Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Scarlett Johansson Helps Carry the Marvel Flag

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Opens Fri., April 4 at Majestic Bay and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 136 minutes.

The recent spate of superhero movies all 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, a black hole or something opens up and withers the villain’s magic skill set. 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 the second top-lining film for its 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, 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 Christopher Reeve’s buoyant comic-book presence from the first couple of Supermans. Cap finds his 1940s-era mindset challenged by the surveillance-state approach of a government 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 around some effective jokes, 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.

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