Who would have thought the best comic-book film in years would center on a former 95-pound weakling played by a low-key actor (Chris Evans)?
Or that it would be directed not by a wunderkind Whedon or Nolan but by television journeymen Joe and Anthony Russo?
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” excites, engages and best of all, hangs together for almost all of its nearly 21/2-hour run time. Among comic-book films, it’s up there with “Batman Begins” and “Spider-Man 2” (the first).
Steve Rogers, the slight World War II volunteer made super soldier by science in 2011’s “Captain America,” lacks Bruce Wayne’s and Peter Parker’s brooding gravitas or Tony Stark’s motormouth wit. What he has is sincerity – a quality that seems fresh in our cynical age. Or at least recently defrosted.
In a deep freeze for 70 years, but fighting modern-day villains since 2012’s “The Avengers,” Rogers is living in Washington, D.C., and working for the security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. when the film opens.
Though Rogers still is adjusting to the modern world, Evans never plays him as an anachronism. His super-everyman character is too alert, too adaptable, for that. He shows Steve’s discomfort subtly, breaking his otherwise straightforward demeanor with a slight ruefulness. He does this during touching moments, all connected to Steve’s past, that help humanize “Soldier” in the midst of all its action.
The Russos are best known for their work on “Arrested Development” and “Community,” absurdist comedies far removed from big-budget comic-book films in all respects beside avid geek-fan bases. The blockbuster-inexperienced directors approach “Soldier” like Steve does life, looking it straight in the eye, rarely trying anything fancy.
The best action scenes involve hand-to-hand and foot-to-face combat conducted by Captain America and his gymnastically inclined fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). The directors’ use of computer-generated imagery appears minimal until a final set piece. That set piece, though not without thrilling moments, lasts too long and diminishes what came before it, though only slightly.
And the film’s non-CGI scenes are no less lethal than its computer-pumped ones. As with all big-budget studio action films, the greater the death toll, the more firmly a ridiculous PG-13 rating stays in place.
But we came here not to criticize the ratings board, but to praise Evans, the Russos and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Also wonderful are Johansson, relaxed in non-action scenes but believably tough in a fight, and Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Redford, who play their S.H.I.E.L.D. authority figures in vastly different, equally powerful ways.
Rogers and Natasha respond early in the film to a pirate takeover of a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship. The ensuing action sequence, during which Captain America knocks the stuffing out of half the bad guys before Natasha and other backup arrives, plays like a 10-minute, more satisfying version of “Captain Phillips.”
But for Rogers, something’s not right in the water. Natasha had a different mission than his, of which he was not informed beforehand. Rogers believes all soldiers should work from the same agenda. He’s further upset by S.H.I.E.L.D. stockpiling sophisticated weaponry not because of imminent threat but in anticipation of it. This is “fear,” not protection, he says.
This strain of “Soldier” contains real-world resonance, at least philosophically, in considering whether one nation should be responsible for policing an unruly world and whether it then can take liberties in that policing. More intriguing, though, is a deeper mystery within “Soldier.” It encompasses the shadowy assassin the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and a warning from Nick Fury (Jackson) not to trust anyone.
Reviews of comic-book movies often stay vague on plot so as not to spoil, and also because it is hard to offer detail and still sound like a a grown-up (“So anyway, he’s a Nazi, but a rogue Nazi, and when he takes off his face ...”).
With “Soldier,” such vagueness springs fully from a desire not to reveal juicy details. So I will describe the Winter Soldier only as having a metal arm and character theme visuals.
Theme visuals are like theme music, but better. The look of the film changes when the Winter Soldier enters the frame. Movements appear sped up and choppy, with vapors trailing the assassin wherever he goes. The Russos saved up all their flourishes for these scenes, which evoke cheap 1980s action films (you keep looking for Dolph Lundgren) and Robert Rodriguez grindhouse nostalgia, to intoxicating effect.
Jackson stars in a grittier action sequence, set on a city street (the Russos shot much of the film in their native Cleveland, Ohio). Throughout the highly tense scene, Jackson maintains his patented mix of apoplectic and unflappable.
Avengers boss Fury has his own S.H.I.E.L.D. boss (Robert Redford). Redford comes off as the tan-suited voice of reason as his character calmly lays everything out for Fury or whoever else wants answers.
Redford funnels his vast experience playing politicians and C.I.A. guys into this one man. That this esteemed actor clearly takes this role in a comics film as seriously as any other adds heft to “Soldier.”
Yet there’s also lightness to many scenes, like those between Evans and Anthony Mackie, as a fellow veteran Rogers meets while “jogging” (he whizzes past Mackie’s character). Though 70 years apart in age, they share the bond of those who saw terrible things yet kept their heads on straight.
Steve and Natasha have a teasing relationship. Though there are romantic sparks between them, Natasha wants to set up Steve with other eligible women. This running gag, unlike other action-film comic-relief bits that get played to death, never gets old.
“Soldier” avoids clichés on all fronts. Yet it is hard to say where the un-flashy Captain America will land in the annals of movie comics heroes. He might always be that earnest 95-pound underdog in a land of silver-tongued Iron Men.
Walking out of a preview screening, I overheard a woman behind me ask a boy what he thought. He said he liked the movie, but without enthusiasm. She was even more measured: “Yeah, it’s Captain America. It’s no Iron Man.”
What does a guy have to do? Steve Rogers volunteers for war despite his small size, consents to a scientific experiment, proves a team player regardless of era and appears in a film better than all three “Iron Man” movies.
Captain America has given his all to better the lives of comic-book movie fans. He deserves respect.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.