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Review: ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’ is great, but can Marvel keep it up?

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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The Marvel cinematic universe (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, etc.) has settled into a consistent and reliable filmmaking groove over the past six years. With the release of its latest film – Captain America: The Winter Solider (their ninth film) – Marvel shows yet again that it can make a solid, energetic, and action-packed film with the occasional big surprise. In fact, this second stand-alone Captain America film is one of the better ones, but how long can Marvel expect to coast along without shaking things up a bit more?

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier wants to break the mold, and in some ways almost succeeds, but ultimately falls short of anything truly significant. But hey, as they say, if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.

Perhaps more than any of the Marvel stand alone films, the Captain America films are intrinsically about S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division). The top secret, far-reaching government organization appears in almost all the films, usually in the form of leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), but with both Captain America films, the organization is not just in the background, it is the focus.

Released, three years ago, the first Captain film (subtitled The First Avenger) portrays S.H.I.E.L.D. in its infancy, while the second film (which takes place roughly 70 years later) depicts S.H.I.E.L.D. at a major crossroads. There are tons of callbacks to the original Captain film (HYDRA, Arnim Zola, Peggy Carter, and of course, Steve Rogers’ best friend, Bucky Barnes) – almost all of which fun and warranted, especially if you liked the first film. But much has happened in the intervening decades, including the world-altering events of The Avengers and the growing concern over the safety of not only the United States, but the planet in general.

With an über-contemporary theme of government protection vs. infringement at its center, Winter Soldier is also the most real world/realistic Marvel film (despite the serum-injected super human strength, a man with giant metal wings who flies around like falcon, and the bionic-armed villain). There are no alien worlds, giant green monsters, or genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropists and it serves the film well. The Winter Soldier plays like spy thriller in the mold of the Bourne films (with distinct comic book slant, of course).

But speaking of those fellow Avengers, the one big question the film (and none of the post-Avengers films) can seem to answer (or even address) is why can’t they just call on the other Avengers for help? Seeing as how the story revolves around S.H.I.E.L.D. being compromised, why wouldn’t the others come to save the day as well? Iron Man could be there in ten minutes, the Hulk too – and Hawkeye, an official S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, definitely should been there. But none of them come.

This time, saving the day is left to just Captain America, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and newcomer The Falcon (a more-than-welcome addition in New Orleans-native Anthony Mackie). Johansson, who has appeared in many of her fellow Avengers’ film, is terrific this time around and makes a clear declaration that her character is more than deserving of her own spin-off film – far too long has she played second fiddle to her male counterparts. And Mackie is a breath of fresh air into the series, adding the appropriate amount of seriousness and charm to what is, admittedly, a fairly odd character (even by comic book standards). Also new to the fold is Robert Redford, in a surprisingly solid turn as Alexander Pierce, a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official and close friend of Nick Fury – or so he thought.

The unique thing about Captain America is the fish out-of-water element – and the bit of naïveté that comes from that for Steve Rogers. What the Marvel movies do best is balance the humor and action, succeeding at both without ever compromising the other – and they are getting better and better at both. The humor was hit-or-miss and some of the action was suspect in the first Captain America go-round, but both are much improved here. Also, like many Marvel outings, Winter Soldier runs a bit long, but never really outstays its welcome. It is just too much fun.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a solid addition to the Marvel universe, but the question must be repeated: How long can Marvel keep it up without shaking it up? There is just not enough urgency in the films and the stakes are not high enough. Is anyone ever really worried about whether or not these superheroes will succeed – or more significantly – die?

* * * * out of 5 stars

Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, April 4 and locally at Chalmette Movies, The Grand 14 at Esplanade, and all three AMC Palace theaters (Elmwood 20, Westbank 16, and Clearview 12).

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