhero movie I’ve seen, then “Winter Soldier” is a close second. The first movie saw the Captain — alias of the virilely-named Steve Rogers — do battle with the nefarious Red Skull before crash-landing his ship in the arctic. Some sixty years and a long thaw later, “Winter Soldier” arrives to find Rogers adapting poorly to the modern age of technology, hubris, and general human greed.
Rogers’ longing for a simpler past is interrupted by the attempted assassination of his friend and mentor, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of the super-secret spy agency, S.H.I.E.L.D., at the hands of the mysterious Winter Soldier. Senior S.H.I.E.LD. official Alexander Pierce (played gamely by a post-“All Is Lost” Robert Redford) demands that Rogers provide him with critical secrets that Fury might have passed along before being gunned down. When Rogers refuses, Pierce has him branded a fugitive. Rogers goes on the run with the perfectly efficient assassin, Black Widow (aka Natasha Romanoff), played by Scarlett Johansson in a black leather suit I guessed conservatively was maybe an eighth of an inch away from causing a yeast infection, and new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), soon to become The Falcon. Pursued by the S.H.I.E.L.D. elite tactical squadron codenamed S.T.R.I.K.E. — this is an acronym-happy group of spies — and the ubiquitous and deadly Winter Soldier, Rogers and the Widow battle time and the elements to stop a plot to destroy the world from being carried out by a stealthy criminal organization.
Sure, the plot to the latest Captain America may not sound very original, but believe me when I say that particular point doesn’t much matter. This is, after all, an action flick. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo pace the movie with almost no breathing space in between scenes, so that it maintains a sense of constant urgency. The action sequences, such as a fight in a glass elevator or a skirmish aboard a military freighter (both involving a spectacular mix of hand-to-hand combat and gymnastics), are choreographed with such desire to not insult the audience that we forgive and forget the absurdity of it all. The machinations of the stealth organization are campy and fun, in a way that pays homage to the movie’s comic book origins, until we — and Rogers — discover the identity of the Winter Soldier. How Rogers deals with this information lets us a little deeper under his skin, and gives Chris Evans the chance to expand his range with the character. The eventualities of both Captain America and the Winter Soldier are surprisingly touching in ways somewhat alien to the superhero franchise.
I love superhero movies. And it seems they’ve been getting better and better over the years. I look forward to more Captain America, too, in the eventual third chapter of the saga and the second Avengers tie-in movie. If once or twice a summer I can be entertained like this — even if it means having to sit through an occasional atrocity like “Iron Man 3” — then Marvel and DC can gladly keep taking my money.