“Must have freaked you out, coming back after the defrosting.” If that bit of dialogue, spoken by war veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” makes sense then you already have all the backstory you need to enjoy the movie.
For those who don’t, here’s the scoop. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was a ninety-pound über patriot, too scrawny to enlist in World War II. Not to be deterred he allowed himself to be a guinea pig in the top-secret “super-soldier” experiment. Transformed into a ripped, heroic warrior he (and his trusty shield) took on risky missions and kept the world safe from the terrorist organization HYDRA. On one operation he crash landed in the Arctic and spent decades frozen in a block of ice in a state of suspended animation.
Thawed out in modern day, the MIA soldier is pressed into service by the folks at S.H.I.E.L.D. to protect freedom and the American way.
When we meet up with him in the new film he’s still catching up with the modern world. The extremely well preserved 95 year old is making a list of all the things he missed out on in seven decades of suspended animation. He likely won’t have time to get up to date—take in “Rocky” or listen to Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” for instance—before having to deal with the chrome-armed Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a villain from Cap’s long distant past and battle against a threat from deep inside S.H.I.E.L.D., his own spy network.
With his new world collapsing around him the good Captain must determine who can be trusted. Will it be S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the flirty but deadly Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) or World Security Council bigwig Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford)? The decisions he makes could save his life and the lives of 20 million civilians.
Movie by movie Marvel has created an interconnected universe. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle the comic book company has pieced together something quite unprecedented; a series of films that aren’t sequels to one another but when combined form a loud, brash whole.
Captain America was a latecomer to the party, and while the first film was a solid introduction, it didn’t have the sparkle of say, the first “Iron Man” movie. The character seemed a bit beige; a do-gooder with no rough edges. “The Winter Soldier” addresses those concerns, fleshing out the character and providing some very good action sequences.
Evans has grown into the character. Physically he’s one big rippling muscle, but it is his personality and attitude that make him interesting. This time around he’s still a do-gooder but one who questions his missions. “You’re holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection,” he says after learning of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s violent plan to bring peace to the world. “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.”
It’s an edgy message from a Greatest Generation type to a world where drones have become common and Edward Snowden rides the line between patriot and traitor. The message permeates the plot, which is ripe with twists and turns and some genuinely thrilling moments.
Adding to the intrigue is some high powered star wattage. Robert Redford, who, if this was 1973 might have played the title role, brings credibility to Pierce. He’s an enigma, a man who turned down the Nobel Peace Prize, but also helped create a world so chaotic that he believes people are willing to give up freedom for peace. He brings some old school gravitas to the part and his very presence in the movie made me want to re-watch “Three Days of the Condor.”
Johansson is mad, bad and dangerous to know as Romanoff, and kicks so high it’s only a matter of time until she gets her own Avenger’s movie.
Of course, this is a comic book movie so for all the high-minded subtext there are still big action scenes every ten minutes or so, each one larger and louder than the last. The biggest and brashest is saved for the climax, which is where “The Winter Soldier” packs the inventiveness of its first two acts away and becomes a standard Marvel action movie. Up until that point, however, it is a funny (pay attention for a good “Pulp Fiction” gag involving Jackson), fast paced movie that is a cut above the usual super hero fare.