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As 70 or so years of comic books have shown us, there are essentially three kinds of good Captain America stories.
The first is “Captain America, Hitler Puncher,” covered by 2011’s rock-solid “Captain America: The First Avenger,” wherein scrawny World War II soldier-wannabe Steve Rogers is given peak human abilities, fights the crazy Nazi scientists called Hydra and loses his childhood pal Bucky in combat.
The second is “Captain America, Natural Leader of Superheroes.” Director Joss Whedon and an all-star cast did a New York-smashingly good job of this in 2012’s “The Avengers,” a movie whose $1.5 billion gross confidently placed Marvel/Disney at the top of super-powered heap.
The third is “Captain America vs. The Ideals and Government Whose Uniform He Wears,” which we get in spades in the intermittently thrilling if overlong “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, jaw and affect still note-perfect) is at a weird place in his life.
He can run a lap around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in the time it takes most of us to put on our shoes, but keeps a notebook in his pocket of all the pop culture he needs to catch up on. In their first meeting, soon-to-be-ally Sam Wilson (an underused Anthony Mackie), a fellow soldier who also lost his war buddy in battle, suggests Marvin Gaye’s “Troubleman” soundtrack, which Rogers dutifully writes down.
Rogers is starting to feel like the lapdog of S.H.I.E.L.D., the global intelligence agency headed by the tough, enigmatic Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson as Samuel L. Jackson). And his private life is nonexistent, even as the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is trying to find him dates as he’s leaping out of airplanes.
So when a mission raises some question about who he is working for and why, Rogers starts poking around. When Fury gives him some disconcerting answers involving total surveillance and draconian war powers, Rogers is appalled. “This isn’t freedom, this is fear,” he says, and the fact that Evans can make that line sound more matter-of-fact than arrogant is a key to his charm.
And then there’s the mysterious assassin (and title character) who is dropping bodies, and Captain America is suddenly, you know, wondering what America means and stuff.
At longer than two hours, “Winter Soldier” is a lot of movie, forced to both stand on its own as an accessible summer tent pole and advance the overall Marvel Universe movie-plot a bit.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, working from a script by “First Avenger” authors Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, fuse disparate genres and tones as smoothly as they can, though there’s a twitchiness to the plotting that gets wearying. Parents should know that this is a more morally gray movie than either the first Cap movie or “Avengers” and, frankly, little kids holding trash-can Cap shields might get a bit bored.
There’s plenty for the comic-nerd bloc. A French baddie named Batroc, once known as one of the worst-dressed Cap villains, is given a savvy makeover. And everyone should stay seated into and past the credits for hints of next year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and perhaps the next Captain America movie.
“Three Days of the Condor” star Robert Redford embodies the movie’s 1970s thriller strain in “Winter Soldier;” he plays a S.H.I.E.L.D. power-broker who is determined to stop war and chaos before it happens. And in keeping with the more James-Bond-as-Super-Soldier plot, Rogers spends more time out of his mask than in it, which is oddly refreshing.
The Russos are decent if wobbly action directors. The close-quarters, hand-to-hand fight scenes felt too choppy in spots, while the street-level car chase gunbattles and city-busting CGI action fare better. (Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia really take it on the chin, ideologically and otherwise.)
“Winter Soldier” fares best when the characters get to breathe a bit. Evans is both a solid team player and a terrific solo act, playing well off of both Mackie and Johansson and going a bit deeper when required.
What happens when a, 95-year-old man who looks 30 and knows little but duty, whose friends are long dead, must abandon that duty? “The Winter Solider” does a bang-up job playing with those questions and renders the Potomac River unswimmable in the process.