Not many of today’s comic book protagonists warrant that enthusiasm, much less their own movies. Those with strong cores are rarely matched with distinctive personalities, either. But Steve Rogers, the once scrawny but eager kid who would volunteer for a government experiment at an early age and become the symbol of a system of ideals in the time of fascism and world war, occupies a distinctive facet: the principles of his character remain unburdened by physical evolutions and deteriorating political standards. There is a charm about him that is infectious, even alarming; when the evil impulses of the new world seek to penetrate his core, always there is a demeanor unchanged by the corruption. That puts him, perhaps, in that elusive class strong-willed icons like Superman and Spider-Man, and one can easily imagine the three of them sitting around a table somewhere waxing philosophical over their “serve and protect” mantras.
In “The Winter Soldier,” new dilemmas arrive at the forefront. The S.H.I.E.L.D. Agency, with the good Captain’s assistance, thwarts the endeavors of a series of pirates who, apparently, are trying to crack secret agency files. Upon recovering them, however, the conspicuous Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) discovers a new barrier in the encryption that may hint at a security breach, and that dilemma will likely undermine an ambitious project dubbed “Insight,” which is discussed ambiguously and with emphasis on widened eyes in all those associated with it. Unfortunately, by the time that knowledge reaches Fury’s attention, something devious is already underway; he is ambushed by a group of thugs posing as cops, and then nearly assassinated by an unknown assailant with a mask and metal arm. What does this imply? Someone from within S.H.I.E.L.D. is apparently in on the scheme to overthrow the agency, and this reality puts not only Fury in danger, but also all of his closest consorts, including Captain America himself.
I describe the plot with loose brackets, because even I lack a certainty in the details. Here is a three-act story so convoluted that it scarcely indicates its intentions until well into the middle, although you do at least suspect it all involves something very wicked. The characters are thankfully eager to explain the outcomes of the intrigue through dialogue, and there are several moments in between loud actions scenes and tense confrontations in which deeper intentions are, indeed, revealed. But there comes some absurdity with that too, such as in a scene in which we discover that a villainous carry-over from the first film endures as a computer consciousness. His significance? His presence apparently revolves around a “Hydra” project that is alluded to in whispers by some of the more devious characters, but the movie requires us to make a leap in that determination that is rather tricky, even by the standards of a comic book story. Why bring back the villains of the past? And why utilize them in ways that come off as stretches in narrative logic? The twist is not an effective use of plot, but a betrayal of it.
The first “Captain America” film, in which a vintage hero exchanged fists with Nazis and military spies on the open fields of World War II, was admirable in two regards: it created a hero we could admire and even identify with, and it wrapped his growth in the social standards of an era where the darkness of the world inspired a society to embrace honor and integrity. As a stand-alone film, it was thoroughly effective. But what to make of this sequel, which begins with the promise of a stranger displaced in a strange modern time and results in lengthy shootouts, crumbled cities, an endless series of scenes involving innocent civilians fleeing from danger, and overzealous stunts (like a man running from a collapsing building and then leaping into a nearby helicopter that is in mid-air several flights down)? “The Winter Soldier” doesn’t use any time in establishing an identity, because it is obsessed with the thrill. That also means other key details get shortchanged, including the gloomy and uninteresting “soldier” who serves as the villain; strong and seemingly unbeatable even by a hero carrying an impenetrable shield, there is no genuine interest in him until far too late, when the screenplay seems to only offer up new details to set up momentum for another sequel.
And yet there is no denying the movie is incredibly well made. The cinematography by Trent Opaloch (“Elysium”) anticipates wondrous scope and frames it all in impeccable wide-pan shots that are sharp and precise. The special effects are some of the best of any comic book film, and emphasize the reality of our times: it is now almost impossible in many instances to tell the difference between what is real and what is computer generated on screen. Many of the performances are much more credible than the genre is probably worth (Evans makes a very charismatic Steve Rogers), and I liked a lot of the minor characters within Captain America’s sphere, including a strong-willed military veteran named Sam (Anthony Mackie) who possesses a valued skill in action sequences. But where does it all lead in the end, really? This is a movie that knows how to stage all the kinetic details to impeccable precision, but doesn’t have much clue as to how it can create a destiny beyond being a two-hour foreshadowing session.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Action/Adventure (US); 2014; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout; Running Time: 136 Minutes
Chris Evans: Steve Rogers/Captain America
Samuel L. Jackson: Nick Fury
Scarlett Johansson: Black Widow
Robert Redford: Alexander Pierce
Sebastian Stan: Bucky Barnes
Anthony Mackie: Falcon
Produced by Victoria Alonso, Mitchell Bell, Louis D’Esposito, Kevin Feige, Alan Fine, Michael Grillo, Stan Lee and Nate Moore; Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo; Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; based on the comic book characters created by Ed Brubaker