Sunday, January 31, 2016

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) ***1/2

In “Captain America: The First Avenger,” we met Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the little guy with a big heart who gets turned into a strapping superhero by an experimental serum. He fought Nazis and an underground organization called Hydra during WWII, then wound up getting frozen in suspended animation. Seventy years later, he was unfrozen and recruited by SHIELD to help the Avengers save the earth again in “The Avengers.”

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” finds Cap, ever dutiful, working faithfully for SHIELD, even as he is troubled by the secretiveness of Commander Nick Fury. He is especially troubled by SHIELD's paternalistic, “trust us” approach to both its agents and the humanity it is supposedly protecting. SHIELD takes things a bridge too far when they build an armada of hovercraft gunships that can patrol the earth constantly, monitoring everything, and killing terrorist threats before they have a chance to strike. It's an incredibly powerful tool, with incredible potential for misuse. Captain Rogers is rightfully chilled by the prospect, and his concerns are proven justified when it turns out SHIELD has been infiltrated.

The Captain also runs into an old friend, now turned foe. I don't think it's a huge spoiler at this point to say that his childhood friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), didn't die in that fall in the first movie. It turns out he was rescued by Hydra and the Russians, who wiped out his memory and turned him into a metal-armed killing machine they called the Winter Soldier, storing him in suspended animation until they needed him to fight people like Captain America. The whole thing is highly improbable, but it's easy to just go with it.

That's the good thing about this movie. It's full-on popcorn action, but the plot and characters make just enough sense for a grown person to enjoy watching it. It's also that rare thing, a sequel that is probably better than the original movie. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, relative newcomers known for their work on the quirky TV comedy “Community,” the movie bears a sense of humor that is a little smarter than that found in “The Avengers,” and less smugly cynical than what you get in “Iron Man.” The earnest Captain is the perfect straight-man for Scarlett Johansson's sarcastic Black Widow. “The Winter Soldier” also introduces a new hero, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie.)

These comic-book franchises tend to have a motif in the midst of all that action. The X-men films are about a misunderstood minority fighting for the right to be themselves, basically a thinly-veiled allegory about gay people. Spiderman has that whole”With great power comes great responsibility” thing. Captain America explores the tension between individuality and collective authority. Steve Rogers' defining trait is his willingness to sacrifice himself for others, but the choice to make that sacrifice is always HIS choice. He fights against Hydra, which seeks to establish the kind of worldwide, totalitarian regime in which the State would decide who gets sacrificed for whom. “The Winter Soldier” is complex enough to allow Cap to butt up against SHIELD, which is supposedly benevolent, but is taking on ever more authoritarian overtones. Much like some of our government agencies today, SHIELD works behind the scenes to keep people safe. Since their intentions are good, the leaders of SHIELD believe there should be no limits to their activities. It's hard for Captain America (and for us in the audience) to know exactly where the line should be drawn between law enforcement and individual freedom, but he instinctively resists SHIELD's unlimited spying and lack of accountability.

Whether you watch it for the geopolitical commentary, the non-stop action, or Scarlett Johansson's skin-tight outfits, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is good entertainment for any season.

3.5 stars out of 5

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