You wouldn’t think there was much more to do with movies set in the Marvel comics universe.
You’d be wrong. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” takes a flying leap off the basic premise of superhero movies and sails away in unexpected, crowd-pleasing directions. The grippingly, stylishly made film delivers mechanically perfect shocks and much more.
This outing is an irresistible blend of Washington conspiracy thriller and exuberant adventure. Taking its tone from the paranoid political mysteries of the 1970s, it’s a whirlwind of power struggles and deception twisty enough to keep audiences guessing. The film impregnates its settings with so much latent tension and unnerving evil that you expect the Washington Monument to start murdering everyone in sight.
The theme is trust earned and lost. The U.S. spy agency SHIELD battles shadowy adversaries with an agenda for destruction. The organization’s charismatic director, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), is about to launch a new defense system designed to pre-emptively eliminate threats.
“That’s not freedom. That’s fear,” says Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers/Captain America, who has a healthy suspicion of the military-industrial-surveillance complex. After all, the World War II supersoldier served under the similarly skeptical Gen. Eisenhower before going in a 60-year deep freeze.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely craft a suspense plot that’s generally logical, and fill it with plausible, strongly defined characters. Without becoming pretentious, they make a serious point or two about the security-vs.-liberty debate.
As before, Captain America is an old-school, unambiguous hero, an officer and a gentleman. He’s literally a museum piece in our morally compromised modern world of drone warfare and 24/7 data dredging. He visits the Smithsonian Institution’s “Captain America” display, lingering over images of long-lost Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Evans acts his grief and isolation with utter sincerity.
When he’s not in his lonely apartment, he’s in a daredevil’s rut. He leads rescue missions but can’t relate to his SHIELD teammates. It’s reached the point where Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) feeds him dating advice while they wallop villains in tandem.
The film pits the duo against the mysterious and legendary mercenary the Winter Soldier, who leads a horrendous assassination attempt against Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, at long last playing a key role in the story). Their tire-smoking, asphalt-skiing chase through heavy traffic is a nonstop bacchanal of urgent destruction.
There’s plenty of THWONKK! — the satisfying sound of Cap’s shield hammering an evildoer’s cranium. There’s also a sense the tentacles of SHIELD’s nemesis, HYDRA, are sunk so deep in the system that nothing short of chemotherapy will offer a cure. Cap is fighting not just to foil terrorists but to defend his own values. It’s the perfect film for these anxious times.
Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (of NBC’s “Community”) show a gift for ambitious, large-scale filmmaking. They channel their expert comic timing into designing energized, exciting action sequences. The film exists in a realistic world of practical stunts delivered with visual snap. No matter how brain-frazzling the fight, there’s a three-dimensional dynamic to the push-and-pull of the combat. Their compositions are far from the flat, shallow images of comic-book panels.
The directors don’t skimp on attention to performance and characterization. Redford is superb as the ambiguous Pierce, who could be his “Three Days of the Condor” CIA man 30 years on. He’s a savior one minute and a sardonic, ruthless hard-ass the next, his gaze asserting authority while implying just-pals equality. Anthony Mackie brings enormous presence and warmth to his role as Sam, a veteran who can relate to Cap’s alienation.
The Russos also salt in some cunning humor. Cap keeps a list of modern subjects he needs to research in pocket notebook — he’s an analog guy. On his tally is “ ‘I Love Lucy,’ Berlin Wall (up & down), Thai food and Nirvana (band).”
Smartly self-aware, grandiose without being overblown, “The Winter Soldier” is a crackerjack summer blockbuster, three months early.