A superhero should be nimble on his feet. A superhero movie should be likewise.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a double-sequel to the 2011 Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and The Avengers (2012), proves as agile -- thematically -- as the star-spangled super-soldier of the title. It hits the big action beats we have come to expect from Marvel adaptations. But it also achieves a certain ripped-from-the-headlines pertinence reminiscent of the so-called Bronze Age of Comics of the '70s and '80s in the way it addresses, of all things, government secrecy.
We find Captain America, a.k.a. the recently defrosted Second World War hero Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, seemingly airbrushed into physical perfection), clashing with his tough-as-nails commander Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) over an ethically suspect S.H.I.E.L.D. initiative involving floating super-aircraft that can blast enemies of the state, wherever they may be.
For Fury, it's a guarantee of freedom, American-style. For Rogers, a member of the so-called "Greatest Generation," it's a tool to create fear, no different from the methods of the Nazis he fought back in the Second World War.
As it turns out, Captain America proves to be onto something when Fury becomes the target of an assassin known as "The Winter Soldier" (Sebastian Stan), a mysterious man with a metal arm and enhanced fighting ability worthy of the Captain himself.
Thanks to the intervention of acting S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Rogers finds himself on the lam alongside sassy agent Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), with no one to turn to except a sympathetic vet, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who proves to be more than he seems, heroism-wise.
Considering that directors Anthony and Joe Russo made their bones directing TV comedy (Community, Arrested Development), it's surprising the movie doesn't have the same sense of impetuous fun as The Avengers.
But it does have an undeniable driving momentum, augmented by a couple of excellent chase scenes (Fury racing through the streets of Washington, pursued by bogus cops; Captain America using his shield to bulldoze his way through an office building in pursuit of an assassin) and some better-than-expected fight choreography. (Note the presence of UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre as a French terrorist engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Cap.)
This is also one of the rare superhero movies with the power to surprise, including its unusual use of '70s siren Jenny Agutter as a S.H.I.E.L.D. council member.
One of the principal jolts is the presence of Redford, lending his screen gravitas to the role of a military power player.
One doesn't get the sense that Redford feels he's slumming. In fact, he takes it all seriously enough that one wonders if he isn't considering rebooting his movie Three Days of the Condor, only this time, the Condor has wings.
The movie does its duty. It's a reliable commodity, delivered efficiently and well, like pizza.
-- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
Captain America is everything a big-budget superhero film should be -- except inspired.
-- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Fight scenes are tense, though occasionally it's hard to tell who's doing what to whom. But they have the bone-crunching crack of realism sometimes lacking in comic-book movies.
-- Claudia Puig, USA Today
Thanks to Johansson, Jackson and Redford, this is all good fun. It's a shame the weak link is the Captain himself.
-- Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
In this spectacularly entertaining sequel, Rogers is still running, jumping, and chucking his mighty shield like it's 1945. But now he's doing so with the weariness and distrust of historical hindsight.
-- A.A. Dowd, A.V. Club
While Evans is still great in the role and it's nice that this superhero film is actually "about something," it lacks the heart of Captain America and the humour of The Avengers.
-- Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Takes the bold (for Marvel) step of reducing CGI spectacle to a relative minimum in favour of reviving the pleasures of hard-driving old-school action, surprising character development and intriguing suspense.
-- Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter