So just how does one go about following up Captain America: The First Avenger, perhaps the best of the mostly marvelous lot of Marvel superhero flicks? Make the sequel a Cold-War thriller, of course, an idea that reaps surprisingly entertaining dividends, even if Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t quite the equal of its predecessor.
Having battled the Red Skull during WWII, then literally sitting on ice for 70 years and subsequently helping his fellow Avengers fend off an alien invasion in New York, man-out-of-time Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans) now finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy concerning S.H.I.E.L.D., the massive American espionage organization for which he works.
Joss Whedon planted the seeds of Rogers’ distrust of the agency in the character’s arc in The Avengers, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely smartly expand on it here, concocting a timely yet labyrinthine plot that not only resonates all the more in this era of increased government snooping and global terrorist attacks, but ties nicely into Cap’s initial solo adventure.
They also do a great job throwing us off the scent as to whom in the agency might be involved in the conspiracy, casting suspicion upon one-eyed director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and butt-kicking agent Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), among others, before revealing the real fox(es) in the high-tech henhouse.
It helps, too, that amidst all the slick chaos, directors Anthony and Joe Russo remember to remind us that Rogers is only human, albeit one with super strength who has no problem jumping out of airplanes sans parachute. They do this best in the film’s nicely done opening scenes, as Rogers makes a new friend (and ally) in aerial combat solider Sam Wilson, aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie).
And Evans is still perfect casting as Rogers—physically, for sure, with his square-jawed looks and body language and his mad fighting skills during brawls on ships and helicarriers and in elevators. But he also gets plenty of opportunities here to convey Rogers’ humanity—his longing for his own time, his sadness at seeing his old love (Hayley Atwell under old-age makeup) stricken with Alzheimer’s, his shock at seeing a friend turned foe—and more than capitalizes on them.
Johansson’s badass operative also gets fleshed out a little more, so we get to see her do more than just take out bad guys (which she still does exceedingly well)—like give dating advice to Evans, a recurring bit illustrative of the film’s well-placed humor. Jackson still glowers like no one else, and even gets to humanize Fury somewhat as Fury relates a story about his grandfather to Evans.
As for the action, absolutely no worries there. The brothers Russo craft numerous coherent, sharply edited sequences full of kinetic camerawork, amazing—and creative—stunts, blazing gunfire and the destruction of cars and buildings alike. It’s difficult, actually, to name a favorite, though Jackson’s demolition derby of an escape amidst city traffic and the Winter Soldier’s relentless assault on Evans and company on, and eventually off, a freeway overpass certainly stand as highlights.
What renders Winter Soldier less than First Avenger-perfect is the slightly frenetic nature of its helicarrier-hopping finale, and Robert Redford, here because of his Cold-War-spy work in 3 Days of the Condor, gives too understated a performance as a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. leader. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss Tommy Lee Jones’ cranky Colonel. Nonetheless, it is kind of neat to see ol’ Sundance himself share scenes with a comic book hero. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 9/9/14