These days, Marvel Studios is running the best racket in Hollywood. Love the Avengers? Big fan of Iron Man and Thor? Well, to fully appreciate their next big team-up, you'll have to see Iron Man 3. And Thor 2. And hell, while you're at it, give Guardians of the Galaxy a shot. That Dave Bautista sure is swole. That trend continues in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, another perfectly adequate standalone adventure in the Marvel universe. One of the toughest jobs for their screenwriters must be figuring out why the other Avengers wouldn't pop in and help out at the first sign of danger. It's a little easier with Thor; he lives in another realm. But why wouldn't Bruce Banner and Tony Stark come running if Captain America (or, you know, the world) was in serious trouble?
Because he's off the grid! Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds Steve Rogers on the run after S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised and Nick Fury is gunned down by unknown assailants. Already questioning how his old-fashioned order-followin' might be less than advantageous in the sneakily manipulative 21st century, the Captain encounters adversaries both new and old as he searches for truth amidst mountains of corruption.
Sounds like a nifty little standalone story, right? It even touches on modern-day issues like drones, preemptive strikes, weapons of mass destruction and unchecked government power. The only problem is, it doesn't quite feel like a Captain America story.
To be fair, I'm not sure what a Captain America story is. I loved Captain America: The First Avenger because his origin works so well against a World War II backdrop. Seeing the Captain hone his "fight for what's right" chops against an unquestioned enemy in the Nazis is the perfect contrast for where he'll end up: lost in a world packed with gray areas. But now that Rogers has found his way into that gray world, there aren't many places to take him. He's the leader of the Avengers, not a solo act. His conflicts are with his teammates, with whom he has nothing in common besides the desire to right wrongs and defeat enemies. That doesn't quite work when they're all on vacation.
The solution here is to plop him into S.H.I.E.L.D., which serves a similar purpose (and allows for all the aforementioned real-life parallels) but also makes him feel like a co-star alongside Black Widow and Nick Fury. I've got nothing against Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson, but they don't hold a candle to Iron Man and the Hulk.
Still, one of Marvel's finest attributes is their casting ability. Robert Redford isn't particular impressive as a S.H.I.E.L.D. leader and old buddy of Fury's, but it's still great to see him in a comic book movie. And Anthony Mackie is fantastic as Falcon, an admirer of Captain America's who leaps at the opportunity to help the hero out. He's effortlessly funny and skilled at being awestruck without any glaring subservience. It never feels like Marvel added a black superhero for the sake of having one on-screen; he's an important part of the story and fits well into the grand scheme of things. Plus, the special effects with his wings are terrific.
The rest of the action, on the other hand, is a bit lacking. Co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo shoot their fight scenes up close and in what feels like eternal fast-forward; everyone is leaping around and flying into walls with vigor, but you never see a punch land full or get a second to figure out what's going on. It's frenetic and exciting, but a little too heightened and unrealistic. A comic book movie doesn't need to obey the laws of gravity or thermodynamics, but as viewers it's nice to have a handle on what exactly you're watching.
As I said, at the end of the day, if you're a Marvel fan you'll see these movies. They're always shiny and entertaining; Marvel has perfected the art of lightly going out on a limb (such as hiring the Russos, most known from their work on Community and Arrested Development) while maintaining the look, feel and continuity of their finest brands. Seeing a Marvel movie is a comforting sensation; worst case scenario, you'll see a well-made and interesting popcorn flick. Best case scenario, you'll get something transcendent like Iron Man or The Avengers (or the aforementioned Guardians, which looks wonderful). In an era of $13 movie tickets and franchises out the ass, it's nice to have one that consistently meets expectations.
Also, it never gets old to see a serious (or less than serious) actor try, and fail, to fit snugly into a comic book movie. Watching Redford struggle to emphasize the correct syllable in "Iron Man" or TV's Larry Sanders whisper "Hail Hydra" into another man's ear is worth the price of admission alone.