Phase two of Marvel's ambitious superhero roll-out is well underway with Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World having done great business last year, and now it's time to catch up with the nation's favourite super-powered son, Captain America. Of course, it doesn't feel so much like we're catching up with him, as it feels like he's merely passing by (“on your left”) as he runs laps around us and all box office competition.
Anyone would have trouble keeping pace with the patriotic military experiment from the 1940s, although he has some catching up to do himself, seeings how he'd been frozen in the North Atlantic for 70 years prior to 2012's The Avengers. Steve has been quick to adapt to the mundane wonders of modern society – he definitely digs the Internet and lack of polio, although he hasn't yet gotten around to Thai food or Marvin Gaye – but still misses some things from the good old days; namely his loved ones. He even visits his own Smithsonian exhibit in cognito to catch glimpses of his faithful Howling Commandos, his old flame Peggy Carter, and his fallen friend Bucky Barnes.
Old feelings die hard, but perhaps the hardest-dying trait of Steve's antiquated good nature is his sense of trust. He is from a simpler, more trusting time after all, but oh how those times have changed. Cycloptic S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) warns Steve that he should trust no one, pointing out that the last time he trusted someone, he lost an eye. Steve isn't sure if he should even trust Fury himself, after discovering a secret double agenda embedded in a mission to rescue a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship from armed pirates.
Trust becomes the thematic fulcrum of the film, as Steve must choose his allies more carefully than he ever has before. Not even his friend and partner Natasha Romanoff, aka: the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is above momentary suspicion. But when an attempt on Fury's life leaves S.H.I.E.L.D. and the World Security Council's secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) somewhat rattled, Steve and Natasha go on the lam to uncover who's really calling the shots for Fury's assassin; a formidable ghost agent known only to the espionage community as the Winter Soldier.
That isn't to say that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an especially cerebral or high-minded entertainment. Even the attention paid to its thematic threads can't quite justify the clumsier plot devices tying them together. Some contrivances would've been much easier to swallow had they been adequately set up ahead of time, and a couple of the second-act reveals manage to stretch credulity even for a film series that's seen Norse gods and green monsters doing battle with space aliens.
But narrative shortcomings aside, the movie really works thanks largely to its execution. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo – best known for their involvement in the beloved sitcom Community – wield their studio mega-budget with skill and aplomb, particularly in regards to their staging of the film's many action scenes, which mark a big improvement over its 2011 predecessor Captain America: The First Avenger.
Shot and edited in a clear, comprehensive fashion that avoids the annoying convention of shaky photography and hyper montage, the Russo brothers make smart use of wide angles to define the space of each set piece, whether it takes place on a spacious highway overpass or (in the film's most tensely constructed sequence) an increasingly crowded elevator.
They take care to keep the audience fully abreast of where each character is and what he/she is doing, even as the camera cuts in closer to capture the impact of every bone-crunching punch and high-flying roundhouse. Appropriately, the most jaw-dropping moments come not from the CGI pyrotechnics (however well realized they are by ILM's reliable effects artists), but from the stellar stunt work and furious fight choreography, which elicited more than a few awestruck cheers at my screening.
But best in show goes once again to Johansson, who is swiftly gaining on Tom Hiddleston as the standout performer of the Marvel movie-verse. Her sweet-and-sour cynicism makes her the perfect foil for Evans' earnestness. She's funny and sexy (without being turned into a sex object) and even spins a nice little dramatic arc about Natasha's fear of her shady past becoming public domain. It's a wonder that Marvel hasn't developed a solo feature for her yet.
*** out of ****