The recent spate of superhero movies share the same peculiar dynamic. After being dropped from buildings, incinerated and slammed with high-speed projectiles, their characters invariably end their epic battles with a definitive … fistfight.
You can’t kill them with incredible punishment, but a bout of pugilism is supposed to settle things. In the end, of course, there’s a black hole or something that opens up and withers the magic skill-set of the villain, but it says something about these oversized productions that they need to bring everything down to hand-to-hand basics — as though somebody realized how dull a movie can get when the antagonists can’t actually be hurt.
The same outline prevails in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the second top-lining film for the old-fashioned superhero. And the first thing to be said about this one is that unlike 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” which existed purely to set up Marvel’s 2012 ensemble summit meeting “The Avengers,” “The Winter Soldier” is actually a movie: It has a story, a subtext and a few fun pulp surprises along the way.
Chris Evans returns to the title role; his cheerful calm is the closest anybody in this cycle has come to summoning up Christopher Reeve’s buoyant comic-book presence from the first couple of “Superman” movies. Cap finds his 1940s-era mindset challenged by the surveillance-state approach of a cabinet minister (Robert Redford, cleverly cast), and his existence threatened by the mysterious Cold War-era nasty known as the Winter Soldier.
Someone had the useful idea to let Samuel L. Jackson — returning to duty as one-eyed Nick Fury—actually get knee-deep in the action here. Same with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), who is allowed much teasing of the all-American hero; new to the squad is an Iraq War vet (Anthony Mackie, from “The Hurt Locker”) game for some dedicated male bonding.
The film scoots right along and scatters some effective jokes around, which is more than can be said for the previous comedies by directors Anthony and Joe Russo (“Welcome to Collinwood,” “You, Me and Dupree”).
It builds to the inevitable gigantic special-effects smackdown with the fate of millions hanging in the balance — and of course a preview scene at the end, pointing the way toward Joss Whedon’s 2015 “Avengers” sequel.
The computer-generated climax will either be tedious or thrilling, depending on your tolerance for the digital battlefield, but there’s something to be said for the movie’s basic competence. And if, on top of all the hardware and massive destruction, you really need to see Captain America and the Winter Soldier socking each other in the jaw, you won’t be disappointed.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (3 stars)
Much superior to the first “Captain America” movie, this one wisely gives Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson more to do, and actually has a pretty fun story line about a surveillance-minded government. Best of all, Chris Evans returns to the title role, providing a cheerful presence amidst the computer-generated destruction.
Rating: PG-13, for violence
Opening: Friday at Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Edmonds Theater, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Olympic Theatre, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Oak Tree, Sundance Cinemas Seattle, Thorton Place Stadium, Woodinville, Blue Fox Drive-In, Cascade Mall and Oak Harbor Plaza.