Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The guileless Captain America and a fellow Avenger take on SHIELD's drones
A WINTER SOLDIER'S TALE: Captain America (Chris Evans) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) think deep thoughts about what SHIELD is up to.

You know the story of Captain America, as told by Joe Johnston in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was an asthmatic stripling from Brooklyn who yearned to serve in World War II. The Army made him a super-soldier. After a battle with the Naziest Nazi of them all, the Red Skull, he was entombed in ice and defrosted after 60 years.

The Russo brothers' Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes up the theme of Rogers' innocence—ask Howard Zinn when we lost it, because we seem to keep losing it and regrowing it. This film has a seductive argument: it suggests things began to go drastically wrong in America after a thinly disguised version of the OSS's Operation Paperclip.

Our nation has a malady about imagining WWII as an ennobling experience. These Captain America movies carry the illness without suffering from it—maybe because they're more obviously fictional than Saving Private Ryan? The people who made Captain America: The Winter Soldier, including the directors Anthony and Joe Russo, understood their calmly uncomplicated hero better than the people who made Man of Steel understood the similarly square Superman.

The national security agency SHIELD, whose armored tower looms over downtown Washington, D.C., is about to launch the ultimate drone program, the Insight project. Shilling for it is SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) working in tandem with the presidential liaison Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Captain America, already restless at being "Fury's janitor" in his various clandestine ops, is dubious: "I thought the punishment came after the crime." The agency turns out to be riddled with moles. Fury is dealt with, and the Captain and agent Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) flee the capital with an army after them. One critic complained that Johansson seemed to have knocked someone senseless with her hair in The Avengers; here she seems to crash a villain's car with it. She's become the most adroit female spy since Mrs. Peel. Help arrives from a mid-east war vet, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who has access to a previously unknown technological weapon.

The common template of the action movie gets filled to the brim with Marvel fodder—some of the best choreographed fight scenes you get in an American movie, explosions and flashbacks, and a flying battleship dogfight. But there is breathing room throughout. Fury, riding an armored-glass elevator to the top of his tower, talks about his grandfather who was an elevator operator. And there are spots of romantic comedy; the suave Widow plays dumb to bamboozle an Apple Genius.

This blockbuster has a surprising amount of feeling. Chris Evans isn't a thrilling actor, but he does suggest a little lost guy caught in the strapping body. He doesn't seem to be larger than Alan Ladd in closeup, and if he's a fearless battler, you end up feeling a bit protective of him. The phrase is usually used as a putdown, but Evans is an excellent listener. At a hospital bed of a dying elderly lady, Evans keeps it tight. The scene gets all due sting, emphasizing the hero as a tragic immortal.

A tasty paranoid strain comes out in this education-of-Captain-America movie; it echoes what Redford did everywhere from Three Days of the Condor to Lions for Lambs. Here Redford displays the fraudulent integrity and great fluffy hair of the last of the Kennedy Best and Brightest, trying to convince the world of the wisdom of pre-emptive strikes. He's far more entertaining here than he is in his serious civics-lesson movies.

It probably took two directors to overstuff the film with a subplot about a steel-armed assassin, complete with oh-so-astonishing reveal of his identity. One can only go with it, shrugging once more at the matchless chutzpah of Stan Lee and his prose-sharecroppers. (And, of course, the old cutpurse has his cameo here.) Rather than feeling knocked over the head by the amazing world of tomorrow, I felt affectionately cuffed by a friend of my youth. In a world of impotent liberals, isn't it nice to see a (nigh) omnipotent one?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

136 MIN; PG-13

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