The greatest praise you can heap on “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is that it doesn’t just work as a superhero movie. It works as a movie.
Take away the trio of ginormous helicarriers that are capable of selectively targeting and destroying a million or so “combatants” at a time, and this easily could have been a member of the “Bourne” family or — given its suspicious wire transfers, dummy accounts, sideways glances and telltale beads of sweat — a 1970s political thriller.
Adding credence to that last one, the sequel’s biggest get is Robert Redford, who portrays the head of the World Security Council. Forget “The Winter Soldier.” This one’s closer to “Captain America: Three Days of the Falcon.”
Not long after the events of “The Avengers,” Steve Rogers/Cap (Chris Evans) is trying to settle in to a normal life in Washington, D.C. After being frozen for 70 years, he’s also trying to adapt to modern society. In a nice touch, he carries around a notebook full of everything — Nirvana, a couple of “Rocky” movies, etc. — people tell him he needs to check out.
But Cap is becoming disillusioned with his service to S.H.I.E.L.D., especially after befriending former paratrooper Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who helps other veterans adjust to the homefront.
Soon, Cap and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are freeing a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship from pirates led by French mercenary Flippy du Bouncypants, err, Batroc (UFC star Georges St. Pierre, who adds a blast of authenticity to his somsersaulty fight scenes).
During their mission, though, Cap discovers he and Romanoff have different agendas, which only adds to his distrust since he’s already balking at the invasive new measures S.H.I.E.L.D. is taking in the name of “freedom.”
It becomes clear that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised by outsiders when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) barely escapes a full-blown assault from heavily armed thugs and the mysterious, metal-armed assassin known as The Winter Soldier. (His identity apparently is supposed to be a giant spoiler — there were gasps during the screening when it was revealed — unless you know anything at all about the comics.)
From there, Cap and Romanoff are considered fugitives, hunted by S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Winter Soldier, and forced to hit the road to clear their names.
The two have great chemistry and share plenty of fun banter, both of which are made better because there’s no risk they’re going to fall in love. (After canoodling in public to hide from their pursuers, she teases Cap, asking, “Was that your first kiss since 1945?” “I’m 95,” he declares. “I’m not dead.”)
“The Winter Soldier” does a nice job of bridging the gaps in Cap’s history by having him drop by a museum exhibit dedicated to the World War II exploits of himself and his buddies, as well as visit an elderly Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).
But it also looks to the future as a fantastic piece of world building. Wilson makes for a welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe by strapping on his military-grade wing pack and soaring the not-so-friendly skies as Cap’s ally Falcon. There’s also a Stephen Strange shoutout.
“The Winter Soldier” finally breaks the Marvel sequel curse by feeling like a part of something bigger. It marks the first time Fury has really been a vital piece of the action. He’s joined once again by Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, washing away the stink of the “How I Met Your Mother” finale). Garry Shandling’s Senator Stern even turns up.
The only downside is, that by focusing so much on the inner-workings of S.H.I.E.L.D., it makes that little TV show seem even tinier by comparison.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who also wrote “Captain America: The First Avenger,” continue to make Cap the most interesting Avenger outside of Iron Man. And directors Anthony and Joe Russo, best known for their work on the comedies “Arrested Development” and “Community,” prove surprisingly adept at handling this rougher, grittier sequel. (They do throw in a nice little surprise for “Community” fans, though, as well as an out-of-nowhere “Pulp Fiction” gag.)
“The Winter Soldier” works as well as it does because it all feels grounded in ways that superhero movies rarely do. Sure, there are big, elaborate action sequences and some seriously iffy science. But there are no capes, codpieces or, aside from the rare instances when Cap suits up, cowls. All the principals — Romanoff, Fury, Hill, Wilson, Redford’s Alexander Pierce and Emily VanCamp’s Agent 13 — conduct their business in street clothes.
By pivoting away from the World War II derring-do of the original and delivering a completely different genre of movie instead of just following the traditional more-of-the-same model, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” makes for one big tingly ball of awesome.
It’s the first must-see extravaganza of the summer, and it’s barely even April.
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Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org