Of all the spandex-clad superheroes that have made their way out of the comics and into movie theaters these past few years, Captain America may be the most hopelessly unfashionable. In 2014, there’s just something archaic, even bitterly ironic about a living symbol of American military might, draped in the stars and stripes of a more innocent era. Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger sidestepped concerns of anachronism by rewinding the clock to the character’s WWII-era origins, and placing him in the proper context of a beat-the-Nazis, rah-rah propaganda adventure. But now that chemically enhanced fighter Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has defrosted on the other side of history, how’s a filmmaker to confront his dated squareness, his 20th-century approach to a very 21st-century world?
The obvious answer, as provided by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is to take that culture clash as a subject. In this spectacularly entertaining sequel, Rogers is still running, jumping, and chucking his mighty shield like it’s 1945. But now he’s doing so with the weariness and distrust of historical hindsight. Briefed on what the homeland was up to during his six decades on ice, the Captain has become a disillusioned company man, unafraid to question the government bigwigs handing him his marching orders. The Winter Soldier unfolds in a post-Watergate, post-9/11 political climate, one in which crimes are stopped before they happen, someone is always listening, and automated death comes from above. (Add the film to a growing list of tentpole fantasies—Oblivion, Man Of Steel, the Robocop remake—to take metaphoric potshots at drone warfare.)
Yet directors Anthony and Joe Russo, sitcom veterans making a fledgling foray into crime-fighter escapism, aren’t operating in the über-serious, “this is how we live” mode of Christopher Nolan. Instead, they’ve mastered the multitasking required of any Marvel hire: Their Winter Soldier delivers the requisite pyrotechnics, brightly comic banter, and future-sequel groundwork without breaking a sweat, while still finding room to fold a throwback trust-no-one thriller into its design. That’s an Avengers-grade achievement.
Rogers may still be acclimating to his new environment, but the actor playing him has settled nicely into the iconic role. Evans, in his third tour in the tights, has located the boyish vulnerability of his character, a man whose outdated earnestness and herculean aptitude have made him a kind of celebrity outcast. Reintroduced running circles around the Washington Monument, where he meets a fellow veteran and future comrade (Anthony Mackie, possibly cast for the Hurt Locker echoes his presence provides), Rogers is a fish out of water in the nation’s capital. (He keeps an adorable to-do list that includes Thai food and the Berlin Wall.) For a while, The Winter Soldier simply grooves on the man-out-of-time malaise of its wavering patriot, locating comedy in his inexperience with the ladies and surprising poignancy in his deathbed reunion with an old flame. But then an attempt is made on the life of S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson); the culprit is a mysterious, metal-armed assassin dubbed—you guessed it—the Winter Soldier. Soon, Captain America is on the run from his own agency, uncovering a vast conspiracy with the help of another Avenger, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, almost as good here as she is in Under The Skin, also out this week).
Hurdling through darkened office buildings, down shadowy corridors of power, and across narrow lanes of D.C. traffic, Evans’ super soldier has clearly stumbled headlong into a kind of comic-book reinvention of the 1970s political thriller. The Russos, transparent about their influences, pepper Winter Soldier with knowing winks to The Odessa File and The Boys From Brazil—to say nothing of the appearance of Three Days Of The Condor star Robert Redford as a jaded politician. (Talk about a Tarantino-worthy casting coup.) Of course, from the (parallax) view of today, those Nixon-era mysteries look both prophetic and oddly quaint, their paranoia a relic of an age when citizens still had to speculate about the dirty deeds their government was perpetrating. In that sense, The Winter Soldier looks nearly as old-fashioned as its ’40s-set predecessor—especially once the Russos start piling on the “shocking” revelations, beginning with a monologuing villain whose beyond-the-grave exposition-dump blunts some of the impact of the movie’s critique. “How do we know the good guys from the bad guys?” Mackie’s suited-up sidekick eventually asks the Cap. “If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad,” Rogers replies, the exchange underlining how black-and-white the film’s politics end up looking.That said, even a lightly subversive edge is more than most mega-budget Hollywood releases manage. Ultimately, The Winter Soldier is a Marvel movie, for better and worse. As if by company mandate, it builds to one of those massive, endless demolition derbies, and the plot was clearly crafted to accommodate larger, seismic changes to the Avengers multiverse mythology. But if the Russo brothers have held up their end of the franchise-feeding contract, they’ve done so with above-and-beyond aplomb. Most of the action scenes, including an early covert operation aboard a tanker and a messy brawl in a crowded elevator, have been staged with a clarity uncommon to this studio. What’s more, the Russos understand, as Joss Whedon does, that the Marvel universe is really just one big dysfunctional family—an extended ensemble of big personalities, trading as many barbs as blows. To that end, the best scenes in their superlative blockbuster are the ones that rely on the rapport between Cap and his cohorts—especially Johansson’s affable agent, who steals a strategic smooch during one of the film’s most playful passages. Chemistry this marvelous never goes out of fashion.