Rogers (Chris Evans) is better known as Captain America and, as you’ll remember from his previous films and from the exposition delivered with no finesse in this movie, was a soldier given super strength and speed during World War II. He used those powers to defeat HYDRA, an extra evil splinter group within the Nazis, and lost only one of his buddies during that fight (hmm, will that information be important later?). He was frozen for decades and brought back to life right before The Avengers.
Now, working for S.H.I.E.L.D. with Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Rogers isn’t sure how he feels about the missions he’s sent on, especially when he learns from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) about a new weapons system that could potentially take out terrorist types even before they commit their acts of terror. That kind of proactive approach to world-saving is what we need now, Fury argues, but Cap thinks that doesn’t sound like the kind of freedom he was fighting for back when he was bending rules to battle Nazis.
As they would say on Cinema Sins: we interrupt this Marvel action movie to bring you a New York Times op-ed about drones and the NSA.
But Fury also has his doubts about this massive new Skynet-ish system, especially when a few security glitches make him think someone somewhere might be up to no good. Though Secretary Andrew Pierce (Robert Redford) tries to stall the system’s implementation, the council of international holograms that is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s policy-making governing body is pushing to get the system’s big death ships into the sky, policing the world. Soon, Rogers and Natasha find themselves working alone to figure out who their real enemy is and whether or not anybody in S.H.I.E.L.D. can be trusted. Also, they learn that whoever they’re fighting, those bad guys have a mysterious enforcer assassin nicknamed the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).
I don’t know if any of this counts as a SPOILER but: Going to Marvel movies lately has felt like getting on some rickety biplane. “Hey, it held together. We didn’t crash to our deaths. Not bad!” has been my feeling coming out of the movies. Sure, I’m white-knuckling through a thick gray “conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D.” cloud, but then, just at the last moment, just when the clock is counting down to the final seconds, just when I’m like “to hell with all this Tesseract nonsense” or whatever that particular movie’s MacGuffin is, we get something simple and gratifying, like a costumed hero saving the day. Woo-wee! We’ve sailed through the danger and landed safely on the ground, my faith in the basic ability of Marvel to entertain intact.
And, sure, it’s great for Marvel that they leave me feeling like they’ve successfully hurdled this very low bar but each outing has — with the possible exception of The Avengers, a movie that super-grouped the best of Marvel into one story — left me feeling a little less of the joy and excitement that I felt, say, for the first Iron Man back in 2008. Part of this is because I feel obligated to remember so much previous story going in to each of these movies — not just the Thor or Captain America movie that preceded whatever I’m seeing now but all the pieces from all of this universe’s movies that go in to making these stories make sense. That much pre-movie fact-checking just feels like homework. And because these movies are so much about the Marvel universe, the story of the individual guy and his cool powers and his hopes and dreams gets lost in giving service to the wider world.
Here, that translates to a movie where the arc of the main character — who, you’ll remember, is Captain America and not the much more bad-ass Black Widow or the runner-up amount of bad-ass plus personableness that is Steve’s new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) — is not nearly as interesting as the arc in the overall Marvel universe. At the end of the movie, a lot has happened with S.H.I.E.L.D. — things that have repercussions for Tony Stark and Agent Coulson et al. What the movie didn’t do was make me care all that much more about Captain America.
That said, the movie succeeded in:
• Making me care, in whatever small amount, about S.H.I.E.L.D.
• Making me actually want to watch Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which I mostly checked out of after the first handful of episodes.
• Making me like Chris Evans as Captain America. He is far more the Superman for our modern times than Henry Cavill was playing actual Superman in last year’s Man of Steel. This movie doesn’t let Cap have as much fun — or really do as much anything — as the first Captain America movie did, but he is a pleasant character.
• Making me appreciate Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow. Her character always seemed like an afterthought in previous movies but here she gets to do more than just throw some punches while wearing tight clothes. I never would have thought “Black Widow character development” was something I wanted but, like I said before, somehow the plane pulled up at the last minute and the landing was remarkably smooth.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier offers just enough Marvel fun to remind you why you cared about the franchise in the first place. B-
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo with a screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is two hours and 16 minutes long and is distributed by Walt Disney Studios.
Post-credits text: There are two post-credits scenes — both of the “next time, in Marvel films” variety — one appearing after the main, very coolly animated credit sequence and one at the very end. Neither is as charming as that shawarma scene but I guess hard-core fans will get a kick out of the peeks at future storylines.
As seen in the April 10, 2014 issue of the Hippo.