More consistent than the clunky Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) without quite scaling the heights of the best (nor plumbing the depths of the worst) of Marvel Studios’ ever-fattening oeuvre, Captain America: The Winter Soldier works as solid, big-budget entertainment. Despite surface-level attempts to include timely political commentary, this movie — deep down in its big, noisy heart — wants nothing more than to be a high-priced spectacle. To that end, the movie is mostly successful, and it will certainly make a ton of cash. Just don’t expect much beyond the usual comic book antics.
Shorn of the first film’s tedious origin story, the sequel feels leaner and jumps straight into the action. The plot roams around a bit, but that isn’t a huge problem. After all, the storyline is simply a mode for transitioning from one explosion to another. The idea here is that Captain America (Chris Evans) — a WWII supersoldier bred by the military and accidentally frozen and thawed out decades later — is embroiled in a confusing and short-sighted plot to to dismantle S.H.I.E.L.D. and murder a ton of Americans. All of this seems to center on a mysterious masked assassin with a metal arm called The Winter Soldier. There are lots of fights along the way (for a PG-13 rating, the visceral nature of the violence is unexpected), a dumpster fire in an amateurish car chase and plenty of CGI explosions and property damage. It is the kind of sound and fury that has become so commonplace that the value of its spectacle has been totally lost. With that said — assuming you care about the extended Marvel serial — there are some serious consequences to the comic book universe the studio has constructed. Unfortunately, this news might carry more weight if it wasn’t explained to us by a Nazi scientist’s brain (voiced by Toby Jones) trapped in a computer, which is infinitely less fun than it sounds.
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who are best known for their sitcom work, the filmmaking is smart at times, and the non-action scenes are welcomely cheeky. Captain America himself is a more interesting character outside of his origin story and placed inside this hero-outside-of-time scenario. It’s not only the culture shock (which is mostly played for laughs but is never quite overdone) but the greater issue of a wholly old-fashioned American superhero finding himself in a world with ethical shades of gray he never imagined. Here, the movie becomes critical of the current surveillance state and drone warfare, with a heavy dose paranoia. In theory, the simple inclusion of political commentary is commendable, but it doesn’t go anywhere or ultimately say much, keeping Winter Soldier from being anything more than loud and engaging. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout.