“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” must be nearly perfect on the scale of Marvel comic book movies: It provides plenty of thrills, clearly defined good and bad guys – even if we need a while to figure out which are which – competent acting, some mild but well-timed jokes, quite a few plot twists (though no real surprises) and hardly any emotional or psychological complexities.
That may sound like faint praise, but it’s not. Marvel beautifully exploits the traditions of this genre without ever trying to extend them: This sequel is, by design, entirely absorbing and satisfying without being one whit memorable.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), now out of his cryogenic tank for a couple of years, is still adjusting to life as the fittest, fastest 94-year-old on Earth when SHIELD commander Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gives him another assignment: Take back a SHIELD ship held hostage by pirates.
Rogers, aka Captain America, carries out his mission alongside Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who has another objective on the ship: She’s there to reclaim encrypted information for Fury. He’s onto a massive conspiracy that threatens the entire world and summons memories of Rogers’ old nemesis from World War II, the many-headed organization known as Hydra.
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Along for the ride are a high-ranking defense official (Robert Redford), a diabolical ex-Nazi scientist (Toby Jones) and an agent who’s more than she seems (Cobie Smulder). Only a former Afghan War vet (Anthony Mackie) is unadulteratedly helpful all the time, and even he has one secret.
Brothers Joe and Anthony Russo are best known for producing and directing TV comedies, including “Community” and “Arrested Development.” They take their new assignment seriously and whip up a frenzy with car chases, aircraft explosions and hand-to-hand combat. (There’s a terrific sequence in a stopped elevator full of bruisers. Rogers wryly asks, “Before we begin, does anyone want to get out?” Then he takes the assailants apart.)
The title’s a deception. Though there is a “winter soldier” (whatever that means) with powers equal to Rogers’, he’s only a small part of the huge terrorism conspiracy. This killing machine (Sebastian Stan) uses weapons from the old Soviet Union and wears a red star on his sleeve, but that makes no sense in this context. (To say more would be to spoil a revelation.)
The writers refresh an old idea: People who give up freedom to achieve security usually end up with neither freedom nor security. That’s worth thinking about, even in such a melodramatic format.
They also commit one major sin: They make a number of daring choices in the narrative, then back away from every one of them by the end.
I assume they’re trying to get us to feel emotional attachments to the main characters. That’s impossible when the movie treats them as indestructible little soldiers, all of whom can be tossed back in the toybox at the end of a session and brought out when it’s time to play with them another day.