"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" ranks as one of the best superhero movies ever made.
The superlative sequel to that 2011 old-fashioned charmer "Captain America: The First Avenger" brings back a perfectly cast Chris Evans as the principled and now thawed-out World War II military hero and finds him clashing with modern views on conflict and peace.
The result is an intelligent and gripping conspiracy thriller that's torn-from-the-headlines relevant. In the best comic-book tradition, "Winter Soldier" delivers a topical message, stressing the importance of freedom and cautioning us to not be so quick about handing it over when confronted with fear.
Other high-minded ideals come up, such as the complex boundaries of loyalty and the overriding need for more human integrity. All of it sticks. All of it works. The first in a stream of superhero films making their way to the cineplex this spring and summer, it's funny, slick and absolutely enjoyable. That's in part due to a cast that includes Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie and, in a scene-stealing bit, Robert Redford.
But let's face it: The superhero genre has been in a slump, churning out increasingly minor, indistinguishable offerings, such as the dour "Man of Steel" and the rote "Thor: The Dark World." By using special effects sparingly and concentrating on character development and a strong plot, "Captain America" appears to save the genre from the clutches of mediocrity.
Directors and brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, both Emmy-winning directors for "Arrested Development," make wise moves throughout, avoiding the predictable and adding their own creative stamp. They mete out the CGI judiciously, summoning it only when warranted, such as in the spectacular climax that Industrial Light and Magic does so famously well. They also take a fresh approach to brawny, old-school fight and car chase scenes by using hand-held cameras, which gives them more punch and immediacy and makes the audience feel like it's right in the thick of the action, not lingering on the sidelines.
The screenplay loosely adapts a "Winter Soldier" storyline created by one of the best comic book writers out there, Ed Brubaker (who has a nifty cameo here, as does Stan Lee). Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely shake things up at S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Marvel universe at large when one of its elite members is threatened. Meanwhile, evil forces are conniving to move the world in a dangerous direction, and characters from the past come back to haunt those living in the present. We're treading gingerly describing this narrative to avoid spoilers, as there are many to be had.
Opening in Washington, D.C., the twisty plot manages to give its Marvel returning players -- Evans, Johansson, who plays Black Widow, and Jackson, as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s enigmatic Nick Fury -- legitimate opportunities to throw around their acting might. Evans and Jackson sink their teeth into bristling confrontations, creating a tangible tension that highlights these well-defined characters' differences. The script also gives Evans and Johansson a chance to flirt, and their chemistry is electric. Evans continues to impress in his role, showing greater depth as his character confronts some ugly modern realities. His Steve Rogers is high-minded yet compassionate, and those qualities are a natural for Evans.
Another plus: Johansson is given more screen time than in "The Avengers" movie, and she uses it with gusto, bringing a fierceness to the part. The male-dominated superhero landscape is better with her in it.
"Winter Soldier" also adds two new faces to this party: Redford brings gravitas and acting heft to the role of high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. member Alexander Pierce, while Mackie makes for the perfect wing man to Captain America. His Sam Wilson, a war veteran, is a welcome addition to the team. And in a smaller but essential part, Sebastian Stan makes for an explosive Winter Soldier.
Each of these characters has something meaty to do, and that's why the films soars above other recent efforts. It advances the story and respects the mythos of its comic book creations, yet isn't averse to taking risks and moving it into bolder directions.
After all, isn't that what being a real superhero is all about: taking risks and watching them pay off?
'CAptain America: The Winter Soldier'
* * * ½
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout)
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo