A Somber, Super Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel's latest offering is among its most ambitious—and most satisfying

All hail Kevin Feige!

I’m kidding, of course, but barely so. Like many filmgoers (most?), I've spent the last decade waiting for the superhero-movie bubble to pop. Sure, a few gifted auteur/enthusiasts—Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan—had proven they could be successful within the narrow constraints of the genre. But talented directors move on to new projects, and ultimately, I assumed, the superhero genre would collapse under the weight of its own ridiculousness. It had happened before, after all.

Then along came Marvel Studios, and—more particularly—Feige. Named president of the studio in 2007 at the age of 33, he’s since had a run of almost Pixarian success. In six years, he’s produced nine Marvel movies by eight different directors, all of them interconnected even as they vary radically in tone and locale, from the interstellar fantasy cityscapes of Asgard to the bitter alpine forests of WWII Germany. His misfires (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2) have been mild ones, and his hits (almost everything else) have been remarkable. According to Bloomberg, a flow chart on Feige’s office wall has Marvel releases mapped out all the way to 2028. If he maintains anywhere near his current standard, we may have to hold our obituaries for the superhero genre for a good long while.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier continues—indeed, elevates—Marvel’s strong run. It is easily the studio’s most ambitious undertaking short of The Avengers, artfully knitting together Cap’s WWII history and the present-day Marvel-verse, while also serving as robust connective tissue to next year’s Avengers sequel. The performances are good, the script (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) is sharp, and the action sequences are nothing short of superb. Those who don’t care for superhero flicks may not be won over. But those with any affinity for the genre are likely to emerge profoundly satisfied.

Where the first Captain America movie was engineered as a throwback 1940s war film, the new one is instead an espionage flick that self-consciously harkens to the political thrillers of the 1970s. Having been thawed out of his post-war freeze and then commissioned as an Avenger, Captain America—a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans)—is now working as a moderately reluctant contractor for SHIELD, the global spy service run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). When pirates highjack a SHIELD vessel in the Indian Ocean, Rogers and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are sent on what appears to be a routine hostage-rescue mission. It is not, of course, routine at all, as Fury has another, secret agenda for the operation: SHIELD has been compromised at a high level, and he’s trying to find out how and by whom.

I’m going to leave it there as far as the plot goes. Many of the narrative surprises and Big Reveals have already been widely circulated, and they’re a pleasure even if you see them coming. But the less you know going in, the more pleasurable I suspect they’ll be. (Read—or better yet, don’t—accordingly.) Suffice it to say that in addition to the familiar characters already mentioned—and SHIELD agent Maria Hill, played by Cobie Smulders, who has a small but important role—we’re also introduced to former paratrooper Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and to Nick Fury’s boss, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). An important new friendship for Rogers is inaugurated, and another from his past plays a crucial role in what unfolds.

The Steve Rogers of this film is no longer the plucky underdog raring to fight “bullies” like the Nazis. He is, as one adversary notes, “out of time”: a man with a black-and-white disposition in a world of grays, encumbered by nostalgia and plagued with regret. Though he allows that the contemporary world has its advantages—“Food’s a lot better. We used to boil everything”—he is struggling to find his place in it. When someone asks him what makes him happy, his response is “I don’t know.”

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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