Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is the first superhero movie in a long time to hit the sweet spot of fanboy expectation without sacrificing the minimal requirements of a thoughtful action movie.
Like its predecessor "Captain America: The First Avenger," the latest installment of Marvel's multi-film franchise takes an uncomplicated hero whose values are rooted in the early 20th century and drops him into situations swirling with the duplicity and intrigue that characterize modern life.
Starring: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie.
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout.
After emerging from suspended animation that has literally kept him on ice since the closing days of World War II, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) has to learn to navigate a world where the distinction between friend and foe isn't as simple as it was "in the old days."
There's a scene early on where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the director of the high-tech and heavily armed "peacekeeping" agency S.H.I.E.L.D., explains the necessity of deploying an omnipresent weapons system high above Earth that can identify and eliminate potential and actual bad guys anywhere on the planet at the push of a button. Any echo of the Obama administration's drone policy in the preemptive killing of suspected terrorists is purely intentional.
Because Cap is nothing if not a star-spangled fan of due process and Constitutional guarantees, he's disturbed by Fury's casual dismissal of the technology's totalitarian implications.
"I thought punishment came after the crime," Cap says. Fury is annoyed by the WWII hero's reluctance to acknowledge the higher good the weapons system represents. "We can't afford to wait that long," Fury says with the conviction of a villain in a James Bond film.
It is a fascinating exchange between the ultimate American idealist and the cynical guardian of national (and world) security who will do whatever it takes to maintain order even if freedom takes a bruising in the process.
Their argument also has a whiff of the "Civil War" storyline from the comic book series a few years ago that divided the Marvel universe into warring factions of civil liberties-oriented heroes against a law-and-order brigade of crime fighters.
In the "Civil War" series, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark/Iron Man occupied the ends of the ideological spectrum represented by Cap and Fury in this movie. Cap's refusal to give up core principles that define his identity satisfies the audience's desire for a hero uncorrupted by the exigencies of the moment.
A more immediate threat to Cap is an assassin known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a relentless killer employed by HYDRA who is able to match him move for move. The Winter Soldier wreaks havoc on the streets of Washington, D.C., in an attempt to neutralize both Fury and Captain America. He's the film's most chilling figure because his motives are obscure and he rarely utters a word, although the "secret" of who he really is becomes obvious to even the least attentive viewer early on.
Scarlett Johansson reprises her role from "The Avengers" and "Iron Man 2" as Natasha Romanoff, the ex-Russian agent known as the Black Widow who defected to S.H.I.E.L.D. under circumstances yet to be explained. Like Fury, Natasha constantly challenges Cap's idealism with frequent blasts of pragmatism. There are also hints of her very complicated and possibly unsavory past that will be unveiled in a future installment.
Anthony Mackie joins the cast as Sam Wilson/the Falcon, a veteran of Afghanistan who has access to secret military technology that enables him to fly. Sam and Cap bond quickly because they're both vets who have lost their best friends in battle. Sam is the only one besides Natasha whom Cap can trust to help him unravel a conspiracy that goes up the ranks to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s highest level.
Robert Redford co-stars as Alexander Pierce, Fury's longtime friend and ally in the upper echelons of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the World Security Council who holds the key to the mystery of the Winter Soldier.
Cobie Smulders returns as Agent Maria Hill. She's joined by Emily VanCamp as Cap's future love interest Sharon/Agent 13. Mixed martial arts superstar Georges St-Pierre does a cameo as Cap's longtime foe Batroc, the French mercenary criminal.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has more up close and personal collateral damage than any Marvel movie to date with the exception of "The Avengers." It features spectacular car chases, aerial stunts and brilliantly staged fight sequences all captured by hand-held cameras that refuse to back down. There's enough destruction, explosions and obvious death to civilians to warrant some caution with younger viewers.
Directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo from a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is in the running as the best Marvel movie sequel of the decade.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631.