A wincingly high body count and bludgeoningly bombastic climax aside, there’s a lot of good stuff going on in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Count it among Marvel’s better efforts.
Cap (Chris Evans) has settled in as a present-day S.H.I.E.L.D. operative in this sequel, though he’s far from comfortable. Part of it is the time change; he keeps a list of cultural items he needs to catch up on, to which a new acquaintance (Anthony Mackie) adds Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man. His discomfort, however, is also due to the fact that fighting for good seems more complicated now than it did during World War II. Surrounded by advanced surveillance technology, it’s as if suspicion and fear has moved from the battlefield and settled right into the battalion.
And so The Winter Soldier has a nice push and pull going on, between nostalgia for a time gone by – I love that Cap finds his way into his original costume – and a piercing, contemporary relevance. Rather than a single enemy, the bad guys are an amalgamation of the NSA, Facebook and high-powered drones. (Robert Redford plays a militaristic variation on Mark Zuckerberg.) “I’m getting a little tired of being Fury’s janitor,” Cap says of his secretive boss (Samuel L. Jackson). And that’s before he learns that Fury’s been keeping him under surveillance too.
What dates Captain America is also what defines him.
Evans is another casting coup for Marvel, a bulls-eye along the lines of Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man and Chris Hemsworth in Thor. Evans has the handsome Boy Scout qualities the character requires, but also a quick wit so that his nobility never becomes dull. And it’s the nobility that matters here. As the double-crossing plot of The Winter Soldier unfolds, Cap finds himself to be the last man standing because he’s the last stand-up man. “You’re a terrible liar,” the less trustworthy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) tells him. What dates Captain America is also what defines him.
While director Joe Johnston brought a lo-fi appeal to the original Captain America, the new team of Anthony Russo and Joe Russo amp up the action. Aside from that chaotic climax, they mostly emphasize intimate combat – there’s a great fight in an elevator – and almost always find an inventive way to employ Cap’s iconic shield. A highlight is the moment he uses it to single-handedly take down a menacing drone.
By its end, Captain America: The Winter Soldier leaves us in a state of exhaustion (that climax) and disillusionment. It’s the latter that makes the movie distinctive. Winter Soldier is less of a comic-book flick than a document of disenchantment, both personal and national. Redford isn’t the only reason you could call this a better costumed Three Days of the Condor.