One of the pleasures of Joe Johnston’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” released in 2011, was its pulp magazine atmosphere. With its nostalgic sepia-toned color scheme, a 1940s-set story about vanquishing the evil Nazi regime, its space opera gadgets and gizmos, and its “Superman”-like faith in truth, justice, and the American way, it had a wonderful gee whiz sensibility that evoked the Saturday matinee serials of yesteryear. I honestly don’t remember how the title character, played by Chris Evans, ended up in suspended animation and awakening in the twenty-first century, playing a supporting role in 2012’s “Marvel’s The Avengers.” Regardless, because he now lives in our time, he’s now bound by the conventions of today’s action films, most of which don’t aim to be entertaining so much as mindless, repetitive, and in some cases, profane.
Although “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” doesn’t sink that far down, thank heavens, there are moments when it comes dangerously close. That’s probably why it didn’t hold my attention as well as “The First Avenger” did. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a perfectly serviceable comic book movie, full of frenetic action sequences and impressive special effects (which are glorious to behold in IMAX 3D), and it tells a story that gives us good guys to root for and bad guys to jeer at. Nevertheless, it doesn’t have the same appeal of its predecessor. And while it does hold its own as a story, my concern over each successive entry in the already expansive Marvel cinematic universe becoming hopelessly intertwined with one another hasn’t been eased.
It has now reached the point that I’m beginning to forget names, faces, and events from several of the previous eight Marvel entries, beginning in 2008 with “Iron Man” and having left off last November with “Thor: The Dark World.” Much of the information I’ve gathered thus far may be only distantly related to this film, but short of me actually reading the comic books from which they originated – which will not happen, given that I’ve argued against this approach to movie watching more times than I can remember – they are vital for me to fully understand why certain things happen and how. If this trend continues with future Marvel releases, I’m liable to forget absolutely everything. This will leave me with little choice but to watch every movie again, this time with a pad of paper for taking notes.
The plot sees Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, on a mission to expose a secret terrorist organization hidden within the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D., now more known to the public than ever thanks to a TV series bearing its name. Joining Rogers is the sexy superfighter Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the winged Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and the plucky Sharon Carter/Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp), a young undercover agent Rogers initially believed was nothing more than his next-door neighbor. Sensing something is going wrong far earlier than any other character is S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who after all these films still sports an eyepatch, a black leather jacket, a wry sense of humor, and a rather aloof demeanor.
Several characters are introduced in this film, although only two are worth mentioning. One is Alexander Pierce, one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s senior leaders and Nick Fury’s old friend. He’s played by Robert Redford, and while it’s usually never beneath a revered Hollywood actor to appear in an escapist comic book movie, it’s surprising nevertheless. What isn’t so surprising is the purpose his character serves, but I fear I’ve said too much already. The other, as the film’s subtitle plainly spells out, is the Winter Soldier, a masked killing machine targeting Rogers for reasons not immediately given. His identity is revealed fairly early on, but I’m going to do you the service of keeping my mouth shut. Let’s just say a familiarity with one of the previous Marvel films will help considerably. No, I won’t say which film it is.
By now, we’ve been conditioned us to automatically expect specific things from these Marvel films. One is a cameo appearance by Stan Lee. The other is a post-credit epilogue sequence that introduces new characters and teases audiences with future plotlines. This latter Marvel universe convention has been somewhat altered; we’re now given two epilogue sequences, the first in the middle of the end credits, the second after all the credits have rolled. True to form, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” supplies the cameo and the epilogues. It also supplies everything we’ve come to expect from any contemporary superhero movie – stunts, explosions, computer generated imagery – so I guess there really isn’t any reason to not see it. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it gets the job done.