Ask the question, “What is this movie about?” In the case of most super-hero movies, the answer will be, “It’s about two and a half hours.”
Heroes are heroes, villains are villains, and cities are there to be obliterated while they sort out who’s who.
Out of nowhere, Disney/Marvel gives us Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is actually about something – using the least complicated moral compass in the Marvel canon as its instrument.
A man out of time, Steve Rogers/Captain America is actually the perfect character to play out the clash of consciousness between right vs. wrong and the problematic truth that bad guys tend to think they’re good guys too, whether they’re invading privacy for the greater good, or killing for that cause.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is actually a Jason Bourne film masquerading as a superhero movie. It is a trust-no-one epic in which the central benign authority – the massive black ops organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D. – is compromised (a bold narrative move, given that S.H.I.E.L.D. is central to every franchise in the Disney/Marvel universe). And suddenly, the organization’s NSA-like surveillance of the entire world begins to look less than comforting.
And who better to get his mind blown by a wholesale breach of trust than a costumed veteran of WWII – the last war in which the sides of good and evil were arguably cleanly drawn?
Watching this Boy Scout lose his moral virginity as it were, is one of the appeals of The Winter Soldier’s script. One of the surprises is that TV comedy veterans Anthony and Joe Russo (Community, Arrested Development) have such a handle on action – integrating hand-held camera shots to create some of the better car-chase and fight scenes (including one in a crowded elevator) in recent memory, amid the requisite amount of Avengers-style property damage.
Without the crowded dramatis personae of The Avengers, there’s room in that two-hours-and-change to put some flesh on bones – particularly on Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff, who actually gets to spend time in street clothes and talk about her past. There are introductions to characters comic-book fans already know – including The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp), who may or may not be positioned as a love interest for Cap, and the mysterious assassin, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), whose connection to our star-spangled hero turns out to be deep indeed.
And then there’s Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the mentor to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s liaison to the World Security Council.
As for Captain America, Chris Evans is subtly turning him into a 21st Century man, easing him into the present in small flourishes (this Cap has picked up some mad MMA moves).
The script nicely links the Second World War events from the first film to the global politics of a world with gods, superheroes and the former Nazis-of-convenience who call themselves Hydra. Some of the subterfuge – who’s trustworthy and who isn’t - is relatively easy to mentally unravel, but thick tension and uncertainty remains the default mode of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
That is, when things aren’t actually blowing up real good.