The shield yields modest but intriguing returns in Captain America: The Winter Soldier 

Red, White and Bruised

Red, White and Bruised

Back in 2011, Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger injected a much-needed dose of classicism into the slowly unfolding Marvel superheroes mega-franchise. Set largely during WWII, it told how a scrawny gung-ho Brooklyn kid named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) became a biochemically engineered super-soldier boosting the fight against the Nazis. Now that Cap has entered the modern world, however — the premise of Captain America: The Winter Soldier — the first casualty of the period change is the patient storytelling and earnest emotionalism of the original. (Can we call it an original?)

But while it's a far more anonymous film, The Winter Soldier still maintains some integrity. You see it in the opening scene, as Rogers, sprinting at superhuman speed, repeatedly laps fellow veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) as they jog in a park. Sam has just come back from America's more recent wars and appears to be suffering from mild PTSD; Rogers is still contending with the fact that just about everyone he knows or has ever known is either dead or on the verge of dying.

And while all that's just a bit of emotional set-dressing and necessary character introduction — Sam has some powers of his own, we soon discover — there are enough little moments like these throughout The Winter Soldier to keep us engaged. The plot itself is a somewhat predictable affair that involves an assassination attempt on Rogers' ostensible boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson — I won't reveal if he survives) and the catastrophic unraveling of the giant security apparatus known as S.H.I.E.L.D., the very organization that recruited Captain America and his superhero cohorts into the Avengers.

Cap and fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) go on the run from their own people while also trying to prevent S.H.I.E.L.D.'s ginormous new artificially intelligent aircraft-carrier-hover-plane thingamabobs from wiping out millions of people, due to an evil algorithm that predicts people's likelihood to commit crimes. Got all that? It's basically Minority Report reimagined as a James Bond film — only Bond is a Marvel superhero, so nobody gets to have any sex.

But it's not bad. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, heretofore known mostly for directing TV comedies (among them Arrested Development) and the dire Owen Wilson vehicle You, Me and Dupree, keep the action clean and steady. And they mostly avoid the kind of groaningly apocalyptic mayhem that has become de rigueur in blockbuster franchise flicks nowadays. (It's only one corner of the Potomac that gets leveled this time around.)

Better still, they manage to open up some decent little avenues of moral possibility hitherto unexamined in the franchise. The free reign that S.H.I.E.L.D. has had over the course of the previous films has always felt a little problematic; it's nice to see that finally addressed in a fairly bold way, with a couple of surprising reveals. Robert Redford has a nice, meaty supporting role as Secretary of Defense Alexander Pierce, and he's at his smug best mouthing platitudes about the future wellness and safety of mankind.

The most interesting element to the film may well be the villainous, ruthless Winter Soldier himself, a mysterious, masked super-soldier not unlike our hero: His existence suggests an alternate history to the century of hope and freedom that Cap's presence has partly made possible. The film doesn't dwell on this part of the tale much, maybe because the notion of a shadow world — one where the aims of those who seek to destroy us and those enlisted to protect us are united — hits a bit too close to home. But props for raising the issue, regardless.




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