Marvel’s Captain America was one of the best superhero movies of the last decade, featuring an engaging Chris Evans as the 98-pound weakling who is transformed into a WW II fighting machine and, at the end, wakes up from a long nap to discover himself in contemporary America. The second go-round, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is nearly as much fun as the original, with a delightfully tangled plot, plenty of well-staged action scenes and a superb cast given reams of smart dialogue. Here are four reasons to salute Cap again.
1. The complexity.
Comic-book movies sometimes leave the impression that the writers are in a huge hurry to get from one action scene to the next, without worrying too much about what comes in between. The Winter Soldier, though, has enough plot for three movies, with a complicated back story gradually emerging about a nefarious historical plot reminiscent of that of the League of Shadows in the Dark Knight movies.
A legendary figure called “the Winter Soldier” is blamed for a rash of mysterious assassinations occurring over a long period of time, and though Cap derides the tale as a ghost story, he learns that the truth has much to do with his own personal history, dating back decades. Meanwhile, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has a much bigger part to play than in any previous film, as does Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), yet there’s also room to launch a new hero, Falcon (Anthony Mackie, who has an easygoing, likeable-yet-confident vibe that recalls the young Will Smith).
2. The set pieces.
Fury is involved in a huge shootout just outside S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters in a rip-roaring early scene that’s suspensefully staged by directors Joe and Anthony Russo (a sensor gives us a running countdown indicating the degree to which a bullet-proof window’s integrity has been destroyed) and has enough weaponry and gadgets to satisfy James Bond. Cap’s stealthy takedown of the pirates has some terrific top hand-to-hand fighting and shows a dozen different ways you can neutralize a bad guy with just a shield for a weapon.
Later in the movie, the effects sequences get bigger and bolder: in a particularly dazzling sequence, the Potomac River opens up to reveal a secret cache of helicopter-bearing gunships rising straight up to unleash hell.
3. The timeliness.
Though you can’t really expect a superhero film to provide genuine insight into one of the more hotly-debated topics of the day, The Winter Soldier centers around a discussion of how much data-mining, surveillance and drone usage we really want our country to resort to in the name of fighting terror.
Because defenders and opponents of NSA tactics can be found on both left and right, the film’s politics don’t exactly steer one way or the other either. You could read Captain America as a Rand Paul-style defender of civil liberties, but he could also be termed a vaguely leftish figure who is wary of a growing military-industrial complex. Still, for filmgoers used to Hollywood directors sneaking in snarky attacks on conservatives, that has to count as a win: The Winter Soldier (whose very title derives from an exaggerated 1970s tale about alleged Vietnam atrocities promulgated by John Kerry, among others) isn’t a shrill voice for left-wing spin. Robert Redford, who has an earthy presence as a cabinet secretary who faces off against Nick Fury, may have a long history of liberal activism, but at least his character isn’t an obvious parody of, say, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld.
4. The wit.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, whose credits include all three Narnia films, Pain & Gain and last fall’s unfortunate Thor: The Dark World, are at their best here, providing charming, flirty exchanges between Cap and Black Widow (“Wait– was that your first kiss since 1945?”) and keeping things light without undercutting the genre the way jokey superhero movies like Batman & Robin did.
When Redford’s character does a favor for Nick Fury, he has one request in return: “Iron Man has to stop by my niece’s birthday party. And not just a fly-by! He has to mingle.” Later in the movie, a priceless scene featuring rusty 1970s technology and images of the actor Toby Jones (who appeared as a member of the notorious Nazi spinoff group Hydra in the first film) proves a visually rich and verbally amusing way to deliver essential exposition, and the screenwriters even figure out a way to get in a few digs at Garry Shandling’s slimy senator character from Iron Man 2.