The superhero saga continues in lively fashion with the second installment of Captain America, but what distinguishes this Marvel Comics-based movie is the ingenious complexity of the plot and dimension of the characters.
Members of the top-secret government agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D are more multifaceted, their motivations are murkier and emotions often mixed. Insightful moments are interspersed with high-octane action and espionage puzzles to make for a compelling, updated story.
While Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, (Chris Evans) remains at his best in World War II gear, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (*** out of four; rated PG-13, opening Thursday night in some theaters and Friday nationwide) captivates in contemporary garb as fully as the original. Since the intergalactic battle in which New York was nearly destroyed in The Avengers, the world is a more dangerous and problematic place, with mega-drone strikes looming.
The patriotic captain now lives a low-key life in the nation's capital doing his best to catch up to the advancements of modernity and the complexities of global politics. Early on, he meets former soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) while both are on a run through the park.
Shortly thereafter, Rogers must spring into action. His first assignment involves rescuing hostages on a hijacked ship, but things are not what they seem amid cover-ups and twists. He must grapple with a series of unknowns. Is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) everything he seems? Has S.H.I.E.L.D. lost its way as a protective force? And what part in the big picture does the mysterious, power-mad World Security Council member Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) play?
Cap teams up with former KGB agent Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) as the world-threatening web of intrigue grows more intricate. Johansson and Evans have a winning chemistry. She repeatedly teases him about his lack of love life, to which he responds, "I'm 95, I'm not dead!"
Humor lightens up the dark plot. Having spent nearly six decades in frozen limbo, Rogers' scramble to get a handle on popular culture provides plenty of comic moments. He keeps a notebook on the era's highlights. They range from Star Wars to spicy Thai food.
A new and mightily formidable masked villain looms large. He's the titular Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), with a particularly shocking origin story.
Sam offers the music of Marvin Gaye as something Cap needs to familiarize himself with. But the former military paratrooper also has a superhero persona: Falcon is equipped with an impressive set of metallic wings with which he soars and swoops like a powerful hawk.
Evans is ideally suited to the role, as dashing and imposing a physical specimen as a hero named Captain America ought to be. Mackie and Redford, newcomers to the universe, are topnotch in this twist-laden sequel.
Fight scenes are tense, though occasionally it's hard to tell who's doing what to whom. But they have the bone-crunching crack of realism sometimes lacking in comic book movies. An early car chase involving Fury is spectacularly exciting.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, known for their edgy TV comedies like Community and Arrested Development, were an intriguing choice. They inject a Bourne-like sensibility, while remaining faithful to the Avengers canon. The script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, raises timely issues like compromises made in order to protect freedom, deftly fusing the Marvel world with present-day concerns and the paranoia of '70s political thrillers.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an often breathlessly exciting action thriller told with humor and intelligence.