When you buy a ticket for a Captain America movie you know what you're going to get: An almost-super-powered dude in blue doing crazy things with a shield, busting people in the jaw, and being very Americanny. Good news! Captain America: The Winter Soldier scratches those itches just fine.
Note: The following contains some light spoilers.
Captain America picks up soon after the Avengers movie left off (in fact, you can watch the first 11 minutes here); he works for superspy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. now, but he's having doubts if being a superhero is right for him. It's the same great power/great responsibility trope that lots of superhero sequels chew through, but fortunately it doesn't get too hung up on it. There is much punching to do, and Winter Soldier doesn't make us wait long for it.
Not to give too much away, but the main plot driver is that something is rotten in S.H.I.E.L.D. But what? Who's good? Who's bad? Who even knows anymore? Trust no one. Unless they're attractive. These are also just good rules to live by in general.
While not everything about Winter Soldier makes the most logical sense (this is a superhero movie, after all), the plot at least manages not to spiral off into some murky tangent of intrigue; there's no Dark Knight Rises dead-ends. It's a well-written, linear story that mostly stays on the rails.
That doesn't mean it's without some larger thematic meat on its bones. There are enough parallels between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the NSA (well, maybe just the one parallel of SPIES) to make the motifs of "freedom versus security," and what lines should be drawn where, feel relevant to our current surveillance age. I wouldn't call it a straight-up allegory, but it definitely makes The Winter Soldier seem ever-so-slightly grounded in a recognisable reality.
The dialogue, however, is a tougher pill to swallow. There are so many one-liners, zingers, and "say-something-cool-then-cut-to-the-next-sceners" that after only 20 minutes or so you already feel like they've beaten your head in. But whatever. Teenage/stoned/drunk people will enjoy these comic booky clichés. Besides, it's not really worse than any other comic book action movie; it's just not any better.
Besides, you're going to this movie for the action, and the action pretty much rules. It's especially refreshing that all of the best scenes that really wake you up aren't the elaborate CGI sequences (though there are plenty of those as well). It's the brutish, analogue, kicking-and-punching melees that really come across. A lot of action movies rely on fast cuts to obscure the fact that these actors don't really know how to fight. In contrast, the fight choreography in The Winter Soldier is excellent, and Chris Evans (or his stunt doubles, in some cases) sells the shit out of them.
The most compelling scenes, as you might expect, are the confrontations between Cap and his titular metal-armed nemesis. There are a handful of them, and they're all great. Basically you've got two evenly matches badasses just slugging it out. They aren't these polished, balletic scenes. They're mean, and while near-invulnerability and invincible shields and arms obviously still require significant suspension of disbelief, they feel more real than if people were flying around and blasting lasers out of their eyes. It's the Pacific Rim effect: There's just something very satisfying about two super-powered things wailing on each other.
Cap doesn't just have new enemies; he's got a new friend as well in the Falcon. As you might have guessed from the name, he is a dude who can fly, thanks to a badass, rocket-powered wing-suit. His sequences are fun from action movie perspective, but they definitely take a bigger leap to enjoy than the straight-up rock 'em sock 'em fights. The physics of his maneuvers often don't add up, and while I was definitely entertained, it also took me out of the movie a bit.
Speaking of taken out of the movie, can we talk about the shield for a second? Not S.H.I.E.L.D., I mean Captain America's actual, literal shield. The one he can impeccably throw, and it will inevitably ricochet just where he wants it to go like he's the world's most magical snooker-player. I'm sorry, but along with all his physical powers did Captain America also somehow get imbued with a super-human understanding of physics and geometry? I get that it's an important part of his identity in the comics, but surely there's a way to handle it where it's not deployed to impossible effect in every situation. It's jarring in a world where so much else makes an earnest effort to be relatively grounded.
In better news, it's actually hard to imagine a more perfect actor to play the Cap'n than Evans. He's got that clean-cut, "all I can do is speak the truth and do what's right," good-guy schtick down ice cold. As obnoxious as that could be (a problem I've always had with the comic book version as well, so your mileage may vary), Evans manages to remain likable in the role and you're never tempted to root against him, unlike certain Spider-men we've all dreamed would get a good crotch-punt every now and then.
It was interesting to see Robert Redford as a heavy. His performance was solid, but it's just... he was natural, y'know? Even when he's being bad you kind of want to give him a hug. Samuel L. does his usual Nick Fury thing, which still somehow hasn't gotten old. Likewise Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. Anthony Mackie is a super-likable addition as the Falcon. Very human and definitely someone you root for right away.
Still, for all of The Winter Soldier's strengths, I couldn't bring myself to love it. There's an intangible joy that has got to come across in a movie like this, that doesn't here. It colours too neatly between the lines, leaving it without any true, visceral surprise. Even if you don't know what's going to happen next, you always kind of feel like you do. There's no edge-of-your-seat moment. It has its brief bursts of joy, but before long it's back to taking itself just a few degrees too seriously. Remember how fun The Avengers was? This doesn't.
That's not to say it's bad. It isn't. If you were a fan of the first movie (and/or of the Marvel Universe in general) I'd definitely recommend it. It's just not going to change your life.
Bottom line: If you like Marvel superhero flicks, then you should probably see this movie. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that it's a better, smarter movie than its predecessor. But if you were hoping for something that will stay with you a little longer, you might be barking up the wrong tentpole.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be out next Tuesday in the UK