Captain America, like Superman, has endured for more than 70 years as an iconic superhero, with both serving as exemplars of human ideals. They're the better angels of our nature, in comic book scale. But their status as role models makes dramatizing them more difficult than tough, brooding heroes like Batman. How do you add compelling dimensions to such squeaky-clean personalities? Last year's Man of Steel offered a more ambiguous, anguished take on Superman and was soundly criticized for it.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier admirably does justice to the character's ideals, while still fleshing out the role and addressing some knotty subject matter with real-world ramifications. It's like the Marvel Studios' answer to the Bourne movies, only with heli-carriers and bionic arms.
It's also the best so far to serve Chris Evans as an actor. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Evans effectively conveyed puny Steve Rogers' drive to prove himself in World War II, but when he bulked out with "super soldier serum," the film simply followed him on a familiar series of missions. And while Evans is highly enjoyable in The Avengers, his wholesome nature frequently made him the straight man to his teammates. In The Winter Soldier, Evans comes across more as a regular guy with a strong moral compass, who can express American ideals without sounding naïve or jingoistic.
The Winter Soldier begins with Steve leading commando-style counter terrorism missions for S.H.I.E.L.D., the Washington-based global security agency that increasingly seems like an extension of American power. Steve foils some seagoing hijackers in a crackling early action scene, but discovers that his mission had hidden objectives.
S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Marvel mainstay Samuel L. Jackson) reveals that he'd been hiding truths from Steve. But, as if the heroes keep falling through trapdoors, the spymaster discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. contains secrets even from him, and a far-reaching conspiracy pits Nick and Steve's colleagues against them. Captain America turns fugitive to untangle the mystery, but finds a crucial ally - and a little romantic tension - from fellow Avenger Natasha Romanova (Scarlett Johansson). But can they keep ahead of the mysterious hit man known as the Winter Soldier, who has a surprising connection to Steve's past?
Between the scenes of actual running The Winter Soldier has running arguments about freedom vs. security that resonate with current political debates. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo cleverly cast Robert Redford as a S.H.I.E.L.D. bigwig with a hidden agenda, signaling the film's eagerness to emulate such 1970s political thrillers as All the President's Men and Three Days of the Condor.
The Winter Soldier may be an action movie at heart, but some of its plot twists and set pieces - good people manipulated to serve evil ends, high-tech weapons trained on each other - support the metaphorical notions of a nation at odds with itself.
The Russo brothers deliver a remarkably accomplished, confident film, particularly given that most of their previous experience comes from smart sitcoms and a couple of low-budget movies. They stage excellent action sequences, cultivate a mood of paranoia, come up with good laughs and plenty of nice character work. Steve strikes up an easy, convincing friendship with a vet named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who turns out to have his own superheroic credentials.
And while 2013's Marvel movies made you wonder if the studio's output would just mark time between Avengers sequels, The Winter Soldier plays for high stakes and shakes up the status quo in unexpected ways. Captain America: The Winter Soldier deserves a salute for delivering on the goals of a Hollywood blockbuster, with a skeptical view on contemporary political power but an innate faith in truth, justice and the American way.