In the lead up to writing this review, I asked Thaddeus what he thought of the original 2011 Captain America (needlessly subtitled "The First Avenger"). He admitted that while he'd seen it, he didn't really remember it that well. While I liked that film a bit more than he did, I couldn't fault his recall. By design, Marvel Studios' productions have been a bit of a meringue: sweet but insubstantial. They've generally fallen under the heading of light adventure/comedy, prioritizing giving the audience a fun popcorn-munching experience over being memorable.
It was quite to my surprise, then, that my first reaction after watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Cap 2, for short) was, "They've finally made a real movie." Cap 2 is a straight-up action movie, something closer to the James Bond or Mission: Impossible series than to the movie's Marvel peers.
Here's the setup: since last we saw him in The Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans) has continued working as a commando for the international espionage/peacekeeping force, SHIELD, alongside his Avengers teammate Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) under the command of Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson). Cap--a World War II super-soldier who's still alive and youthful in the 21st Century due to accidental cryogenic suspension--is at a crossroads. He has no personal life, since all of his Greatest Generation peers are either dead or dying of old age. However, he is also unenthusiastic about continuing to be the good soldier for Fury, a man whose organization often pursues shadowy agendas.
Cap's misgivings about SHIELD come to a head when he learns they are developing a series of helicarriers (in this movie, basically suborbital Death Stars) for the topical purpose of waging targeted preemptive war against terrorist organizations. Cap's doubts lead him to consider life after the military. In this he's inspired by a new friend, Sam (Anthony Mackie), a former airborne soldier who now counsels traumatized veterans at the VA.
Is America's greatest soldier ready to stop taking orders and start living his own life? This personal crisis is rudely interrupted when the subtitular Winter Soldier, an assassin with a bionic arm and a mysterious past, starts targeting Cap's SHIELD co-workers.
Evans, a superhero movie veteran even before he took up the mantle of Cap in 2011, brings an appealing groundedness to a character who could easily come off as a jingoistic cornball. He has solid chemistry with Johansson (who's enjoying a career revival reminiscent of the McConaissance) in a mismatched buddy-hero relationship, the honest supersoldier teamed up with the duplicitous superspy. Robert Redford has great fun adding some 70s-style paranoia to the proceedings as Fury's boss.
The plot here is primarily a delivery vehicle for huge action setpieces, which Cap 2 has in abundance. The movie is darker than other Marvel films, with a hard PG-13 rating for extravagant gun violence and a high body count. The Russo Brothers, best known for TV comedies and the Owen Wilson vehicle You, Me, and Dupree, make the superpowered mayhem simultaneously fantastic and realistic. The only downside to the action is that, given the film's 136-minute run time, we might get too much of a good thing.
The Russos also do a great job of putting the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the service of their movie. Cap 2 picks up a bunch of minor characters from previous Marvel movies to give the film an epic scope that's in many ways bigger than The Avengers. In the story's climax, the additional characters provide the sense that our heroes are part of a larger fight, without adding narrative bloat and additional backstories to the proceedings.
Cap 2 is very highly recommended, on par with The Avengers, and just shy of the pinnacle of comic book filmdom (a title jointly held in my book by The Dark Knight and Spider Man 2).