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Six years don’t seem like that long a stretch of a time, but it’s long enough to create a universe. I should clarify, I mean a cinematic universe. You see, that’s just what they’ve done at Marvel Studios. And what a wondrous place it is! And movie-goers are now able to visit there more than once a year. Hard to believe, but it was back in 2008 that the famed comic book company (lovingly named “The House of Ideas” by Stan Lee himself almost fifty years ago) decided that they should have a more active role in bringing their characters to the silver screen. Media pundits scoffed since several of their biggest properties, namely Spider-Man and the X-Men, were locked down in movie deals with Sony and Fox. But Marvel (with Paramount) initiated their big screen dreams with IRON MAN, and they’ve not looked back. That’s because the Marvel team have a long-goal strategy, for not only was that their first film, but it was the first entry in series referred to as “Phase One” along with THE INCREDIBLE HULK a few weeks after. An Iron Man sequel arrived two years later, with THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER both opening in the Summer of 2011. The following year MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS concluded the first phase. But would movie audiences still be interested in individual flicks starring these heroes after seeing them team up? That question was answered when “Phase Two” began last Summer with IRON MAN 3. Marvel (now part of the Disney company) decided to venture into cooler weather when they brought out the second Asgardian epic, THOR: THE DARK WORLD in November. And now we’re nearly at the midpoint of the second phase with a springtime release, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. And in many ways, this crackling action-adventure tale may be the brightest gleaming jewel in Marvel’s dazzling movie crown.

The film begins on a quiet, early morning in our nation’s capital. After helping thwart the alien invasion of NYC with the Avengers, Steve Rogers AKA Captain America (Chris Evans) is enjoying a brisk run along the waterfront. Cooling down, he recognizes the jogger he’s passed several times (“On the left”) relaxing under a tree. It’s Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a veteran just like Steve, but from a much more recent conflict. Sam invites him to stop by the VA facility where he works. But before the men can exchange more combat stories, duty calls via the arrival of Natasha Romanoff AKA the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Soon, under the cover of darkness, the two, along with a SHIELD strike team, are jetting over the high seas on a mission to rescue a freighter that’s been hijacked by terrorists. But this ship holds an unusual cargo: advanced Shield technology, guarded by several now captive agents. Back in DC (sorry Marvel-maniacs!), director of SHIELD Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) is tight-lipped with Steve as they observe the construction of a new, more powerful fleet of “heli-carriers”, massive  nearly invisible flying battleships that hover over the Earth. Steve has concerns over that, even after talking with a member of the shadowy Safety Council (SHIELD’s bosses), a senior political power player named Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) who believes that the “Battle of New York” makes this new aggressive stance necessary. But this is just the tip of the iceberg as a menace from Steve’s past returns and he must throw down against the mysterious, ultimate assassin, the Winter Soldier.

With this new thriller Evans  proves to be much more than a mannequin for variations of that patriotic uniform. As a matter of fact he’s become as comfortable sliding into that fighting gear as a certain children’s’ TV icon was donning his sweater and sneakers. Evans is impressive in the many battle sequences whether doling out the smack-downs or straining against formidable odds. And he uses that shield with as much skill and precision as ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson did with his cue stick in a billiards tourney. You can almost imagine the baddies in their neckbraces and bandages being arraigned after Cap hands them over. But we also see an emotional progression in Steve Rogers. He’s working hard to embrace the new world he’s now living, while still honoring those long. lost decades. You see him almost getting misty-eyed as he tries to take stroll through (incognito, of course) an exhibit dedicated to him at the Smithsonian (he’s a living museum piece!). You may have a tough time not getting misty-eyed yourself when Steve revisits a major person from his past. Evans expertly tries to put on a brave, cheerful face while regret pummels his heart. He knows exactly how to temper the gung-ho, big boy scout aspects of Cap while letting us know that despite that “super-soldier formula and vita-rays” pulsing through his veins, Steve Rogers is just as vulnerable as any of us. Cap’s not merely a servant who follows orders without question.  He’s dedicated to the ideals of this country more than any agency or official. We can see why Sam Wilson doesn’t hesitate to join  him without explanation when Steve asks for his help.

Speaking of Sam, Mackie is a terrific new addition to the series as the high-flying Falcon, and more importantly as a friend and confidant. The two men have an easy rapport and an obvious respect and admiration for each other with Mackie’s great comic delivery keeping Cap grounded. Of course, both are helped considerably by Johansson as the alluring, cool, and deadly Widow. She and Steve become almost a superhero version of Mulder and Scully as they try to evade the bad guys while seeking the truth. Their banter is full of great wit and a little flirtation. There’s less of the master interrogator here and more of the Emma Peel sexy superspy second only to the master-spy himself, Nick Fury played for the fifth time on-screen by Jackson. This time he’s not just strutting in his long black leather dusters or growling at Tony Stark. He’s more of the man of action than was shown is his last outing as he faced down Loki. But Jackson makes the low-key dialogue scenes (as when he tells Cap a story about his grandpa’) just as compelling as when he must survive an armed ambush. As terrific as the team is, the addition of the iconic Redford takes the film to another, higher level (hey, the perennial “golden boy’ would’ve made a pretty good Cap himself decades ago). He brings an unexpected gravitas to every scene, completely believable as this seasoned politico. After last year’s low-budget, sensational one-man drama ALL IS LOST, Redford proves he can waltz into a big-budget franchise and be just as riveting as any big stunt spectacle. Nice to see that the Sundance Kid is still full of surprises.

Here's a classic comic cover from the 1970's drawn by Cap's co-creator Jack "King" Kirby!

Here’s a classic comic cover from the 1970’s drawn by Cap’s co-creator Jack “King” Kirby!

I would be remiss if I didn’t single out several actors for praise, but in order not to chance ruining some plot twists and turns (even though these players are credited on IMDB and their stories have been featured in recent comics), I’ll slap on a big “SPOILER ALERT”!! Sebastian Stan makes quite an impact as the “Winter Soldier”. He’s a cold unstoppable killing machine with an incredible array of impressive high-tech weaponry along with a deadly pair of revolvers. Stan stares at his victims with the intensity of a TERMINATOR. Later on, as his repressed memories begin to break through, he has a sad, confused quality reminiscent of Peter Weller’s original Robocop. Also Hayley Atwell has a heart-wrenching couple of scenes as the love of Steve’s past. Back also is Toby Jones as Arnim Zola, no longer a fearful ‘toadie’ to the Red Skull, but full of deadly futuristic villainy. “END OF SPOILER ALERT”!! Just like her boss Nick Fury, agent Maria Hill played by TV sitcom vet Cobie Smolders has a lot more to do this time around and makes a great action star. Also from the tube, Emily VanCamp sparkles as Steve’s neighbor who is much more than she appears to be. For a superhero flick, this is quite an impressive pack of players.

And what a wonderful sandbox said players get to explore. One of the most engaging aspects of the early “Marvel Age of Comics” was the then radical idea of a shared universe. Each hero did not work in a vacuum, especially since most were based in NYC. Characters would approach the other for help, hear of another’s exploits, or just run into each other (sometimes leading to an obligatory “all a big misunderstanding” fight scene). Not only are there “call-backs” to the last Captain America” film, and the big Chitari/Avengers fight, but the script is liberally peppered with Marvel references: the new “heli-carriers” are outfitted with the latest from Stark Industries, someone uses a sedative developed by Bruce Banner, and (oops, almost had to issue another alert!). Credit goes out to returning screenwriters Markus and McFeely for bringing cap into the current century with great humor (love Steve’s “to do” notebook, no hand-held gizmos for him!) and sprinkling in some current event political commentary. Some of this was touched on in the Avengers film, the Iron Man trilogy, and even in THE DARK KNIGHT, but this film seems even more relevant with spy drones, and security agencies invading privacy stories dominating the news headlines. That’s one of the things about Cap that Stan Lee and the writers that followed used for those “Tales of Suspense” comics. Though he was born in the 1940’s Captain America will always be current to the times when utilized by talented scribes. Henry Jackman follows the previous film’s composer Alan Silvestri and gives the proceedings a rousing musical score. But the big surprise behind the scenes is in the director’s chair (correction, chairs!). Joe Johnston followed up his superb 1930’s set THE ROCKETEER with the 1940’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER for nostalgic adventures and wartime exploits. But for this modern-day thriller, the Marvel Studios hired the Russo brothers (Anthony and Joe), duo best known in the world of TV comedy (“Community”, and “Arrested Development”) although they did make a couple of features (YOU, ME, AND DUPREE, WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD). These two hit all the right notes as they keep the dialogue exchanges crackling, and the action exhilarating (they make the many hand-to-hand fight scenes just as powerful as anything in THE RAID films). We even get  return visit from the “scrawny” Steve from the last film’s origin story! Could this be the start of another sibling directing dynasty ala’ the Coens? We’ll see. Luckily the Marvel execs have already signed them up for Cap’s next solo outing. Innovative thinking like that has made the Marvel movie universe the go-to destination for film makers and film-lovers. Need I tell you to stick around during the end credits for some bonus “goodies” ?Aw, man! Back to the real-world universe! But we’ll get to go back there in just four months when we meet the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY in August! Hey Cap, in case the chest-front of your uniform gets damaged in battle while you’re protecting us, here’s some back-up stars for you’! You earned em’!!

5 Out of 5


Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.


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