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'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' darkens the Marvel formula

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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The Cap is back in the newest Marvel movie entry, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” In this go-round, the man formerly known as Steve Rogers must grapple with both memories and demons from his past in order to try to secure the future and freedom of the United States (and, ultimately, the world). Although the film is certainly one of the grittier entries into the Marvel film canon, addressing such hot-button issues as governmental trustworthiness and the protection of personal freedom, it still sometimes plays out as a by-the-numbers Marvel film.

In this second outing, we find the somewhat recently defrosted, post-”Avengers” Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as physically fit as ever and speedily super-lapping athletic war veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in a run around the National Mall. And yet, however fit Cap still is, he continues to grapple with modern life, carrying around a small notebook to jot down cultural and historical terms and references he does not yet understand (see a page from his notebook here).

Soon, though, the Captain finds himself away from Washington and paired with Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) on assignment from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The duo is to save S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives trapped on a boat from invading Algerian terrorists. But, the Captain soon becomes highly suspicious about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s real mission motives when Natasha only seems invested in grabbing the ship’s data and not fiercely protecting those at risk.

Cap’s outsider status allows him to quickly realize that all may not be quite well at S.H.I.E.L.D. central, led by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford in a surprising role). The All-American hero fears that personal liberty, privacy, and safety may all be at risk in the newest world order, violating the heart of what the Cap had so vehemently fought for during WWII. Further, the Captain must also come to confront the one-man killing machine, “The Winter Soldier” (Sebastian Stan), who represents both a link to his past and the potential soullessness of a dire future.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is, without a doubt, the darkest of the Marvel films to date -- a sort of mix of “The Dark Knight” with only very occasional blips of the tongue-in-cheek Marvel attitude so present in earlier films. (In fact, much of the entire film is literally dark, including the midnight-toned Captain America suit as well as its deep-toned, dark-sounding industrial music.) Villains are not always readily apparent, and the Captain has to confront the morally murky ideas of swapping freedom for security, morality for power, and preemptive strikes for battles yet-to-be-waged. As such, although CGI is certainly at play here, it takes a visual backseat to repeated hand-to-hand combat and raw pulverizing action (with minimal bloodletting to uphold its PG-13 rating). Interestingly, the film has very much the feel of a Matt Damon-“Bourne” series film, as it explores the understanding of personal character and the definition of self amongst lots of pummeling.

Nevertheless, although the film attempts to be more culturally relevant that ever before, it still retains the Marvel predictability: a two-hour-plus length with lots of fighting, good guy vs. bad guy confrontations, double-crossing characters, requisite Stan Lee cameo, plot resolution (although questions of bad guys’ viability remain), and teaser(s) for future films. So, although “The Winter Soldier” is engaging, the lingering “been there-done that” feeling of the film still grates ever so slightly on the viewer, chipping away the depth of any plot surprise for the seasoned superhero film-goer. In all, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a good film with politically relevant themes, but its long-winded darkness makes it slightly less enjoyable than initially expected.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is rated 4 - of 5 stars.

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