Iron Man 3 had a few nifty tricks up its sleeve, not unlike George Costanza finding himself in the middle of a particularly convoluted scheme, but by the end, most all the toys were placed neatly back in the box where we found them (Thor: The Dark World hardly remembered to take them out in the first place). Perhaps recognizing the malaise this has caused, the studio's latest flick, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, finally shows some guts.
It helps to have a protagonist who's actually in some sort of relatable, human-level crisis. Cap, more frequently referred to by his birth name Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), is still adjusting to the modern way of living, having missed out on about six decades worth of American news and culture on account of becoming a human popsicle. Now thawed, Rodgers adds another form of torment to his list, one with which many United States citizens can relate: governmental distrust. S.H.I.E.L.D., the secretive agency for whom Cap still serves, is ramping up its artillery, all as 'friends' Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) remain duplicitous as ever. Add to the mess both smarmy politician Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), and the super-human masked missionary who provides the film with its subtitle, and you've got an action movie that, at its core, might rather be a political thriller.
But don't let that distract you too much. World weary and densely-plotted as The Winter Soldier might be, there's nothing here that the average fan-boy couldn't keep up with, and by the final reel, the film shows its true colors (see: EXPLOSIONS!!! LOUD NOISES!!! SCARJO'S BOOTY!!!). It's disappointing to see the picture sway away from its convictions, but at least its got co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo making sure that the action sequences really pop. This is by far the Marvel film with the most practical effects to date, the car chases and gun battles proving much more engaging the computerized aliens and robots suits to which we've become accustomed. It also shows a comfort and confidence with the killing of innumerable bad guys that we haven't really seen since the less-sensative, less-watered-down actions flicks of the 80's and 90's.
So yes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels less like a mass-produced offering than many recent big-budget pictures, but this strength is tempered with the knowledge that, for every punch it lands, it pulls another. For all of its violence, the lack of blood or pain ensures that the audience remains at arm's length. For every interesting plot twist, there a distracting, reductive action sequence that dulls and blurs the meat-and-potatoes of the story at hand. And, most damningly, for all the effort to shake things up in this elongated, elaborate series of films, there's bet-hedging that ensures we save all the really juicy stuff for later. I feel as though I'm focusing of the film's demerits more than I am its accomplishments, which is a shame, as I enjoyed the movie quite a bit; it's fun, lively, bright, occasionally bold, and stocked with strong characters embodied by even stronger actors. It's just that Marvel Studios is starting to look like a hamster on a wheel, and though The Winter Soldier falls off said wheel in exciting, refreshing fashion, the final decision to get right back on knocks this one down a peg or two.