'Captain America' sequel feels familiar, yet hollow
With all the money in the world behind it — with years and years of similar movies in the pipeline — the comic-book superhero genre is already looking tired and going through the motions.
The latest, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” has the usual overlong running time, the half-hearted feints in the direction of human feeling and the obligatory action sequences that are big without being either exciting or particularly legible.
One action scene gets so confusing and jumbled that the question has to be written into the script: “How do we know the good guys from the bad guys?” The answer: “If they’re shooting at us, they’re the bad guys.” Maybe. Or maybe those are the real heroes, trying to end the movie. For all of us.
[PHOTO: This image released by Marvel shows George St-Pierre, left, and Chris Evans in a scene from "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." (AP Photo/Marvel-Disney, Zade Rosenthal)]
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” a sequel to 2011 “Captain America: The First Avenger,” is especially hampered by the Winter Soldier in its subtitle. It is a familiar and yet always frustrating feature in action films, the invincible character who comes on every 15 minutes to beat up the hero. In this case, every time we see this muscle-bound fellow, with long dark hair and a mask, we know we’re in for an extended fight, culminating in a stalemate — in other words, with nothing happening.
However, the new “Captain America” has two touches of originality that take it a little above the ordinary. First, it has Robert Redford as a ruthless character, probably the first villain he has played since his days in live television. It’s fun hearing that familiar Redford voice, which always sounds like the soul of reason, espousing the most outlandish ideas in his usual clear and simple way: “To build a really better world sometimes means tearing the old world down.”
Redford is actor enough to know that villains, even comic book villains, don’t see themselves as evil. They see themselves as heroes, willing to make sacrifices for the greater good. The only catch is that they’re never the ones who are doing the sacrificing.
The movie’s other claim to fame is that the entity Captain America is fighting isn’t some outside power but factions within the United States government. If you think of popular movies as takers of the national pulse, that’s an interesting development. Following 9/11, our action movies were authoritarian. Now with “Captain America,” as with “Robocop,” we’re seeing a new strain, something either liberal or libertarian, depending on how you look at it.
These ideas make particular sense within the Captain America framework. For those who didn’t see the first installment, he’s an American soldier from World War II — scientifically enhanced but still human and vulnerable — who was frozen for almost 70 years. Now, at 95, he looks no more than 30, but he has the sensibility of a man from another generation. Coming from a world in which bad guys conveniently wore swastikas and goose stepped down the street, he finds himself puzzled by modern shades of gray.
How should he feel about people who tell him they just want to keep us safe? How should he feel about people scanning your emails, phone calls, SAT scores and employment history — all for the greater good? How should he feel about security technology that can predict dangerous activity before the perpetrator even gets the idea? And how should we feel about that?
This is the idea spine of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” a frame for a better movie than the one that was actually made, but at least no one could call this movie stupid. In the experience, “Captain America” is simply what one might imagine it to be going in — watchable and reasonably entertaining, the product of two non-action directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, who set out to make an action movie, and now they’ve made one, no worse and no better than anybody else’s.
At his best, Chris Evans, as Captain America, embodies the pain of someone living in the wrong era, but he can only struggle when the movie demands he feel emotions that are manufactured, not earned, such as his deep sympathy for the winter soldier, or his bonding with his new best friend (Anthony Mackie). There’s also no getting around the fact that Captain America is as dull as Batman when it comes to combat. How many times can we see him getting into fistfights — to the accompaniment of a drum machine on the sound track — before checking out? And though there’s no questioning the acting or star wattage of Scarlett Johansson as Natasha, as superheroes go, she looks as delicate as a porcelain tea cup.
Somebody also might want to think about spending more than 10 minutes on the script. On two occasions, a character has to stand up, state the movie’s point of view and persuade a group of people on a course of action. Twice, the characters make arguments that would persuade nobody.