Face front, True Believers. Who can doubt that this is indeed the Marvel Age of Movies? The comic book publisher that effectively launched their long climb to multi-media dominance over fifty years ago with the release of Fantastic Four #1 has now issued enough big screen adventures featuring its characters that the most effective way to measure them is against on another, as if filling a long box in an order determined by quality rather than the alphabet or chronology (or both, natch). Sticking with the tributaries that flow in and out of Joss Whedon’s Avengers film the clear victor thus far, perhaps improbably, is Captain America.
The hero that actually predates the mighty Marvel machine by two decades was reintroduced into more modern chronology in the pages of The Avengers. Captain America was always something of a square, carrying old-fashioned values in a comics universe that was defined by post-war moody psychology. Interestingly enough, that’s the very quality that makes him work better in movies than most of his superheroic brethren, especially in director Joe Johnston’s spin with the character, in large part because he was mostly settled in the nineteen-forties setting, giving the film a liveliness that could be lacking in the other films. Though Cap, played with aplomb by Chris Evans, has now been transplanted into a modern-day setting, that sense of fun endures, although dreaded darkness is encroaching, with it the threat that the film series will flounder in the dark like so many others.
Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo are the directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, presiding over the story of Captain America’s work with S.H.I.E.L.D. In a story that hits parallels to NSA malfeasance a touch too directly the star-spangled Avenger is raising concerns that the preventative efforts of the security agency are becoming a bit too intrusive on the freedoms and liberty of U.S. citizens. Even as he balks at what he sees–raising the ire of both Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and World Security Council member Alexander Pierce (a largely disinterested Robert Redford)–Cap is also worried about rumblings that his old Nazi adversaries HYDRA are mounting some sort of offensive. That all theses threats are desperately entangled merely makes it the stuff of comic adventure.
As with other sequels, Marvel has made The Winter Soldier bigger without necessarily getting better. Captain American has allies in Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Natasha Romanoff, code name Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, technically taking the character in the third separate franchise, continuing to improve each time out), all of them swooping through the mounting mayhem with wavering clarity of purpose. The big bangs are exciting enough in a rudimentary way, but the film is at its best in the smaller, funkier moments, such a gum-snapping reveal by Black Widow or the winning kookiness of Toby Jones’s “appearance” as Arnim Zola. These and other quieter, wittier scenes represent playfulness trumping spectacle, something the films benefit from immensely, which is why the sly, funny Whedon’s exercise of drawing all the chips together remains better than any other movie from this particular Marvel movement (meaning Sam Raimi’s second Spider-Man bests them all). In particular, the plot thread that actually provides the film its subtitle plays out with unearned heavy drama. The exploits of Captain America remain more fun that what’s found in the cinematic exploits of his teammates, but The Winter Soldier offers ominous indications that even here the clamorous noise will start to drown out the sense of fun and adventure.