Silver Screen: Captain America: The Winter Soldier ***1/2
One of the early secrets to Marvel’s success as a comic-book company during the early 1960s was the creation of a shared universe that felt both cosmically huge but as cozy as a small town. They might traipse across galaxies, but the Fantastic Four still constantly ran into people they knew— Spider-Man, the Silver Surfer, an X-Man or two— like they were going out to lunch in Mayberry. It provided context and cohesion to otherworldly stories and recast superheroes not just as titans and demigods but friends and neighbors.
For better and for worse, the past few years have seen Marvel apply that same strategy to their movie line. A series of more self-contained films revolve around the unifying concept of the Avengers, while villains and side characters are free to roam between properties. The pessimistic view is that this is just a further extension of the industry’s mania for sequels and pre-existing properties, and it also inhibits any of the movies from having an individual aesthetic. All true. But in its better moments it’s a slick recreation of Marvel’s inception, and the strategy allows for the individual chapters to feel like moving parts of a more grand serialized story, adding a new layer to the flood of superhero movies that were already starting to bleed together anyway.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best example so far of this approach working at maximum capacity. It has internal integrity as an individual movie with a clear arc and satisfying resolution, all while smartly incorporating characters from around the franchise and adding to the tapestry of the broader story.
The first Captain America movie focused on the World War II-era exploits of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a pipsqueak transformed into an iconic hero by a potion that granted him superhuman abilities. He battled an evil splinter-faction of the Nazis, sacrificed himself with a swan dive into arctic waters, and was then unfrozen and revived during the modern era to help the Avengers stave off an alien invasion. Now Rogers is a man out of time whose former friends are moldering away in nursing homes while he remains youthful and vital in a world not his own. (In a nice little comic moment, Rogers scribbles an addition to a list of unfamiliar things to try out in modern America that includes Thai food, watching Rocky, and listening to a Marvin Gaye record.)
Captain America has the moral purity of an all-American do-gooder living in a world of absolutes, but America circa 2014 is more ambiguous. He’s troubled by his service to S.H.I.E.L.D., the superspy agency that brought him back to life: Are they really serving the public good, and just what exactly is their greater purpose?
Cap’s questioning becomes more pointed when S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is attacked by an enemy within the organization. The S.H.I.E.L.D. coup occurs just as the agency planned to send out a trio of massive drones that can scan the planet’s surface for enemy combatants and gun them down from the sky. Meanwhile, a villain calling himself the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) begins wreaking havoc, and he may have a unique connection to Rogers.
Nothing about Captain America: The Winter Soldier elevates it beyond the established standard of Marvel’s superhero fare, but new series directors Joe and Anthony Russo execute the material sharply and find a nice balance between heavier action-movie carnage and campy fun. The pacing is crisp, the fight scenes are massive in scope, and the filmmakers even sneak in a tiny bit of character development, too. Fellow Avenger the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) serves as both a teammate and foil to Cap’s all-American idealism, and she and Evans make a nice— and awfully attractive— duo. Anthony Mackie is a great addition as Sam Wilson, a modern war veteran with a compelling backstory who volunteers to be Captain America’s sidekick even if it means strapping into an especially stupid-looking suit. Robert Redford even shows up as an obviously nefarious bureaucrat whose villainy is inevitable, in an almost perfect inversion of his character from Three Days of the Condor.
Whereas both Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man III felt like the heroes were biding their time until the Avengers next assembled, the Captain America sequel achieves its own momentum and creates excitement for the next chapter of the story.
You may as well try to be excited, because these things will be coming out until the day you die— and death, as we’ve learned, just leads to a reboot.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.