How do two directors whose most notable previous feature film is 2006's "You, Me and Dupree
" get the job of handling one of Marvel Studios' biggest properties? It sounds random on paper, but brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo prove they are worthy by significantly bettering 2011's toothless "Captain America: The First Avenger
" with more confident, forward-thinking sequel "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." The 95-lb. WWII enlistee who transformed via scientific experiment into a larger, stronger, bulkier embodiment of himself before battling the Nazi-inspired HYDRA organization and getting zapped to modern times by way of a cryogenic freeze, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still struggling to catch up to a world that kept evolving without him. Instead of playing this fish-out-of-water scenario for broad laughs, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (2013's "Thor: The Dark World
") sympathetically approach it from a place of bittersweet nostalgia. Thus, when Steve visits the Captain America exhibit at The Smithsonian and watches a short educational film on himself from an era that is no longer, one can sense the loss in his heart. A scene shortly after this where he visits the woman he once loved, the now-elderly Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), is delicately handled yet poignant in its greater implications. If Steve is now living in 2014, however, the tautly designed conspiracy he finds himself in is right out of a 1970s paranoid thriller.
Now stationed at the Triskelion, the Washington, D.C. headquarters of S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve Rogers has begun to settle into his new life while continuing to dedicate himself to protecting his country. When an agent close to him is gunned down, he begins to suspect that someone within the agency might be involved. As an elusive, partially cloaked figure known as the Winter Soldier pursues them, he and fellow agent Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) go on the run, their journey leading them to the long-abandoned New Jersey air base where Steve once trained and the discovery of a horrific plot known as Project: Insight intended to assassinate upwards of 20 million human targets across the globe. Despite his belief that HYDRA was fully dismantled in the 1940s, it is becoming readily apparent to Steve that members still existand may be closer than he could have imagined.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is set in a volatile environment where uncertainty about who to trust is at an all-time high. Spattered with imagery and dialogue callbacks none too subtly metaphoric of the Nazi Party, the film adroitly opts to not recoil from or soften its political real-world connection. Better still, the Marvel Universe surrounding "The Avengers
" (and 2015 follow-up "The Avengers: Age of Ultron") finally breaks free here from its formulaic, blandly flavored constraints. Like 2011's "X-Men: First Class
" (a Marvel property, but not technically a part of the "Avengers" stratosphere), "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has forged an identity that lifts it slightly above typical superhero fare. There is nothing exactly new about the basic trajectory of the plot, yet directors Anthony and Joe Russo do not approach the project as a comic book adaptation so much as they reimagine the brand as a twisty, tension-laden, character-centric potboiler in the "All the President's Men"/"The Parallax View" mode. It is a rejuvenating creative decision, one that separates it from middling, uninspired, somewhat garish past entries such as 2008's "The Incredible Hulk
," 2010's "Iron Man 2
," and 2013's "Thor: The Dark World
His third time starring in a lead role as the noble, good-hearted, strikingly buff Steve Rogers/Captain America, Chris Evans (2011's "What's Your Number?
") brings a comfortable, lived-in quality to the iconic comic book figure. The character is a little too spotlesshe doesn't appear to have any obvious flaws or hang-upsbut if his virtuousness puts him on the side of bland, he is gainfully offset by his pairing with female partner Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. A former KGB agent with a shady past, she has gone straight and opted to use her combat skills and quick intelligence for good. Scarlett Johansson (2013's "Her
") owns this part, Natasha's lack of special powers making her butt-kicking prowess all the cooler. It also makes her more fallible, the danger she faces particularly involving because the viewer knows serious harm can come to her at any time. The chemistry between Evans and Johansson is one of the movie's most valuable assets, their relationship not quite romantic but stirringly suggestive that there is more developing between them than just platonic camaraderie. In a rare supporting turn, Robert Redford (2013's "All Is Lost
") gives a conflicted weight and ruthlessness to World Security Council member Alexander Pierce, as rich and powerful as he is very much human. As Steve's mentor, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, Samuel L. Jackson (2013's "Oldboy
") is satisfyingly incorporated into the action more than his character has in past films, while the likable Anthony Mackie (2013's "Pain & Gain
") is a welcome new face in the ensemble as military officer (and rare ally) Sam Wilson/Falcon.
When Steve vocalizes his longing to find friends, Natasha replies, "There's a chance you might be in the wrong business, Rogers." As long as Steve is out fighting injustice as Captain America and putting a stop to catastrophic plans bred from megalomaniacs, he will never truly be safe or know who is on his side. It is his lot in life to bear, just as he has had to let go of the people he cared about 70 years ago. The reveal regarding the Winter Soldier of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is kept in the dark for quite some time, but the impact is muddled by the foregone conclusion of his identity. That he and Steve have very close ties is unsurprising but finally affecting, the Russos taking the time to remind viewers of the tight-knit bond they shared long ago. If the fight choreography approaches choppiness now and again and the overt use of stunt people calls occasional unwanted attention to itself, the film gains in mileage through its energized storytelling, snappy character interplay, and three or four spectacular action sequences that make vivid use of locations in and around the nation's capital. Because the screenplay is so meticulously constructed, there is the feeling that the expansive world of this ongoing Marvel saga is no longer spinning its wheels, but headed somewhere potentially fresh and exciting. That is more than could be said after sifting through the last couple installments, 2013's "Iron Man 3
" and "Thor: The Dark World
." Imperfect though it is, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a step in the right direction, flourishing in one's mind the more it is thought about.