Muscular "Captain America" Sequel Brings Action, Intrigue

Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige is on a winning streak. Since “Iron Man” hit in May 2008, the studio has unleashed eight interconnected superhero films to an astounding $2 billion in box office receipts and across-the-board critical adulation. Only the perfunctory “Iron Man 2” was met with anything other than outright glee from fans, a faction that continues to swell with each new release. Comic book fans, film snobs, kids, old folks, and everyone in between is piling onto the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) bandwagon. And all of it is traceable back to Feige. He may not be star-spangled, but he’s a man with a plan.

Feige and his underlings have shown an inimitable eye for talent and quality control, plucking stars, writers, and directors from some unlikely places. See, for example, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” It marks film number nine for Marvel – films ten (“Guardians Of The Galaxy”), eleven (“Avengers: Age Of Ultron”), and twelve (“Ant-Man”) are slated for release through July 2015 – and it’s entirely uncompromising in its vision. Is it the best Marvel film to date? No. But not only does it work just fine as a one-off, it’s another strong piece of evidence that neither the series nor its overseer are in danger of losing ground in their battle for creative and financial supremacy. Improbably, they’re gaining ground.

“The Winter Soldier” encapsulates the idiosyncrasies of the MCU to date – both behind the scenes and in front of the camera – and cheerfully expounds upon them. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo are most famous for their rock-solid TV work (“Arrested Development,” “Community”), but realizing that their last feature film was the feeble Owen Wilson vehicle “You, Me & Dupree” paints their involvement in “The Winter Soldier” as vaguely insane. Who in their right mind would repurpose two modestly successful television directors as helmers of a massive action franchise?

Kevin Feige would. And it turns out that the communal fish out of water-ness between filmmakers and lead character is a major asset to the film. Chris Evans returns as Steve Rogers, the World War II propaganda machine known as Captain America, turned modern day super soldier. As a quintessentially old soul – a hopelessly old fashioned 96 year-old in a 35 year-old’s body – Rogers has an inborn charm and innocence that sets him apart from his peers, which include Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the increasingly cynical director of S.H.I.E.LD., and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the lethal super spy known as Black Widow.

The film opens in Washington D.C. on Cap literally running circles around Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), war vet. The two strangers become fast friends, with Wilson providing suggestions for Rogers’ notebook of missed pop culture happenings. Soon, Captain America is tasked with rescuing a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship that’s been taken hostage by pirates, which leads Rogers and Romanoff to uncover shady activity within the walls of S.H.I.E.L.D. The first act is straight political thriller, with a few brutal fight scenes thrown in for good measure. The film takes its time getting off the ground, but once it acknowledges the period piece trappings of “The First Avenger” via a sweetly nostalgic museum exhibit, the typical Marvel charisma begins to flow freely.

One of the biggest revelations here is Nick Fury, who finally gets his due as a multi-dimensional character. Jackson revels in the transformation from cartoon to human being, playing up Fury’s world-weariness while maintaining the darkly comedic edge that he’s known for. Fury’s role in the narrative comes to a head early on with a particularly suspenseful chase scene, but his presence looms large over the entirety of the film. It’s Fury’s actions that ultimately lead Rogers to uncover the depths of corruption within S.H.I.E.L.D. – and the existence of a superhuman assassin known as the Winter Soldier.

Among a cast of stars and superstars, relative newcomer Sebastian Stan holds his own as the eponymous villain, while legend Robert Redford is on hand as Alexander Pierce, the head of the World Security Council. He unsurprisingly brings a level of prestige rarely afforded to comic books films, his character serving the small but impactful purpose of further tying “The Winter Soldier” to the preceding films in the series. Regrettably, the aforementioned Anthony Mackie is underused as the man who becomes the Falcon, winged superhero in the making, but his easy, roguish charm is a natural fit with Evan’s seemingly antiquated earnestness.

The twists and turns of the narrative are largely predictable – and more than one plot device is lifted wholesale from the “Mission: Impossible” series – but the character shading and vast political subtext provides for a dynamism that few superhero films have attempted. The power structure within the film – between Captain America, his superiors, and the extended Marvel universe – is fascinating, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely only begin to peel back its layers, leaving some intriguing story threads open for future films – “Captain America” or otherwise.

What, then, keeps “The Winter Soldier” from being the best Marvel film to date? Some of the same issues that plagued its predecessors. One of the attributes that set “The First Avenger” apart from its Marvel brethren was its commitment to a sweeping musical theme for its hero. But Silvestri’s delightful “Captain America March” is, puzzlingly, mostly absent here. Also, the appearance of Cap’s former flame – the now elderly Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) – is marred by a hideous mix of prosthetics and CGI. While Carter was the heartbeat of “The First Avenger,” her appearance here only distracts.

Even more problematic is that Marvel’s tendency toward overblown, apocalyptic finales is in full effect, with a final act comprised of mass death and destruction and very few allusions to character development. Thankfully, the Russos take their time with the film’s coda, one that might feel overlong in a perfect movie but feels vital following 30 minutes of breathless, brainless action.

The real triumph of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in its heartfelt celebration of eccentricity, a baton that “The Winter Soldier” runs with excitedly. Its heroes are weird, broken people, its villains facades of prosperity and authority, and the stakes conversely high – the fate of the world – and deeply personal. There’s no better analogy for the creative spirit, and the thematic ideas that permeate the film undoubtedly stem from real, human struggles on the part of its creators. It’s this relatability that gives us pause when someone refers to Steve as Captain America. We’re so invested that we forget the silliness inherent in a man wearing star-spangled garb and beating up bad guys.

With “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Feige and company are approaching rarified air. Marvel has tapped into that rare sweet spot between pop and art, between creativity and commerce, and fans – comic book, film, or otherwise – are all the better for it. This isn’t merely the continuation of a winning streak. This is territory akin to Steve Jobs pioneering the iPod or John Lasseter masterminding Pixar’s heyday. All eyes on Kevin Feige. Like all of the greats, he seems to thrive under pressure.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Also watch: “The Rocketeer” / “Captain America: The First Avenger”

Release Date: April 4, 2014
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Screenwriter: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Georges St-Pierre, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones, Emily VanCamp
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout)