Full disclosure: Where Marvel Comics superhero movies are concerned, I have a terrible record of getting it right the first time. Such is the burden of being a recovering adolescent comic-book geek; it's often hard to separate the giddy spark of seeing beloved characters come to life from the question of how those characters were brought to life. And anecdotal evidence suggests I'm far from alone.
In the case of 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, however, it worked a different way. Knowing director Joe Johnston had once nailed it with an adaptation of a World War II-era comic-book hero story — the effervescently charming The Rocketeer — built my expectations to an unhealthy degree. I was so eager for it to be great, I couldn't even see that it was pretty good.
So what does that leave for Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Are we finally reaching the point where the novelty of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is giving way to the ability for even the "True Believers" to see whether these movies stand or fall on their own merits?
The Winter Soldier starts with the terrific concept of a gung-ho all-American boy like Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) continuing to fight for his country at a time when its enemies and their motives are a murkier business. He's still taking on missions — accompanied by Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) — but he's uneasy about the impending S.H.I.E.L.D. program launching permanently airborne heli-carriers for information gathering and help defend from threats. And when it begins to seem as though S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised — even threatening the life of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) — Rogers unease appears to be justified.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have a lot of material to wrestle into a cohesive form, including the threat of a mysterious assassin called the Winter Soldier. They're trying to address Captain America's place as a man out of time in both his personal relationships and his worldview — something that wasn't really possible with all the characters jockeying for screen time in Marvel's The Avengers — and The Winter Soldier folds that identity effectively into something with a timely take on the way we now respond to a dangerous world, compared to the 1940s. It's a smart notion to have a hero defined by his "Greatest Generation" patriotism forced to contend with a shifting definition of what it means to be a patriot, and Evans does a nice job of making basic decency interesting to watch.
Yet this is also a super-hero adventure, and while it proves mostly satisfying on that level as well, it's also less distinctive. At times it feels a little like The Avengers Lite, as Captain America, Black Widow and Nick Fury are joined by Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a military man who dons mechanized wings to fight as the Falcon. Directors Joe Russo and Anthony Russo seem like an odd choice for a franchise like this — they've worked almost exclusively in episodic TV comedies, with the occasional comedy feature like You, Me & Dupree — and some of their action sequences are fragmented in a way that doesn't allow for a sense of geography. They're stronger when the spaces are more confined — like Cap taking on a bunch of antagonists in an elevator — or simply when allowing these now-familiar characters to evolve and spend time together.
In a way, that makes The Winter Soldier's closest analog among the wave of Marvel films Iron Man 3, which similarly had the smarts to spend a lot of time maximizing the unique qualities of its central character before eventually resorting to a far less interesting blow-everything-up big finish. That's always going to be the tension in these Marvel movies: Even comic books have the luxury every once in a while of devoting an issue to character-advancing narratives that don't demand the same rigid blockbuster structure of rising action beats. Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels like a movie that's strong when it simply tries to tell a story, and weaker when it realizes it has to tell a Marvel Comics super-hero story. All of us who waited so much of our lives for the latter maybe need to work harder at letting go of our preconceptions about what that requires.