Joss Whedon’s The Avengers was a game-changer for the Marvel-Disney universe if for no other reason than that its team-up, super-powered success forced the solo films to elevate their game as well.
And so after Captain America’s so-so introduction to moviegoers, the patriotic superhero returns in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a much-improved second outing with a few familiar faces along in his adventure.
Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely also return as screenwriters, but the biggest change to the franchise is with brothers Anthony and Joe Russo taking over for 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger director Joe Johnston. Known for directing TV comedies, the born and raised Clevelanders avail themselves of the opportunity to helm their first big-budget action spectacle. And they waste little time in getting to the good stuff, as the titular hero (Chris Evans) makes quick work of a band of Algerian pirates who have taken hostage the crew of a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel. Providing a super-assist in the rescue is Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who is on board the ship for a secret mission other than the saving the crew.
Captain America wonders what Black Widow is up to and he questions their S.H.I.E.L.D. boss about it, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). He lets Cap in on the secret: S.H.I.E.L.D. is building three giant Helicarriers — the floating fortress demolished during The Avengers — under its Washington headquarters. These expensive war machines are designed to take out potential hostiles before they’ve had the chance to cause chaos somewhere in the world. But if these flying aircraft carriers/battleships were to fall into the wrong hands, that would be disastrous. You can see where this is going.
And that’s where Markus and McFeely take the plot, borrowing a comic-book storyline about a hidden threat within S.H.I.E.L.D. that targets Fury, Captain America, Black Widow, and others not part of this sinister group’s goal of world domination. That’s also how the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) comes into the story. He’s a super-powered rival and equal of Captain America, who has a similar past as a scientifically modified WWII U.S. soldier. Instead of working for Uncle Sam, however, Winter Soldier reports to Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. official and Fury's boss, who is masking his own agenda.
Coming to Captain America’s aid is Sam Wilson, aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), noteworthy in the Marvel universe as one of the first black superheroes. Updated onscreen with metallic wings propelled by a small but powerful propulsive engines — instead of feathers covering a jet pack — Falcon races aircraft missiles and, himself a former special forces soldier, is effective in hand-to-hand combat as well.
Coincidentally or not, there are obvious parallels to the NSA with Pierce and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s increasing abuse of their power and incursion into citizen privacy, all in the name of world peace and stability. Winter Soldier has a dark current running through it, a tone absent in its predecessor. The world-in-peril stakes feel bigger and more relevant in this outing as do the action, CGI effects, and villains. To be fair to Johnston, an origin story is the most difficult challenge in a superhero franchise, especially for a character not as familiar to non-comic fans.
As a reflection of this plot, Captain America is more than just a do-gooder in tights. After decades spent as a Popsicle in the Arctic, he has returned to a familiar world far more complicated than the one for which he he fought the good fight during World War II, with villains no longer wearing swastikas but American flags. He’s a soldier conflicted and confused who's struggling to find the answers even as he fights S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Winter Soldier to stay alive.
As with his Thor counterpart Chris Hemsworth, Evans has matured rapidly in this universe of super-powered heroes and world-threatening mega villains, beginning with The Avengers. He’s found that blend of humor, action skill, and simply looking the part that often eludes actors playing superheroes.
The addition of Johansson and Jackson brings more than the familiarity of their characters, but witty banter with Evans and the ability to dish out the pain as well to the bad guys. While not worthy of a solo film, Black Widow and Nick Fury, along with Falcon, add to the fun of an Avengers-like mini reunion of Marvel names.
Winter Soldier offers two worthy opponents to challenge the group in intellect (Pierce) and brawn (Winter Soldier). Redford is an effective low-key villain, playing Pierce as smooth and always in control, even when it seems he isn't. While the film could have benefited from even more one-on-one screen time between the Winter Soldier and Captain America, the build-up to their big face off doesn’t disappoint, and neither does the battle itself, including its conclusion.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a sequel that generally gets most everything right and sets itself up nicely for Captain America 3. (As always, stick around through the credits for more about the next film.)
More important, it keeps the momentum going until summer 2015, when Whedon and the united superhero team return with Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.