(Spoiler Alert: It is nearly impossible to discuss in any detail the merits of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” without giving away a few plot details — which counts as an impressive achievement in and of itself since we’re dealing with a superhero movie. Such details are kept to a minimum in this review, but if you prefer not to know any, stop reading now.)
In one of the many Paddy Chayefsky-penned monologues in “Network” that still resonate today, Peter Finch’s newsman Howard Beale rails against one of television’s dramatic shortcomings: “We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell. We’ll tell you that Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker’s house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he’s going to win. We’ll tell you any s–t you want to hear.”
This isn’t always the case nowadays, of course; groundbreaking series from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “The Wire” to “Game of Thrones” presented worlds in which even beloved characters could suddenly die without warning. And if a character from “Mad Men” threatens to decamp for another agency, the show doesn’t contrive to make him or her have a change of heart by the end of the episode.
Still, in any serialized drama, the norm is to offer the threat of change or imbalance before quickly reverting to the status quo. That’s the kind of safety net that can creep into movie franchises as well. In the cinematic Disney-Marvel universe, for instance, SHIELD is always the good guy and HYDRA is always the villain and superheroes have a clear-cut moral agenda with no wiggle room for the complications of the real world.
Until now, that is. With “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the corporations behind one of the most lucrative series in contemporary cinema dare to step outside of their safety zone, not only tossing the building blocks of a film and television canon up in the air but also using a mainstream entertainment to ask provocative questions about our own government and about the compromises that we are willing to make in a technological world where privacy is rapidly disappearing around us.
That screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (“Thor: The Dark World”), working from a story by comic book writer Ed Brubaker, and directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo could ask these kinds of questions in an “Avengers” film would be achievement enough, but to bring them up in a Captain America movie feels downright subversive.
Ultimately, of course, this sequel isn’t a treatise about geopolitics as much as it’s a movie where a ripped guy throws a shield in people’s faces, but it does all the things it’s supposed to do very well. If you’re just here to watch Cap (Chris Evans) beat up a bunch of well-trained tough guys in a tiny elevator, you’ll get that in spades, but if you prefer superhero movies that allow themselves to run a gamut wider than A to B, there’s that as well.
We find Captain America still adjusting to life in modern-day Washington, D.C., after decades in suspended animation, getting music recommendations from a new friend, veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and fending off matchmaking suggestions from the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). After Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sends the Captain and the Widow to rescue a SHIELD ship that has been taken hostage, and Cap discovers that the Black Widow has a side agenda involving data in the ship’s computers, the shield-slinger gets angry with his boss about being kept in the dark.
Fury and Cap have an argument early on about trusting people, and while you’re expecting that a movie like this would end with Fury learning he needs to open up and have faith in his fellow man, it’s actually Captain America who discovers that not all things are as they seem, and that even those who wear the colors of democracy and liberty might be in disguise.
Fury’s boss in the state department, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), is the film’s major new character, so it’s not a big surprise when he winds up being the turncoat who’s behind turning SHIELD’s domestic surveillance program into a deadly bit of social engineering. And given Redford’s past participation in classics like “All the President’s Men” and “The Three Days of the Condor,” who better to be part of a vast, paranoia-inducing conspiracy within the U.S. government?
With Fury being taken off the chessboard early on, it’s up to Captain America, Black Widow and Sam — whom comics readers know as The Falcon, brought to the screen in a thrilling way — to uncover just what’s going on and how to stop it. (Marvel fans will also get a kick out of the inclusion of characters like Jasper Sitwell and Batroc, although their screen incarnations differ greatly from their four-color versions.)
Along the way, Cap will discover that while SHIELD and HYDRA might have different mission statements, both groups’ desire for control over their perceived enemies and the muscle they employ to get what they want make them more similar than different.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” — the title refers to a deadly HYDRA assassin (played by Sebastian Stan) whose true identity is a secret even to himself — bounds along excitingly, keeping viewers guessing, launching some successful switcheroos and bringing real stakes to the game. The end results of this film should reverberate throughout the big- and small-screen “Avengers” universe in a way that most franchise entries would never dare.
The first “Captain America” had a lot of great ideas, but its vacillation in tone and occasional failures to deliver the emotions for which it was clearly aiming made it one of the lesser recent Marvel movies. This time around, however, it’s a movie that’s raising the bar on what we can expect from the ongoing adventures of these men and women in tights.