Rule number one of Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Go in with a blank slate. Don't read message boards or watch clips. Avoid it all. While it could've been another paint-by-numbers installment in the Avengers franchise, the movie instead fires off unexpected twists at a blistering clip that ultimately shifts the paradigm of Marvel's cinematic universe. It's a blockbuster thrill ride best experienced with a mind clear of information.
Skirting around the basics without giving anything away: Unsurprisingly, Captain America (Chris Evans) is having trouble adjusting to the modern world and current military procedures. He's especially irked by the lack of transparency from S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Cap feels like a lone soldier instead of part of an army. Not wanting to alienate his best soldier, Fury shows Cap the organization's biggest secret — Operation: Insight, a fleet of helicarriers (flying aircraft carriers) with a Minority Report precog-like ability to take out potential targets before criminal activity takes place. When S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes compromised, it's up to Cap to figure out who's trying to sabotage the organization and why. This task becomes more difficult when the titular Winter Soldier, a superpowered assassin looking like a mashup of Bionic Commando and Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, makes Cap his next target.
It might not seem like a challenge to play the morally pure slice of Americana that is Captain America, but it could easily turn cartoonish. Evans aces the role. There's a wide-eyed, boyish innocence to his portrayal, but he keeps it from slipping into mindless patriotic naiveté. His personal struggles actually seem like human struggles. He has to cope with a lack of aging due to the power-giving Super Soldier serum: Not only must he comfort the love of his life, Peggy Carter, now a bedridden nonagenarian suffering from memory loss, he also must confront the surreality of literally being a museum relic when sneaking into an exhibit on his life and trying to digest his feelings.
On the other hand, Cap's counterpart proves feeble. The Winter Soldier co-stars Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. Considering she consistently delivers the worst performance in every Marvel flick in which she appears, that's hardly a good thing. Perhaps it's her intolerance with being the token eye candy, but she plays the character with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Considering how superbly she perfomed as a disembodied voice in Her, Johansson's lifelessly flat delivery is borderline baffling (though she's not aided by clunky dialogue and misplaced attempts at humor).
The action in Winter Soldier is unrelenting. As opposed to Thor's godly powers or Iron Man's tech, Captain America must rely on being swift, efficient, and visceral in hand-to-hand combat (with some shield tossing). Battle scenes feel more brutal than in prior Marvel installments. There might be more clear, on-screen human casualties in the film's first action sequence than in any previous Avengers film.
Winter Soldier works mainly due to the unforeseen plot points and exploration of actual real-world issues. Even comic devotees will be shocked by some of the turns it takes. While production was underway before Edward Snowden's leaks, the film benefits greatly from heavy NSA overtones. The issue is what's more important: Fear prevention or freedom? Cap (obviously) falls on freedom's side, while Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), head of the World Security Council that oversees S.H.I.E.L.D., supports the former. The film ultimately centers on the idea of trust. In a dangerous modern world, who (if anyone) can you trust?
Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes a darker tone than any Avengers movie before it, and in doing so completely reshapes the future of the franchise. ♦