"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" doesn't chill Marvel's hot streak
When "The Avengers" arrived two years ago, the big question was how would Marvel be able to keep audiences' interest and cinematic quality high after seemingly setting the bar at an unreachable new point.
Two years and three Marvel movies later, everyone seems to have gotten their answers. Marvel's solution in this second, post-"Avengers" stretch of films wasn't to homogenize their various brands or try to match its tag team monster mash in terms of size and scope, but rather to allow them to take on some personalities – and some risks – of their own.
"Iron Man 3," co-written and directed by Shane Black, became an '80s style action movie with Black's signature wit and surprising irreverence to its source material. "Thor: The Dark World," no longer hiding behind extended Earth sequences, embraced its nerdy fantasy origins and became all the more fun for it.
The studio's latest, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," follows suit, taking the Joe Johnston-fueled retro-accurate hokum of "The First Avenger" and pushing the character in a darker, more character-driven espionage direction. The result – a smart, tense, blunt-force action adventure – winds up one of the studio's best solo superhero efforts thus far.
It'd be easier to be cynical toward Marvel's current calculated money-printing scheme – especially when they come out saying they already have films planned through 2028 – if only the product wasn't so consistently entertaining.
As it turns out, cynicism fittingly plays a key role in "The Winter Soldier," with the earnest thawed-out-of-time American super soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) trying to find his role in a modern world where everything's turned grey. In a world of increased intelligence and technology – and even higher tension and need for security – what's best for the country and the world is no longer a simple question to be answered. Ol' Captain just wants to do right, not only by his mission but by his fellow man, but it's becoming harder to do one without compromising the other.
Even his role with S.H.I.E.L.D. is growing more complicated as they set forth on Project: Insight, a security measure featuring three helicarriers with advanced weapons able to select, lock onto and eliminate potential dangers from afar (you almost get the impression that drones were a hot news topic). Fury and the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. see the project as preventative; Captain America sees it as paranoia.
Rogers' dilemma becomes even more difficult when a hit on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) – led by the mysterious, hyper-capable assassin The Winter Soldier (his identity has been pretty much revealed in the ads, but for my conscience's sake, I'll leave that unspoiled) – possibly from inside S.H.I.E.L.D., leaves Captain America and his fierce, flirty second-in-command Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) fugitives on the run from their own organization.
Robert Redford plays Fury's S.H.I.E.L.D. superior, casted less for actual menace and more for the mental callbacks to "Three Days of the Condor" and "All the President's Men."
Along with new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) – better known as the metal-winged Falcon – the two set out to find out why they're suddenly wanted men, how high the corruption goes and what the final endgame is.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, mostly single-camera TV comedy vets ("Community," "Arrested Development"), previously hit the big screen with the Owen Wilson/Kate Hudson rom-com "You, Me and Dupree." To call their selection unconventional goes beyond selling it short. Yet somehow the inexperienced brother duo – already signed on the next Captain America – happens to be perfect for the gig, ably balancing the comedy, drama and action with impressively assured success.
The script from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely drops Captain America into an espionage-tinged story, one with a new sense of paranoia and don't-trust-anyone dread to it. Though it doesn't dive into any of these elements too deeply, there's just enough to add an unpredictable feeling of grounded intensity and shadowy danger to the story and the action.
It's a story with some new weight to it, and the action follows suit. The directors seem to have taken more than a couple of notes from "The Raid," adapting the cult film's vicious, brutal hand-to-hand combat for a PG-13 blockbuster crowd. The Russos unfortunately don't share Gareth Evans' acrobatic camera skills, having to sometimes rely on jumpy movements and edits. Even so, the set pieces still pack an exhilarating gritty charge, each fight an inventively choreographed collision of bruising punches.
For everything it does right, though, it's hard to say "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" transcends the Marvel superhero formula. Oddly enough, considering the Russo brothers' background, the comedy is the film's weakest link. The punchlines, while still amusing and funny, never quite hit as sharply as you'd hope. Plus, as a film filled with twists and surprises, very little truly surprises.
There's something familiar to "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," but perhaps the true beauty of the Marvel machine is how it continually manages to make even the familiar seem refreshingly fun and new.
Theaters and showtimes for Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I'm dying to see how this movie effects the TV show Agents of SHEILD!!! Major tie-in.
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