It was probably inevitable that the new Captain America film, having moved from World War II to the present day, would be more cynical and less rah-rah than its predecessor. Captain America: The First Avenger had its flaws, but it also had an exuberant squareness that distinguished it from the other Marvel superhero films, which tend to be hipper, more jaded. Now that the biologically enhanced super-soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has been brought forward in time and added to the Avengers mix, his second standalone adventure, The Winter Soldier, starts to match the slick, glib tone of your Iron Mans and your Thors and whatnot.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that tone, of course. It was just nice to have a character whose stories might be a little different, you know? Oh well. It’s Marvel’s universe, we’re all just mutating in it.
Cap himself is still plenty idealistic in The Winter Soldier, a sturdily entertaining action vehicle directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo. In fact, it’s his old-school — some would say out-dated — sense of justice and patriotism that puts him at odds with S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (the always-game Samuel L. Jackson), whose experience with the complex realities of modern-day global politics makes him less inclined to see things in black-and-white (and more inclined to keep certain missions secret from Rogers).
Rogers is also unsettled by the alarming new war machines made possible by modern technology. The latest, called Project Insight, would allow us to eradicate threats before they happen, which sounds lovely until you think about it. “This isn’t freedom, this is fear!” Rogers tells Fury. “You’re holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it ‘protection.'” When Fury himself is targeted by a masked, super-powered assassin called the Winter Soldier, and with evidence mounting that S.H.I.E.L.D. may have been compromised, Captain America doesn’t know whom he can trust other than his magical shield and his own pectorals.
Despite the 70-year gap between the films’ settings, thanks to flashbacks, recordings, and (ahem) other devices, The Winter Soldier is able to include several familiar faces from The First Avenger. The fetching Natasha, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), featured in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, is also here, working with Rogers on day-to-day S.H.I.E.L.D. missions, giving him dating advice, and kicking several varieties of keister herself. New players include Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a military veteran who may come in handy later (it feels like he was inserted purely out of fidelity to the comic books), and Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a statesmanlike S.H.I.E.L.D. leader who sits on the World Security Council. Pierce’s crinkly Redford eyes make you want to trust him, but his governmental air makes you think twice.
This chapter may not be as spirited as the last one, but the Russo brothers — veterans of TV shows like “Arrested Development” and “Community” — demonstrate an unexpected facility with action scenes. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay has enough going on storywise to allow for action sequences to pop up regularly without feeling forced, and the Russos shoot them so they’re frenetic and fun without being chaotic. That includes the big set pieces as well as the smaller ones, like a gnarly brawl in an elevator that delivers what action fans crave.
The tone may have shifted from 1940s-style can-do optimism to modern-day high-tech paranoia and general mistrust. But if America and the world have changed, there’s still Captain America himself, personified by Chris Evans’ Boy Scout-y righteousness, keeping the old positive spirit alive. With two very solid entries now, the Captain America branch of the Marvel juggernaut might accidentally make patriotism cool again.
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