Captain America: The Winter Soldier is first and foremost a rousing sequel, the kind that makes you giddy that the Marvel movie pipeline is working at full capacity.
It’s also a film we’re unlikely to see screened at the Obama White House thanks to its anti-NSA message.
The new film offers some political undercurrents not seen in most superhero epics, from fears of government spying to the need for unvarnished transparency. It’s all fused to a Marvel-approved template starring actors who know precisely how to bring two-dimensional characters to the big screen.
Captain America (Chris Evans) is still adjusting to life in the 21st century after being frozen alive for decades. He keeps busy by working alongside the Black Widow (Scarlett Johnasson) and the head of SHIELD, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
Cap’s latest mission reveals just how complicated modern warfare can be, and he isn’t too happy about it. Before he can start any serious brooding he watches as a key SHIELD figure is killed. He’s then called in to meet with a veteran government official (Robert Redford) about the assassination. Soon, our colorfully clad hero is on the run from agents who should be his friends, and he has to figure out why the late SHIELD agent shared vital information with him before being gunned down.
SHIELD has been compromised, setting the stage for an old-school conspiracy thriller leavened by superhero exploits.
We also meet The Winter Soldier, a villain with a robotic arm and a connection to Cap’s past, plus longtime comic book sidekick The Falcon (Anthony Mackie, a welcome addition to the franchise).
The story, without spoiling too much, delves directly into Edward Snowden-style transparency in a way that would please Julian Assange. The themes is treated with comic book depth, something a genre movie can get away with sans guilt.
Evans’ hero is a Boy Scout, but he’s never boring or rote. The franchise wisely doesn’t give this iconic character an edge to match other, gritty superhero peers. Instead, he’s offered challenges that allow him to show new shades of his integrity and decency.
“The price of freedom is high, but it’s the price I’m willing to pay,” he says mid-film in one character-appropriate speech. The Falcon asks with a smile if he prepared those comments ahead of time. Of course he didn’t. He’s Captain America. It’s in his DNA, both in comics and on the big screen, and the franchise wisely doesn’t shy away from those instincts.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, whose biggest credit to date is the lighter than air comedy You, Me and Dupree, are Marvel’s new secrete weapon. The duo create clear-eyed, bone-crunching action that miraculously feels fresh even though we’ve seen every element presented here before. Car chases. Fist fights. Superhero smackdowns.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds our hero wringing his hands over the need to take out terrorists in ways that don’t fit snugly into standards of warfare. Yet he also proudly explores the need for sacrifice and a willingness to fight with every ounce of his super soldier serum-powered body to protect his country.
It’s an ideological balancing act that will serve Marvel well as the film rolls out. The result? A super-franchise that eclipses both Iron Man and Thor for storytelling depth and supremacy.