Captain America loses some innocence but gains some coolness in new film

Captain America Chris Evans and Black Widow Scarlett Johansson in their street clothes

People who prefer Marvel to DC Comics generally express that preference in terms of the characters in the Marvel superhero universe being more complex beings than their DC counterparts. Unlike every early DC hero with the possible exception of Batman, they have dark sides. Their flaws and weaknesses tend to be matters of character or personality as opposed to, say, Superman’s physical vulnerability to Kryptonite. Consequently, they’re more conflicted and thus more relatable and interesting; their stories take unexpected turns as the characters get mired in various forms of superhuman angst.

So say the Marvel fanboys and fangirls. But the very first superhero ever coined in the Marvel franchise is the exception to the rule: Armed only with a glorified Frisbee and wrapping himself in the flag, Captain America is chaste and virtuous and self-sacrificing; he never lies or disobeys orders. Having conveniently slept through Korea and Vietnam, our various sordid little interventions in Latin America, the Gulf War and most of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts as well, Steve Rogers is still fighting the Good War, untroubled by any of the ethical qualms about American military adventurism overseas that have afflicted subsequent generations.

The upshot is that hitherto, as Marvel superheroes go, Captain America has been the most boring. That sad truth came into sharp focus in the mishmash of characters thrown together, all seemingly talking different languages, in Joss Whedon’s megahit 2012 film The Avengers: Steve Rogers/Captain America isn’t jaded, snarky, ironic and cool like Tony Stark/Iron Man; he’s not alternately a cuddly human and an explosive beast with a dry sense of humor like Bruce Banner/the Hulk. Buff as he may be, he isn’t a gorgeous-looking Norse deity like Thor/Thor, and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s butt looks way better in Spandex.

In fact, Rogers gets stuck with about the dorkiest line in the whole movie, telling Romanoff, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that” – this despite the fact that he’s working on the same side as one member of the Asgard pantheon to foil the nefarious plans of another. Stark and Banner get all the good lines and funny bits in The Avengers; Rogers is virtuous to his eyeballs and dull, dull, dull.

Happily, as the biggest fish in the slightly smaller pond of his own movie, Anthony and Joe Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap gets to shine a bit more – largely because he’s developing his own brand of Marvelesque inner conflict. Whereas Joe Johnston’s 2011 Captain America: The First Avenger was basically the character’s origin story, set mainly during World War II and only showing Cap coming out of his deep freeze at the very end, Winter Soldier’s plot occurs subsequently to the Loki hijinks, alien invasion and general trashing of New York City in The Avengers. As he attempts to adapt to 21st-century pop culture and technology, Rogers (Chris Evans) has had a little time now to digest the moral ambiguities of the Bush administration’s foreign policy and is starting to have some unprecedented trust issues about the US government. What’s bad for America is good for Captain America, though: He’s becoming a generally more interesting guy.

Cap’s growing skepticism is well-warranted, as we quickly discover in this briskly paced but not mind-numbingly hyperkinetic action film. On a mission to rescue a SHIELD ship from Algerian pirates, he discovers that his sidekick Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is following a different set of orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and starts wondering which side the boss is really on and who’s telling the truth, if anyone. Turns out that SHIELD security has been seriously compromised in a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy sort of high-level conspiracy. Your basic good guys-versus-Nazilike-HYDRA-bad-guys comic book plot thus jumps a metalevel to a twisty meditation on the ethics and transparency issues of government agencies in the age of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. It’s timely that way.

Evans and Johansson have good onscreen chemistry, though of a decidedly nonsexual sort, as uneasy allies dodging relentless pursuit by their own superhero/spy agency while trying to figure out who has taken over and for what nefarious purpose. (The rest of the Avengers are apparently either off on vacation or sweeping up the debris pile that was once Manhattan.) One thing that becomes very clear from Johansson’s performance in Winter Soldier, tossing off nonchalant quips or trying to fix Cap up with blind dates in the midst of decking adversaries by the dozen, is that in a less sexist moviemaking world, the Black Widow could easily command a movie of her own. Maybe the fanbase will begin demanding one more loudly now.

Another pleasant development to be found in this movie is the establishment of a black Avenger as a star in his own right. Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker, The Adjustment Bureau) exudes considerable low-key charm as Sam Wilson, an Iraq vet from a pararescue unit who counsels military PTSD victims and befriends Rogers at a time when friends are thin on the ground. Helpfully, Wilson turns out to be able to fly, thanks to a zingy silver-winged suit: Welcome the Falcon, newest recruit to SHIELD’s fighting elite.

The rest of the cast is strong as well, though some of the lines that they are called upon to deliver are typically ham-handed comic-book talk-bubble material. Hayley Atwell gets an affecting scene with Evans as an elderly, dying Peggy Carter, Cap’s “best girl” from World War II days; and Robert Redford as World Security Council member/SHIELD honcho Alexander Pierce gives an amusing new spin to his DC bureaucrat roles of the ’70s and ’80s. The reliable Jackson turns in very satisfying work as the multiplicitous Fury, who spins way more webs here than the Black Widow.

You don’t really need to know much more about the plot; to divulge the secret identity of HYDRA’s latest killing machine dubbed the Winter Soldier might mean spoiling a surprise for the two or three people out there who weren’t already aware of it from all the pre-release hype. Suffice it to say that there are car chases, exhibitions of sundry martial arts, explosions, lots of leaps from very high places, airborne weapons of mass destruction and the obligatory MacGuffin that needs to be inserted in a certain slot before a certain countdown runs out (we of course get the full countdown).

As is usual in comic book-based movies, there is a disturbing amount of collateral damage to buildings, vehicles and the civilian population before all is sorted out – though thankfully, not quite so much to Washington, DC here as was done to the Big Apple in The Avengers. Hang in there for the traditional post-closing-credits Easter egg for a glimpse of a couple of new superpowered characters being groomed for the next sequel. Meanwhile, you can revel in the fact that ol’ Cap has shed a few points off his dorkiness quotient, yielding a couple of hours of not entirely brainless, actiony onscreen fun.

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