Captain America: The Winter Soldier review: The Marvel machine hums

Captain America is probably the only superhero that would have his own museum exhibit. In an early scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) goes to the Smithsonian to look at his own display, detailing the history of the Captain, from his WWII era bravery to the bold part he played in the Avenger’s defense of Manhattan during an alien invasion. It’s a credit to the film and the universe it creates that we fully believe that the Captain would have his own museum exhibit. He’s not some flying, mutated monstrosity or eccentric mechanized billionaire. He’s a flesh-and-blood hero that just happens to have super-strength.

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The Winter Soldier is a thoughtful and engaging addition to the Marvel canon.

The first Captain America movie did a fantastic job of setting up the Captain and his place in the Marvel universe. He was the patriotic one (obviously), the one who stood up for his traditional values and his clear-cut concept of right and wrong no matter the circumstances. That’s easy enough when you’re fighting Nazis.

But in the Winter Soldier, the Captain is more of a hero for our time. He questions what it means to be a hero, and feels lost in a modern world 80 years ahead of his time. It’s here we find the Captain, working with returning SHIELD teammates Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to protect the organization from outward attack. But new forces threaten to compromise the organization from within, and the Captain soon has to contend with the shadowy agent Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) as well as the mysterious Winter Soldier, who seems hell bent on putting the Captain down for good.

The movie’s action is, dare I say it, marvelous. The Captain’s shield bounces off of baddies’ skulls with the ease of your favorite childhood bouncy ball. The directing team of Joe and Anthony Russo give the film’s many intense fight scenes a sense of weight and drama that help to render realistic something as ridiculous as a ricocheting trash can lid. One thing missing from recent Marvel fare has been good old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat, and The Winter Soldier has it in spades. But that doesn’t mean the level of destruction has gone down. In particular, a car chase involving Nick Fury is easily one of the coolest and most exciting in recent memory.

If The First Avenger played out like a techno-tinged patriotic war movie, The Winter Soldier plays out like a ‘70s spy espionage thriller. The Captain moves quickly from one revelation to the next (and boy are there some doozies) in his attempt to unravel the mystery of the Winter Soldier. It’s at times unrelentingly intense.

The movie also stands out from the comic book crowd in its tackling of the real-world, modern day themes of security and military protection in the digital age of widespread surveillance. From the NSA to Facebook and cell phone companies, these are timely American fears, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find a superhero movie tackle them with such gravitas. It adds a welcome shade of moral grey to the Marvel cinematic universe.

But, before this review gets to dire, the best thing about The Winter Soldier is that it’s incredibly fun. Johansson and Jackson have never been better, and their characters get some of the film’s best scenes and lines. Evans has truly embodied his role as the iconic American hero. Redford has a ton of fun with a meaty villain role, and newcomer Sam Wilson (aka the Falcon) is a welcome addition to the team. It’s also a very important movie in the Marvel cinematic universe, jam-packed with several bombshells that will deeply shake up the future of all the comic juggernaut’s Avengers-based franchises.

Comic movies with this much going on tend to collapse under their own ambition (Iron Man 2, anyone?), but The Winter Soldier can march on with little care for building up to an Avengers movie. In fact, there are times where it doesn’t feel much like a Marvel movie at all. That’s a very good thing. The meta-references to the Marvel universe that the filmmakers were surely obligated to include are somewhat distracting and drag the film’s pace down a bit, but they’re rare and not especially obvious for those not looking for them.

The “Marvel Machine” has been accused of sometimes churning out bare-minimum efforts to satisfy its desire to expand its universe in order to make even more movies (and more money). That complaint may be justified, but this supercharged sequel is prime evidence that Marvel still trades in thoughtful, timely and engaging blockbusters. You’ll want to see it again the second it’s over.

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