This review contains mild spoilers for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."
As a fan of superhero movies and the source material that inspires them, it's easy to get excited whenever a filmmaker or actor gets an interpretation, or an exploration of a character "right," quelling skepticism with top-notch entertainment that even vaguely mirrors details and developments in the images conjured by our imaginations. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" delivers in that regard, and then some -- it's not just right, it's great -- thanks to Anthony and Joe Russo's dexterous direction, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's thoughtful writing, and Chris Evans' nuanced performance, a convergence of virtuoso efforts working in concert.
But at the risk of underscoring a division that typically makes me bristle -- the amorphous boundary between crowdpleasers and works of "true" artistic integrity -- the Russos' sequel is at best, or perhaps merely, an excellent popcorn movie. More of a "Dark Knight Rises" than a "Dark Knight," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" maximizes, but does not exceed, the boundaries of its genre, using real-world parallels to tell an engaging political story that despite its best efforts will never be mistaken for a real or truly profound statement about the sociopolitical status quo.
Evans returns as Steve Rogers, the fearless, idealistic "first Avenger" whose acclimation to modern life comes with a considerable amount of disillusionment as he begins to realize that S.H.I.E.L.D. is more than willing to compromise America's values in order to protect its freedoms. Despite being frustrated by Nick Fury's (Samuel L Jackson) operational obfuscations, Rogers soon becomes the only man his commander can trust after a mysterious operative known as The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) attempts to assassinate Fury.
Even with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) at his side, Steve's suspicions about S.H.I.E.L.D.'s corruption still linger, especially after a top-level government intermediary named Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) dispatches agents to apprehend Captain America for treason. On the run from the authorities and struggling to reconcile his personal ideals and 2014's political realities, Rogers begins to uncover what appears to be a vast conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D., which may or may not revolve around plans to implement a new mobile, automated security system that can not only eliminate, but anticipate potential threats to freedom before they occur.
Given the timely relevance of questions about NSA snooping, personal privacy and bureaucratic oversight, Markus and McFeely capitalize broadly on audience fears by shrewdly constructing the "Captain America" sequel like a political potboiler, a rabbit-hole chase to uncover the corruption of the U.S. government best exemplified by ‘70s thrillers like "All The President's Men" or "The Parallax View." But while questioning S.H.I.E.L.D.'s integrity feels like dramatic manna when juxtaposed with Captain America's indefatigable wholesomeness, the screenwriting duo unfortunately devotes far too much dialogue to setting up, explaining and clarifying the various motivations and ideologies of the various participants in its web of intrigue, and then conflates reasonable skepticism in government security precautions with a catastrophically sinister -- let's say comic book-y -- threat.
Of course, far be it from me to suggest it's silly to fear the possibility of triangulated helicarriers capable of autonomously assessing potential threats using complex algorithms -- and of course, cinema is a wonderfully effective canvas for exploring real-world ideas in a heightened dramatic setting. And quite frankly, those helicarriers make for a pretty terrific landscape for Captain America, Black Widow and Falcon to traverse as they try and rescue America from itself. But if we're to presume that S.H.I.E.L.D. has the legitimacy of real organizations like the FBI and NSA, is it remotely possible that everything that happens -- including a spectacularly huge battle adjacent to Washington D.C. -- wouldn't attract a little more attention from the public, much less some of those other agencies?
More to the point, the film aspires to examine the concept of moral equivalency -- the compromises we're willing to accept in order to protect a vague notion of "freedom" -- but it fails to encompass (or even address) a larger political context, both in terms of bureaucratic operations, not to mention media coverage. As impressively mounted and physically palpable as the action may be, what it lacks is real-world tangibility, insofar as it fails to look at the impact of the action within Cap's sphere of disillusionment upon the larger world around it. Would a series of massive shootouts in a heavily-populated metropolitan area jeopardize public support for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s security measures, or bolster it?
That said, the Russos' reliance on as much practical stunt work as possible provides the film with a groundedness, helicarriers notwithstanding, that benefits its drama enormously. Although the siblings' pedigree is in television comedy, including work on "Arrested Development" and "Community," they exude sophistication as directors of action, not just providing spatial clarity but visceral intensity as they set up confrontations and then give them emotional dimensions to engage the audience. It's not just what's happening, it's why, and even why we should care. Moreover, that comedic background augments the humanity of the characters, whose weaknesses, physical and otherwise, are incorporated into the rest of their behavior, whether it's via a quiet moment before the explosions start, or a mid-battle aside that punctuates their ferocity with a humorous reprieve.
As Captain America, Evans seems more settled, and centered, in the role than ever, perhaps acclimating himself to the dynamism of the Marvel Universe in the same way his character has adjusted to modernity. Markus and McFeely give the character an uncharacteristic wealth of opportunities for introspection and reflection -- at least for a film like this one -- and Evans makes the most of them, showcasing the character's integrity, and intelligence, as he re-evaluates the intelligence community of which he's a part, and determines how best to serve the principles that, well, make him America's greatest hero.
Contrasted with Captain America, Black Widow and Nick Fury get a unique opportunity to have their own world views challenged, and Johansson and Jackson mostly do a terrific job of creating a believable transformation for their characters as their threshold for ambiguous morality is tested. Johansson's third-act standoff with the authorities smacks of almost George Bush-level insolence, not to mention misdirection from the crevasse of unanswered questions left over from the events of the film, but she otherwise imbues a cipher of a character with substance and depth.
Most remarkably, Johansson enables the audience to ignore what might be an inevitable romantic entanglement between Widow and Cap while generating a relationship that is significant and meaningful to both. Meanwhile, Jackson's impermeable authority gets appropriately dismantled, and the actor's own iconic presence is injected with a welcome dose of vulnerability that reminds audiences he still falls prey to human foibles, no matter how many times he's put in charge.
You may have noticed that there's little mention of the Winter Soldier in this review for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," and there's a reason for that: He often feels like an afterthought in the narrative, a considerable flaw for a film which bears his name in the title. As provocative and dramatically effective the character is as a physical foil for Cap, Markus and McFeely integrate him into the larger web of political intrigue so feebly that their conflict never resonates thematically, and really only does emotionally because of Evans' work in finding the loneliness and loss beneath his earnest efforts to make the best of his displacement.
Ultimately, there are some profound and insightful notions here about a political landscape where information rather than geography forms its borders, not to mention one where technology becomes more of a threat to its citizenry the more effectively it's used to protect them. But that's also the film's problem as a whole -- namely, that it assembles all of these great ideas but never pays quite enough attention to how they fit together, or what they might mean in a larger sense (unless by "larger sense" you mean how they'll affect future Marvel movies).
In which case, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a wonderfully-mounted, fun, smart and engaging movie, full of provocative ideas and breathtaking set pieces -- in short, all it effectively needs to be to succeed. But even if the Russos' sequel ranks among the top tier of superhero adventures, it falls short of being a masterpiece -- something, well, more than the sum of its parts -- because it uses ideas from the real world to say something about its fictional characters, when it had the potential to use its fictional characters to say something about the real world.