‘Winter Soldier’ may be most solid second-round issue of superhero films

April 13, 2014

For an empire of films that essentially copy and paste the same format over and over again, Marvel’s Avengers continually demonstrates surprising elasticity. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” may perhaps be the most solid second-round issue of superhero films (“Iron Man 2,” “Thor 2”) in the Marvel universe so far. It accomplishes this task in three observable ways: kicking it old-school technologically, avoiding the dark and brooding route that can sometimes befall the second franchise films, and resting heavily on the charisma of its star Chris Evans.

“The Winter Soldier” feels like a conspiracy flick straight out of the ‘70s, and not just because it includes Robert Redford, but it still adheres to its comic-book core that keeps its squarely in the Marvel franchise. Evans returns as Steve Rogers, the once-scrawny teen who was genetically altered to become this country’s greatest soldier, and while he is pure bulk and brawn, there’s still the an insecure little dork rattling around under all that muscle mass and chiseled cheekbones. It’s to Evan’s credit that we buy this at all, but he has clearly demonstrated in the past his ability to be as deft comedically as he is dashing romantically.

When he is dispatched by SHIELD to rescue hostages on a ship seized by modern-day pirates (it would be way cool to see captains America and Phillips team up, but that doesn’t happen), Rogers/Captain America encounters fellow Avenger Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson), who is there for a separate mission altogether, unbeknownst to him. This sends him on a journey through the annals of SHIELD that exposes some very questionable tactics lurking in the shadows. It leads him to the desk of one Alexander Pierce (played by Redford), the leader of the World Security Council, who is not only working on new “security” measures within the country, but also labels Rogers a fugitive when an explosion at his apartment leads to the death of a central SHIELD operative who had been hiding out there.

By focusing on internalizing the enemy (even though there is the titular foe he must battle), “Soldier” takes a different route than its sequeled Marvel predecessors.  

It doesn’t offer a bigger, badder foe to battle, but instead looks inward, causing our hero to question the surveillance-heavy America for which he is still fighting. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo rescue the film from the technology-friendly hands of the original “Captain America” director Joe Johnston and give it a decidedly lo-fi vibe. It also helps that the brothers have spent a better part of the decade honing their comedic chops on “Arrested Development,” as the film’s humor and go-for-broke attitude faintly echo that of the beloved show. That’s not to say “Winter Soldier” lacks centerpiece battle sequences (as well as the “official” introduction to Anthony Mackie in flight as Falcon). They are solid, rousing numbers in a film that is equally as thrilling without the bombast. The cast now wears their characters like a second skin, with Evans, Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson all hitting their appropriate beats as Captain America, Black Widow and Nick Fury, respectively.

The film interlocks with the other films, featuring various nods and connections to other arms of the Avengers franchise.  With each successive release of the Avengers films, I become more and more impressed not just with the quality of the films (which really do all raise the bar of what one might expect from a superhero film), but how they are woven into a larger tapestry that welcomes in various subgenres and influences, but still stays within orbit of its own cinematic universe.