The Avengers wing of the Marvel universe reached its commercial zenith a couple of summers ago, when the movie that finally brought together Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America and Thor toppled the box office for more than a billion dollars. As good as The Avengers was, it also demolished New York City in the third act, something that simply couldn't be ignored by anyone who watched it. Whatever the heroes were protecting Manhattan against, could it have been worth the trillions of dollars in damage they inflicted on the city?
In one of those weird art-responding-to-life moments, the follow-up films—Iron Man 3, last fall's Thor sequel, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier—mention the destruction of the Big Apple in almost hushed tones, as if it's an apology to audiences who felt the CGI wankfest went a little too far. But The Winter Soldier is the first of the series to actually change its stripes and, as much as it can, rely on traditional action movie trappings more than bombastic effects.
Post-New York, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tells us, the world walks a fine line between needing the constant protection of S.H.I.E.L.D. and splintering into total chaos. The subtext, of course, is current enough, with NSA spying remaining a hot-button issue. Unseen forces of evil won't rest, or so the story goes. Fury tries to explain the new world to Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), but whether it's the fact that Cap is a recently unfrozen 95-year-old man from the greatest generation or merely his pro-freedom geopolitical view, he disagrees with Fury's stance on the world needing Big Brother.
Fury is not alone, however. His old friend Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, seriously) does the bidding for S.H.I.E.L.D. on the global stage. He sells the same line to world leaders: It's tough love, but better to be under the watchful eye of the devil you know than the devil you don't. However, S.H.I.E.L.D. is suddenly vulnerable to an attack from within. This threat involves using the organization's cutting-edge flying weapons of mass destruction for evil, turning guns intended for the bad guys on honest, hardworking Americans.
For most of the first 90 minutes, the action in The Winter Soldier is hand-to-hand combat stuff and gunplay. Obviously, when the big battle happens, directors Anthony and Joe Russo have to call in the computer effects. It's nowhere near the level of urban carnage as in The Avengers, though, and it certainly doesn't feel out of place alongside the rest of the story.
This is actually one of the better storylines Marvel has given us in a while. The fragile state of S.H.I.E.L.D., the unavoidable power grabs and even the explanation of a long-underground sinister brotherhood are fairly believable in context and make the for-all-the-marbles climax seem necessary. What's odd about all of this is the pairing of the story and the grittier action with the directors. The Russos made a bunch of Arrested Development episodes and their last feature film was You, Me and Dupree. Go figure. Somehow, it's a good combination and the Russos are already slated to return for the next Captain America flick in a couple of years.
About the only dead weight here is the Winter Soldier himself. Fans of the comic know the score about the character, a mysterious, seemingly impervious villain every bit as powerful as Captain America. But the emotional weight the film hopes to link to the Winter Soldier really isn't there, nor does the film need a henchman with his abilities when the real threat—megalomaniacs in business suits—are so much more effective.
Otherwise, the action is solid throughout and the character development is deeper and more pronounced than you might expect, especially since Steve Rogers is such a one-dimensional character compared to a Tony Stark or—jumping over to DC Comics—a Bruce Wayne. Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) have some nice scenes together, and even though most of the dialogue in superhero movies is pretty disposable, Johansson gives some of her lines the perfect femme fatale vibe.
The captain also forges a new bond with a military veteran named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), setting the stage for more hero/sidekick adventures down the line. As transparent as both of those subplots are, the actors sell them well and they don't weigh down the movie, even for a minute.
That's important because this is just an appetizer. Most Marvel films are. The character-specific ones are just leading to another big greatest-hits movie when all the Avengers get back together next summer. So, really, we're lucky all of these aren't terribly lazy. The Thor sequel was decent, Iron Man 3 gave Tony Stark his groove back, and now here's a movie featuring a pretty boring superhero and a villain who isn't worth a damn ... and it's still really well done.