Writing about a sequel in the Marvel franchise is tricky because of the franchise’s incestuous nature. Iron Man, for example, has three movies of his own, a lead role in “The Avengers” and either stops by or is referenced frequently in the other Marvel films due to the ubiquitous nature of Stark Industries. All of those appearances and references serve as outlets to broaden every hero, so isolating Thor's actions in his franchise is impossible because of the character development he sustains in the tent pole film.
So it goes with Captain America, who evolves in attitude between his first film, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and his newest one “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” via his involvement in “The Avengers.” And aside from sharing rather long titles when compared to the other Marvel flicks, the differences in themes and tone from Cap's first film to his second are enormous, so it’s more of an apples to orange comparison than apple to apples.
One thing I can say though is that my overall feeling for the “Winter Soldier” is the same as “First Avenger”: I like both, but don't feel too strongly about either.
Providing a proper outline on “Winter Soldier's” machinations would serve as an elongated spoiler alert, so let's keep it simple. Chris Evans dons the blue body suit once again as an employee of S.H.I.E.L.D – the Marvel universe's hyper-advanced blend of the CIA, FBI and every other covert American governmental branch. A quick rescue mission alongside Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) results in the recovery of encrypted files containing vital information about S.H.I.E.L.D’s new secret project. The security of those files is so strong even S.H.I.E.L.D head Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and he warns boss Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) the issue could prove to be problematic to the project .
Things go all sorts of haywire from there, forcing Cap, Black Widow and new recruit Falcon (Anthony Mackie) on a mission to find the source of the files while evading the dangerous and elusive Winter Soldier (name withheld).
One of the things the filmmakers behind the Marvel franchise have done well is differentiate the individual films while keeping them linked to the franchise in ways both subtle and outspoken. (This film drops shout outs to Stark, Dr. Strange and the Fantastic Four; it's no coincidence the back two have new films in the works.) In “Winter Soldier's” case, the flavor is a retro-'70s political thriller complete with twists, counter twists and a man's brain lodged into a computer system.
It's a cool idea and a nice change of pace from the rest of the Marvel franchise, but the problem with turning a big-money franchise film into a thriller is the reduction in effectiveness of those twists and turns. Anyone who follows the Marvel films knows there are certain characters who cannot depart due to their importance in the series, so a few major plot moments in “Winter Soldier” are undercut by the demands of the comic book franchise because it's obvious that some characters are never in true danger. (Except when Joss Whedon is involved; that man is just cold blooded). The sheer size and scope of the marvelous Marvel franchise is impressive, but the monetary reality prevents a full immersion and dampens the surprises.
Then again, it is nice that Captain America got to do something a little different than his friends that doesn't deviate from his natural progression. Unlike Hulk, Thor and even Iron Man, Captain America is a nuanced character who constantly wonders if he's doing the right thing, so having him wade into murky political waters is a logical step in his character development and something hinted at in “The Avengers.”
Unfortunately, “Winter Soldier's” obligation to portray large-scale fight sequences tips the balance between action and political thriller too heavily toward the former and forces the filmmakers to be more blunt than subtle in regards to the latter. Also aiding in this issue is the nature of the film; making it a political thriller at heart means a “Captain America” film focuses more on S.H.I.E.L.D than the titular captain.
Although the political thriller aspects fall flat, “Winter Soldier's” action side is filled with explosions, hand-to-hand combat, and a few moments of moderately witty banter. The performances are just fine too; Redford and Mackie are nice additions, and Evans has become much more comfortable and engaging as Captain America since his first time donning the shield.
Everything in that last paragraph is really all the matters to create a successful Marvel film, one that will keep devotees stoked until “Age of Ultron” comes out next year. (At least that’s the case with the audience at a screening earlier this week; the members hooted and hollered vociferously.) There’s also more than enough to general viewers entertained as well, which, really, is all you need in a Marvel film.