I know what big-budget movie I’m going to see again this year, and that would be Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And get this—neither my 8- nor 11-year-old accompanied me the first time. Sure, it felt a little strange walking into a Sunday matinee and requesting one adult ticket, but once this far superior sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger began to unspool onscreen, I was hooked.
Gone is the faux retro, ultimately bubble-gummy look of the original, and so missing also are the occasionally funny, occasionally awkward reminders from The Avengers that Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), having missed 70 years of history and culture, is somewhat of a Neanderthal. In their place, there’s a cohesive storyline that tweezes subtle references to the past and the skillful, sly use of previous characters and situations to help color our impressions of what’s unfolding. Added to the inevitable crash-bang punch of the action scenes is a palpable sense of menace—it’s no surprise that Robert Redford is a pivotal character, as director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo acknowledge crushing on the paranoiac mood setting of ’70s thrillers like Three Days of the Condor.
In this edition, Rogers is learning to be at peace in this brave new world; he even keeps a notebook in which to jot down people’s recommendations of things to do/see/discover, including Nirvana’s Nevermind, Thai food, and the Berlin Wall (up and down). Early on he befriends Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), an Afghan War vet whose combat experiences parallel somewhat those of Steve’s; and because this is a Marvel story after all, Sam has a unique set of skills that can only come in handy when world obliteration is at hand. Rogers has come to realize that, these days, fighting evil isn’t as simple as black and white, and he resents that his SHIELD boss, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), fails to include him on every aspect of each mission. Still, when Fury is brutally attacked, and it turns out that the agency very likely has been compromised, Captain America has to put aside minor points of who started what in order to figure out whom to trust, and how to survive.
Redford plays Alexander Pierce, a suave leader at SHIELD who claims he will get to the bottom of the attack on Fury, but circumstances begin to pile up that make Rogers, and us, wonder. Joining Rogers and Wilson is Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and also along for the ride, although not in any way that one would expect (unless he/she grew up secretly devouring the comics), is a dear old friend from the Captain’s past. I don’t want to say much more, as I hope that some surprises are in order. The movie shows snatches of its forerunner, most notably when a torn Rogers visits the Smithsonian’s Captain America display to try to channel just what it meant to try to be a hero, a scene whose melancholy nature is subtly lifted when our hero realizes that a young boy is staring intently at him, in shock that the Captain stands before him, in the flesh. The kid does a first-rate job of conveying that sense of “OMG!” that now is usually applied to reality show and rock stars, and Rogers’ understated wink and “don’t tell” gesture of finger to lips, is lovely. The film’s message, which warns against sacrificing individual freedoms for the perception of safety and control (courtesy of big government) is refreshing in a mainstream movie, and you’d have to be downright philosophically agnostic to feel nothing when Captain America urges the masses to join him in fighting for their liberty.