The Marvel movie machine rolls on with the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the second solo vehicle for de facto Avengers leader Steve Rogers. After an uneven but somewhat enjoyably retro first outing, taking place in a heightened World War II as directed by Rocketeer helmer Joe Johnston, Rogers (Chris Evans, looking as All-American as ever) finds himself fully ensconced in the modern world and needing to cope with a society full of modern technology that has made the globe smaller and more connected than ever. Ever the soldier in a borderline stereotypical way, Captain America must decide where his loyalties lie as he is torn between his ideologies and the government who made him who he is and he gave his life to protect. With a new ally who shares a similar (to a point) past at his side (Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie) and some returning SHIELD agents and officers (Samuel L Jackson's Nick Fury, Scarlett Johannson's Black Widow and Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill) whose allegiances may or may not be clear, and Cap has got quite a bit on his plate in his first return to the screen since The Avengers.
The Winter Soldier begins simply enough with an extended sequence of Cap and his ops team (including Black Widow and Frank Grillo's gruff Brock Rumlow) storming a ship seized by French pirates led by General Batroc (an adaptation of the eminently silly-looking comic character Batroc the Leaper, brought down to Earth by MMA world champion Georges St-Pierre). It's a well-paced mix of stealth and action and an excellent avenue to bring the audience back into Cap's world (the way these Marvel films convincingly make Steve Rogers look just superhuman enough without overdoing it is thoroughly impressive), but it also dovetails nicely into the larger story at hand, as it is revealed that not only is the ship under siege actually SHIELD property, but Black Widow is on site for completely different reasons than Cap thinks she is. Unchecked power is certainly an issue for a man who spent his career fighting Hitler, and SHIELD is traipsing toward dangerous territory as their intel, weapon design and ideals trend toward preemptive strikes (Rogers, incredulous, remarks “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime”). Further complicating matters is adding new blood to the overall power structure of SHIELD and how it relates to the US government in the form of Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who wastes no time becoming just the sort of authority figure to turn Rogers against Fury and the rest of the shadowy protection agency we have come to know.
Paranoia about the omnipresence of SHIELD is not a new theme for these films (it played a role in both Iron Man 2 and Avengers, mostly at the feet of Tony Stark), but the concept is blown wide open in this film, as Captain America soon finds himself ostracized by the government he was supposed to protect, unable to discern who he can trust. Compounding this is the titular shadowy assassin known only in legend as The Winter Soldier, who seems to have his own connections with Cap's past.
There is quite a lot of plot to work through in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Thor: The Dark World, the Narnia films) generally do a pretty good job at keeping the pace brisk and the exposition inventive. The central mystery of Winter Soldier's identity would be known to any modern Marvel comic fan worth his or her salt, so the writers make the smart decision to make that conflict more of a B plot in the overall tapestry of the proceedings. At its core, beyond all of the Marvel Universe world-building baggage, the film can best be described as a government conspiracy action thriller (think Enemy of the State) with the paranoia ratcheted up in the way one might expect. Twists and turns abound as crosses are doubled and tripled, and there are times the film is legitimately surprising. As the web of deceit deepens, it is fitting that Redford is at its center. It's impossible not to think of All the Presidents' Men or Three Days of the Condor when watching Redford here, and while he has graduated from firebrand to authority figure, his presence gives an undeniable prestige to the proceedings (like Ben Kingsley in Iron Man 3 and not at all like Anthony Hopkins' dreadful turn in Thor: the Dark World). Just as welcome is Mackie, whose overflowing charm lights up the screen. Evans needs other heroes to make sure Cap doesn't wear thin (it's part of the reason his first film didn't entirely work), and both Falcon and Black Widow provide the needed balance to Rogers' hyper-idealism, wounded as it may be.
When it comes to these Marvel films, the only way they can really set themselves apart lies in the quality of their action scenes. All of them have a fun and charismatic lead, a sense of whimsy and that next puzzle piece in the overall Marvel Universe world. It’s a formula, but it’s a formula that has a little room to wiggle, which is meted out in the action. Iron Man 3 suffered for its thoroughly boring third act, while Thor: The Dark World redeemed its near disastrous first hour with a breezy and fun finale. Captain America: The Winter Soldier trends toward the top of the pack, mostly thanks to how well Joe and Anthony Russo acclimate themselves to the world of mega budgets and legions of visual effects artists. The choreography of the sequences is strong and clear, and the designers have a good sense of the differences between how Captain America, Falcon and Black Widow would approach their problems. As Falcon swoops back and forth, dodging anti-aircraft shells framed against an impossibly blue sky, the directors manage to make it look fresh despite being right out of Iron Man’s playbook. This freshness keeps the action even-keeled when it could be in danger of tipping over into excess (such is a possibility when the finale includes three SHIELD helicarriers).
The Russos also have quite a bit of fun with Cap’s shield, having it ping pong around the screen with reckless abandon, but always making sure to communicate its heft. Whether lodging itself into a wall with heavy thunk or feeling substantial on Rogers’ back, the crew makes sure the shield feels like more of a star than it did in either the first film or The Avengers. The sound design is particularly excellent, as the concept that the shield is made of the vibrational metal Vibranium is felt in every reverb of every bounce and every deflected bullet (there are a lot of those). It’s most impressive whenever The Winter Soldier’s metal arm meets the shield in conflict; the mix dies down, replaced by an impossibly deep and satisfying hum of steel on vibrating steel. Considering how iconic the shield is both to Cap and the Marvel universe as a whole, it’s a good move seeing it become a bigger part of Rogers’ arsenal. The action scenes come early and often, but never flirt with tedium even as they dominate the third act in standard action movie procedure.
Marvel has yet to make the sort of film that transcends the superhero genre, and while Captain America: The Winter Soldier does not reach those heights, it does show that Marvel Studios may be moving back in the right direction. Marvel may have set themselves apart with their giant web of continuity and post-credits stingers, but the films themselves still must stand on their own. Though it is not great art (or even great pop art in the way The Dark Knight or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire were), it’s a step forward, and for the most part, Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds.