Movie review: 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'

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Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) fight in "Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

It's a frightening disease, one that can strike suddenly, without a whisper of warning. Even worse, there is no known cure. I know because I'm a victim. Hello, my name is Ken, and I'm suffering from Marvel fatigue.

In fact, this ailment, defined by clinicians as a bone weariness at having the relentless Marvel Cinematic Universe (their phrase, not mine) pound its formulaic product at you for film after film after film for what seems like forever, struck me when it was least appropriate: during a screening of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which by any rational measure is one of the better Marvel films.


Briskly directed by the brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, starring the capable Chris Evans as the good Captain, perhaps the most genuinely likable of all Marvel's heroes now back in contemporary action after decades encased in ice, "Captain America" also possesses an intriguing villain in the form of the aforesaid Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a ghost warrior who moves like the wind.

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When you add in a script by Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely that includes amusing self-referential lines ("If you want to say something snappy," one character says, "this would be the time") and actually references contemporary national security issues, this is one film that should be engrossing. Except it's not.

For what is frustrating about this "Captain America" is that it's saddled with the defects of its virtues. It's a product of the highest quality, but at the end of the day that's what it is: a machine-made, assembly-line product whose strengths tend to feel like items checked off a master list rather than being the result of any kind of individual creative touch. "Captain America" is everything a big budget superhero film should be — except inspired.

Though that may seem like too tall an order for comic book movies, it's not. The "Dark Knight" films of Christopher Nolan are obvious examples of superhero epics that have that kind of creative touch. And if you stay within the Marvel Studios universe, Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" showcased the writer-director's gift for bringing mass-market stories to life with the energy and intelligence that should be popular entertainment's birthright but rarely is.

Though Kevin Feige, Marvel's head honcho, makes a big deal of his willingness to be eclectic in his choice of directors (the Russo brothers are best known for the TV comedy series "Arrested Development"), what that means in practice is that these films are such well-oiled machines it doesn't matter all that much who is in charge. Yes, "Winter Soldier" features extensive use of handheld cameras and makes some half-hearted moves toward being a political thriller, but at the end of the day these things barely move the dial on the Marvel formula.

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That cinematic blueprint is religiously enforced in everything, from the required cameo by comic creator Stan Lee to the involvement of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the requisite waves of action and surprise plot twists that don't feel that surprising anymore.

Always included are trailers enmeshed with the end credits to gin up interest in the next Marvel venture. Each successive film has begun to feel more and more like a tease for the next one as much as a stand-alone item, making the Marvel Cinematic Universe the most expensive Saturday matinee serial ever made. Except unlike the serials, which had finite ends, the Marvel films are threatening to go on forever.

What does distinguish "Winter Soldier," as noted, is its political overlay. Captain America, being the square shooter that he is, has trouble finding his footing in a contemporary world characterized by moral relativism. And when Nick Fury shows him the details of Project Insight, a fleet of helicopter battleships that "can neutralize threats before they happen," Cap is not amused.


"You hold a gun on everyone on Earth and call it protection," he says. "This isn't freedom, this is fear." Further discussions about the morality of preemptive strikes as well as humanity's potential willingness to sacrifice freedom for security are definitely not business as usual for films like this.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier's" story of threats and countermeasures is by the book. Lots of name actors do their best, including the returning Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and newcomers Robert Redford and Anthony Mackie, but the spark of originality has left the building.

What the rulers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have done is discover and exploit a foolproof formula, one that mints money even in these uncertain times, and on one level, when you think about superhero fiascoes like "The Green Hornet," it's hard to begrudge them that.

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Yet it is also true that these films are getting increasingly dispiriting in their by-the-numbers sameness. Feige has said his team has new features planned out until the year 2021. Never mind the evil folks at HYDRA and their inevitably doomed plans to best the warriors of S.H.I.E.L.D.: It is Marvel that really wants to control the world, and the way things are going, they have a good shot at it.



'Captain America'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout

Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes

Playing: In general release