Captain America: The Winter Soldier packs a decent punch

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2 ½ out of 4 stars

Captain America: The First Avenger set a high bar for any later attempts at making the clean-cut, shield-toting bruiser seem interesting enough for a 2-plus hour film. The intriguing period aspects and smart zero-to-hero story contributed greatly to the film’s success in 2011.

Studio publicity poster
Studio publicity poster

Its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, unfortunately must follow at the heels of the Cap’s latest escapades in the ensemble-driven The Avengers and thus has been left little characterization to build upon.  Fortunately, some thrilling effects and quippy one-liners make the scant character development and disjointed narrative fade into the background long enough for you to have a fun time at the movies.

When last we met our intrepid hero, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), was too busy saving New York City from interdimensional beings to deal with the personal hangups of being a 95 year-old man trapped in a much younger body, as well as in an intimidating 21st century.  In Winter Soldier, Steve finds himself losing trust in his allies at the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) after Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), compromises a rescue mission to retrieve data under dubious pretenses.

His doubts escalate after a brutal attack by the mysterious, ageless assassin The Winter Soldier on Steve’s commander Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). It brings to light significant flaws within S.H.I.E.L.D. and the World Security Council, headed by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo are maybe the last people one would expect to be asked to direct a Marvel film (more than due respect to the talented duo). Their skills with comedy speak for themselves, as evidenced by their work on Arrested Development and Community.  Unfortunately, this is no comedy and the two directors clearly are learning action film as they go.

The shaky cam and close-up fights make any sequences nearly impossible to follow.  And the directors’ attempts at down-to-earth drama just feel awkward, sluggish, and posed. The strongest moments of the film are (surprise-surprise) the comic ones, especially thanks to the keen-minded ensemble.

Anthony Mackie is a very smart casting choice for the Captain’s partner Falcon, aka Sam Wilson, as the immensely strong actor always has the perfect blend of gravitas and wit to make an interesting character. And Jackson makes much stronger strides and choices than he has before as Fury. Redford seems to be the fish-out-of-water, the veteran actor clearly grasping for any kind of tone or motivation to grab hold of.

Chris Evans reprises the role of Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. (Photo is screen shot from YouTube movie trailer)
Chris Evans reprises the role of Steve Rogers, aka Captain America.
(Photo is screen shot from YouTube movie trailer)

Chris Evans was born to play this role, as we learned from his endearing, heartfelt introduction in The First Avenger. He is more than capable here, particularly when he acts across from the spunky, centered Johannson.

But the writers have let Evans down, as he mines for emotional depth in moments that seem forcefully written in. The focus of the story never quite materializes, particularly because too many characters and too much Marvel lore have been shoehorned in for the story to even have a shot at being cohesive. All of this at the expense of not one, but two title characters. There is simply not enough Winter Soldier in The Winter Soldier to justify his inclusion in the first place, and the Cap frequently takes a backseat to Nick Fury’s storyline.

The twists (and there are a few big ones) work for the most part, though the earliest and biggest are telegraphed quite vividly. And screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Chronicles of Narnia films and Pain and Gain) clearly have not gone to Comic Book Writing 101, as there are plenty of inexplicably monologuing villians throughout as well as cloyingly blatant pushes of the theme of “TRUST”.

Marvel’s visual effects studio has had plenty of opportunities to flex its muscles in previous films, but all paled in comparison to the Helicarrier from The Avengers. Fortunately the studio has clearly capitalized on this success and made enough flying machines here to fill the fantastic cities of Isaac Asimov. The detailed textures and gorgeous lighting perfectly match the now-unified Marvel world look.

Scarlett Johansson once again plays Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow. (Photo is screen shot from YouTube trailer of movie)
Scarlett Johansson once again plays Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow.
(Photo is screen shot from YouTube trailer of movie)

It’s hard to believe it took Marvel Comics so much longer than DC Comics to make a splash on the big screen.  Discounting the 1940’s pulpy serial Captain America, the film-that-shall-never-see-the-light-of-day-again Howard the Duck, and valiant yet unavoidably straight-to-video attempts from the early 90’s, Marvel didn’t find major-studio, wide-release success until Blade in 1998.  That’s 30 years behind the gleefully campy Adam West Batman and 20 years behind the monumentally successful Superman.

Yet Marvel has easily found a niche market in no time at all, a fan base that demands sequels, prequels, and reboots to feed their inner geek. So far, the most recent attempts at the sequel look like they could use a little adrenaline boost. Fortunately, The Winter Soldier gets enough right in flash and fun to guarantee an enjoyable popcorn flick.