THESE ABS DONT RUN Chris Evans: fashion plate.
  • THESE ABS DON'T RUN Chris Evans: fashion plate.

During the War on Terror, the relationship between superheroes and the government drastically changed. Before 9/11, superheroes—especially the ones published by Marvel Comics—were freaks and anti-establishment loners who had, at best, a testy relationship with government agencies. After 9/11, superhero writers including Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis basically allowed the heroes to get co-opted by government forces, usually in the guise of the nigh-omnipotent spy agency SHIELD. Even avowed lone wolves like Spider-Man found themselves on secret international missions on behalf of Uncle Sam. It’s easy to see why this happened: In our fantasy lives, we wanted to believe that the government was ludicrously competent, and that all Americans would be willing to work together with the government to keep us safe and secure. All the Marvel movies to date take part in this pro-government-cooperation trend, but the cozy relationship between the federal government and vigilantes is starting to look a little threadbare. (It was weird in The Avengers, for example, to see Bruce Banner chilling in the middle of a SHIELD operation, when the Hulk’s whole schtick is that he’s pursued by the Army at every turn.)

It’s good to see, then, that Captain America: The Winter Soldier injects some paranoia back into that cozy relationship. If SHIELD, as it has been portrayed in the films, is really as all-knowing and top-secret as it is, surely it would creep out a rugged individualist superhero, at least a little bit? This is the drama that kicks off Winter Soldier, when Captain America, at his heart an optimistic freedom-loving kid from the 1940s, begins to chafe at the NSA-style schemes of SHIELD head NIck Fury in the form of a program called Project Insight. Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, thankfully given more to do than in previous Marvel movies) argues with the Captain (Chris Evans, still surprisingly good as the cornball-from-another era) that it’s worth sacrificing a little bit of freedom for the sake of security. The Captain isn’t so sure. But here’s where that old cliche about being careful what you wish for kicks in: After The Dark Knight and countless other blockbuster meditations on government overreach, this avenue feels incredibly well-worn.

There’s a lot to like about Winter Soldier. The acting is excellent throughout, with Robert Redford bringing a casual elegance to the proceedings as a SHIELD higher-up and Anthony Mackie doing thankless work as a former soldier named Sam Wilson. Maybe best of all, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow plays the world-weary, hyper-effective old hand at the spy game, leaving Evans’s wide-eyed Captain to play the aw-shucks innocent usually reserved for female characters. The pacing of the film is great, with a script that isn’t afraid to take a little time to develop a suitable threat. There are little surprises throughout the film that relate to the larger Marvel movie universe in small, rewarding ways. The movie feels completely different from the first Captain America movie, shifting from a war film to an espionage film with relatively little effort. And the non-combat scenes as directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, a team most recently known for directing episodes of Community, are deftly handled, treating the characters and the audience with respect.

Unfortunately, Winter Soldier has some major problems. Except for an early scene where we watch Captain America leaping around and fighting a team of pirates from a great distance away, the action sequences are all hash, with close-up shots blurring together into an unwatchable mess. The movie could use some more fun; there’s a bit too much grimacing and pondering the price of liberty for a superhero movie that doesn’t star Batman (they even manage to transform hilariously French Captain America villain Batroc the Leaper into a boring melange of paramilitary tropes.) And in conjunction with Thor: The Dark World, the Marvel movies are starting to demonstrate a bit of sameness leaking in at the edges: By the end of the film, all the action figures are perfectly positioned for the next installment in the franchise, which is dutifully promised in the mid-credits stinger (not to be confused with the also-dutiful post-credits stinger). Like any drug, familiarity knocks some of the edge off the high.

It’s not that I had a bad time with Winter Soldier. On the contrary, it’s plenty entertaining, especially when compared to other early-summer blockbusters. And the future it sets up for the Captain America character and for the rest of Marvel’s superhero movies is a promising one. Maybe with August’s Marvel movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, we can get back to enjoying the adventures of the freaks and loners that made Marvel characters into the fan-favorites that they are today.