Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Judging by all the pop culture evidence, the superhero's life is not an easy one. Extraordinary powers, mass adulation, and other obvious perks notwithstanding, there are always personal sacrifices to be made -- potentially even the ultimate one, if some bloodthirsty villain finally comes up with the perfect diabolical plan. It is simply a part of the job description that any superhero worth his or her spandex must charge headlong towards death if it means saving others, as the unflappably selfless Captain America demonstrated three years ago in director Joe Johnston's "Captain America: The First Avenger," one of the strongest entries in the ever-expanding Marvel film universe.
But what Captain America (Chris Evans) endures in that first adventure -- nosediving into an iceberg after battling the Third Reich, the rogue-Nazi outfit Hydra, and Hydra's terrifyingly gruesome leader Red Skull -- is less of a challenge than what he must face in his latest outing, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." After seventy years in a deep freeze, the still-youthful Captain America has awoken to a staggeringly changed world, one that can now blow itself up with the utmost speed and efficiency. At the same time, discerning the line between good and evil is no longer as straightforward as a World War II recruitment poster; in fact, the increasingly clear-eyed Captain America learns that, in the twenty-first century, virtue and vice can even come from the same place.
As a result of his new reality, the congenitally idealistic Captain is experiencing the mother of all existential crises, made worse by the knowledge that everyone he ever loved is either dead or dying, or so he thinks. Adding to his gloomy state, Captain America's Greatest Generation accomplishments, and apparently the values that inspired them, are now just fodder for a museum installation, which he visits in vain, in a bid to reconnect to both a time and to an America he understood.
He does have one thing to anchor him, however: His continuing involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D., a clandestine international defense organization led by the mercurial Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), which employs a stable of superheroes -- his fellow Avengers -- to help achieve its ends. But this allegiance is also beginning to fray because of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s data mining proclivities and dangerous plan to launch three hovering battleships into the sky, each of which can rain down death from on high. Uneasy lies the head that wears a cowl with an "A" on it.
The filmmakers, of course, are touching on some obvious hot-button issues, but the movie ultimately offers only glancing takes on the ethics of killer drones and NSA-spying tactics, since superficial parallels are really all the genre can strain to permit. The quota of incomprehensible battle scenes must eventually be met, too. Contributing to the on-screen carnage are Captain America's Avengers team member Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a seductive Russian defector haunted by her past misdeeds, and a new super-nice superhero, Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who seems perfectly content beating people up and destroying massive machines alongside his idol Captain America. Still, in between all of the seat-shaking explosions and excessive CGI, directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely spin a surprisingly tense, well-plotted political thriller, one that seems inspired by 1970s movies like "The Parallax View" and "All the President's Men."
It, therefore, must have been a great day in Marvel's casting office when Robert Redford agreed to play the principal baddie, a high-ranking government official whose roadmap to peace involves murdering many people. His chief weapon for neutralizing anyone who might stand in his way is the eponymous Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a mysterious assassin whose fighting skills, strangely, are on par with Captain America's. The Winter Soldier's identity is supposed to be a big reveal near the story's conclusion, but, oddly, the movie's marketing campaign has undermined a pretty emotionally effective unmasking. Perhaps the studio figured all of the fanboys already know the secret, so what does it matter? Certainly, they should have realized that not everyone is going to show up to a Captain America screening holding a red, white, and blue shield.
Like all of the recent Marvel efforts, the latest "Captain America" must both stand on its own as a coherent cinematic experience and fit into the major cross-movie narrative arc that links together all of its superhero film franchises. It is an ambitious effort that, so far, has been executed with mixed results. In the case of Captain America, sending him so quickly to the present day to join the Avengers team and to deal with problems we all know too well is a bit of a drag, especially since the 1940s world Johnston vividly crafted struck such a solid balance between veneration and escapism. Sure, the sequel is also entertaining; it is just not quite as much fun.