He might not be a space Viking or a talking raccoon, but Captain America was almost as tricky a character to bring to the screen in the 21st century as some of his Marvel contemporaries—standing for sincerity and purity in an age of grittiness and irony, and wearing the stars-and-stripes in an age when international box-office is key. As such, the character's first appearance in 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger," is probably best described as a modest success, both critically (an enjoyably retro first half giving way to a flatter, more formless second), and commercially—at $370 million, it's the second lowest-grossing of the Marvel pictures so far.
But with "The Avengers" boosting the character's profile further, and Marvel increasingly bullish, they've gone all in for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," a far bigger and more expensive adventure for our frozen-in-time hero, played for the third time by Chris Evans. Savvily, they've played down the more patriotic aspects of the character to chase an enemy within, in a film that directors Joe & Anthony Russo have compared to '70s paranoid thrillers like "The Parallax View" and "Three Days Of The Condor." And it's sort of worked: "The Winter Soldier" is probably in the upper tier of Marvel pictures in terms of quality, but ultimately proves too muddled and frantic to match the heights of "The Avengers."
Set a few years after the events of that film, it sees Cap semi-settled in the modern world (though he's still catching up on the seven decades or so he missed), and working special ops for S.H.I.E.L.D alongside Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), reclaiming a hijacked vessel in the opening scenes. But suddenly, the mysterious Winter Soldier, a masked assassin with a metal arm, makes an attempt on the life of S.H.I.E.L.D head Nick Fury, and Cap and Natasha start to wonder if there's anyone that they can trust.
Going in, the unknown quantities of the film were definitely the Russo Brothers. Their TV work on things like "Arrested Development" and "Community" has been excellent, but their big-screen output ("Welcome To Collinwood," "You, Me And Dupree") was mostly mediocre. But it's clear almost from the off that they were another strong choice from Marvel. While the studio's films have tended to have weaker first acts (even "The Avengers" took a while to find its feet), there's a real confidence to the opening moments of 'The Winter Soldier.'
The pair have a good command of tone, establishing a serious, semi-grounded feel while still keeping things relatively light and bouncy. And they have a real facility for action: from that first water-bound set-piece, the choreography is consistently strong, with a crunchy, weighty (if sometimes arguably too violent, for a film ultimately aimed at kids) quality to the hand-to-hand combat. There seems to be an admirable willingness to engage with real-world politics too, with references dropped to the surveillance society, wars in the Middle East, and the price of security, while a reunion with an older version of a character from the first film provides probably the most moving moment in any Marvel effort to date. Even the exposition-y recap dump is elegantly done, through a visit to a "Captain America" exhibition at the Smithsonian.
Sadly, the film, while reasonably engaging throughout, can't maintain the highs. After the first act, the film shifts into a sort of lightly banter-y couple-on-the-run thriller (again, "Three Days Of The Condor" is the obvious touchstone here), and it's fun, but the constant momentum means that the character beats sometimes get lost along the way. In fact, it's not so much the momentum, but that the film is afraid to go more than about five minutes with an action sequence. Obviously, for a certain proportion of fanboys, that sounds like the most glowing of recommendations—it's certainly the most action-packed of the Marvel movies. But as strong as the sequences are, they simply start to blend into each other, and by the final CGI-enhanced epic battle, action-fatigue has set in (we were seeing exploding airships every time we closed our eyes for hours afterwards).
If the characters were dull, maybe this would be less of a problem, but those on hand are legitimately interesting and watchable, well cast, and well performed (including new additions Anthony Mackie, as war veteran Sam Wilson, Robert Redford, cannily cast-against-type as World Security Council head Alexander Pierce, and Emily VanCamp as S.H.I.E.L.D's Agent 13, though she's admittedly underused). The best moments of these films have tended to be when the characters just get to hang out, and sadly there's not enough of that here.
That's particularly true of the second title character, the Winter Soldier, who's the source of the biggest script issues. The finished film almost feels like Marvel gave the movie the title "The Winter Soldier," but then only asked the writers to include him at the last moment, because you could lift him out entirely without much affecting the movie. Fans will already know the character's secret identity, but the drama inherent in that set-up is never engaged with especially, because the Winter Soldier Is essentially wordless, and mostly brainwashed (between this and Hawkeye in "The Avengers," Marvel writers should be banned from using that as a plot device at this point). And there's little resolution to him, either: it sometimes feels like the movie is all set up for "Captain America 3: No, We Promise, This One's Really About The Winter Soldier."
Hopes for real substance are pretty much deflated as well, as the plotting shifts from something's-rotten-in-Denmark to libertarian-Alex-Jones-Illuminati-conspiracy-territory, and while the film's ballsiness in its twists, and their impact on the movies going forward, is admirable, it smacks of being afraid to have a real viewpoint for fear of alienating some of their audience.
All that said, there is a lot to like here. It looks great, it sounds great (Henry Jackman's score is a keeper), is performed strongly across the board, has some heart and soul behind, isn't afraid to be a little weird sometimes (another character from the first movie makes a very odd, very enjoyable return at the mid-point), and certainly more so than "Iron Man 3" or "Thor: The Dark World," feels like its own beast rather than the latest $200 million episode of the Marvel TV series. And maybe it's because it gets so much right, that what it gets wrong feels all the more frustrating. [B-]