The ninth film in the ever-growing Avengers series has a slightly problematic plot, and it provides more comfort than true thrills, but is most certainly a serviceable entertainment.
Anthony and Joe Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Solider (either the ninth Avengers film, the second Captain America film, or the third “Marvel Phase Two” film, depending on where you’re standing) sets out with a very promising tone. This is Captain America by way of Tom Clancy. The film, replete with a bold patriotic score, steely muted photography, and a plot involving a government conspiracy, feels less like what you would find in the airport comic book section, and more like what you would find in the novels a few racks up. This was a wise choice. Captain America’s reaction to the twisted world of the Patriot Act (the central theme of the film) is the kind of story that skews more sociopolitical than pow-sock-wham boyhood fantasy.
And for extended portions, The Winter Soldier feels exhilarating and interesting. This is the first time we’ve really had a chance to see Captain “America” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) really react to the modern world, and we finally get some (sadly fleeting) moments of his impressions of 2014. A cute moment: Steve has taken down a list of things he feels he needs to catch up on, including disco, Nirvana (band), and Rocky. I would have been content with a mere drama about Captain America simply adjusting. To me, the character is more interesting than the plot. This is why Iron Man and Iron Man Three have been the best films in this particular run of superhero flicks; Robert Downey, Jr. has created a fun and palpable character.
Indeed, the richness of tone and fun, Clancy-ish conspiracies are so strong in The Winter Soldier that it’s almost a pity to have the central organization in question be S.H.I.E.L.D. (Marvel’s CIA-like superhero-wrangling enclave) and not just the regular CIA. Had Captain America been working for the Fed, dealing with the real president, and addressing real-life issues of patriotism in the face of a seemingly too-complex system of sacrificed privacy, then his comments about corruption within the organization (which is the eventual plot) would have rung more salient. Captain America vs. America is a tantalizing and interesting idea for a Captain America story. But since he’s working for S.H.I.E.L.D., and the bad guys are (not to spoil anything) are not the actual U.S. government, The Winter Soldier begins to feel perhaps a bit too safe, too sealed off in its own hermetic comic book world. And the eventual reveal as to who is behind the conspiracy and why only compounds the problem. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting had Cap actually had to face up against a U.S. government that was, y’know, actually corrupt?
One of the heads of S.H.I.E.L.D., Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, who looks a little bit baffled by the movie he’s in), has grand plans to launch a new fleet of armed, automated airships to aid with a vaguely defined defense plan. It seems that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) might be trying to sabotage the fleet, and no one knows why. Steve Rogers is frustrated with the amount of inter-personal secrecy in the system, and when Fury is attacked on the street, he has to essentially go rogue, and team up with both Natasha “The Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, miscast) and his friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to solve the mystery of the fleet, Nick Fury’s involvement, and the mysterious appearance of a masked Russian super-assassin nicknamed The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). We all know who the Winter Soldier really is, right? That’s right. It’s Thanos.
The plot itself doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and the climax of big explosions and protracted fights is so de rigueur, it almost begins to feel more like a comfortable pair of slippers than an edgy, risk-filled action climax. Indeed, as any franchise extends as far as this (nine films!), and as the story and characters become more and more familiar, the notion of actual risk begins to fall by the wayside. By the ninth James Bond film, for instance, we knew the formula. The same is happening to the Marvel superhero films. They are ramping up in size at the same time they are settling back in status.
But any nitpicks I may have are more theoretical than directly critical. At the end of the day, The Winter Soldier is a smart-ish, entertaining, more-textured-than-it-needed-to-be, big-budget action blockbuster that keeps one perfectly satisfied.