Toward the climax of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Chris Evans’s now modern-living superhunk Steve Rogers is locked in 5-Hour Energy-fueled battle with the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Amid pedestrian-maiming collateral damage, and while sustaining pavement-shattering blows to the skull, Rogers looks into the Soldier’s blank eyes and realizes he’s actually locked in combat with his former WWII bestie “Bucky” Barnes, albeit retrofitted with a gleaming metallic left arm and no remorse whatsoever. One scene later, the flicker of recognition dances on Barnes’s eyes for a second too long, so his shady handlers strap him down and, once again, wipe his memory clear in a routine that seems to fill the mecha-assassin with something strangely resembling glee.
No other scene in the entire Marvel series has come closer to approximating the cyclical, regressive thrill these movies seem to give their sizable audience, who by now have to be at least fleetingly aware of just how samey the films have all become, but who still exit the theater giddy after catching a glimpse of some minor character who promises to figure into the next installment. Reacting like trading-card geeks shrugging off an entire pack’s worth of doubles but for the single new find, gone are all memories of the current film’s inadequacies and formulaic banalities. Like that, the movie they just watched has become a warmly welcomed commercial for the next in line. If they handed out Academy Awards for most effective post-end credits stingers, Marvel would be running the table like Harvey Weinstein in the late ’90s.
The Winter Soldier isn’t the worst chapter in Marvel’s series (the crass Iron Man 2 retains that title for at least one more round), but it’s certainly the most disappointing. The first Captain America movie, directed by The Rocketeer’s Joe Johnston, was the one Avengers franchise film to demonstrate an actual stylistic viewpoint. Johnston’s frequently dazzling synthesis of red-white-and-blue 1940s naiveté and pre-Atomic Age paranoia dwelled on the far outskirts of producer Kevin Feige’s Comic-Con sensibilities, and The First Avenger’s status as the lowest-rated Marvel Universe film on IMDb only confirms it successfully transcended the template. In contrast, The Winter Soldier joins Evans’s now-thawed veteran in the present day, and the unique charm has decidedly melted along with the bio-frost.
While Rogers is stressing out his compression tops and jotting things down on his catch-up list (Nirvana, Rocky II, and quite clearly CrossFit), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is losing control of S.H.I.E.L.D. to sinister outside forces. His clearances seem to be flickering out just as Operation: Insight, an obscenely expensive plan to construct a fleet of massive hovering battleships, is reaching its completion. Meanwhile, fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. administrator Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, recruited into the fold to lend a touch of Pakula credibility) tries to counteract resistance from a skeptical World Security Council. Rogers, unexpectedly and undeservedly a wanted man, goes on the lam with Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, who’s here mainly to hold the libidinous attention of the 40-year-old teenage boys who Marvel Studios seem convinced wouldn’t shell out $13 to see her in her own standalone entry.
The two learn that HYDRA has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and, like the neo-Nazis they’re meant to represent, plan to orchestrate a mass extermination of “undesirables” using those airships. In fact, the canniest and most hypocritical move made by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is to contrast Fury’s moral relativism about his agency’s role against Rogers’s archaic Greatest Generation absolutism, which is then mirrored by HYDRA’s strategy to wreak havoc until the world’s populace is willing to trade its freedom for security. If nothing else, it validates Captain America’s continued naïveté when, as it turns out that, yes, the world actually is still divided using black-and-white, good-versus-evil terms. But in showing how HYDRA’s plan involves removing human autonomy from the equation, the makers of The Winter Soldier demonstrate a total lack self-awareness. Their film, despite one or two moments of Venture Brothers-worthy fancy (e.g. Toby Jones’s mad doctor trapped inside a Cold War-era computer monitor), is as by-the-numbers as any this series has ever offered. And the continued success of this unabashedly self-recycling “Cinematic Universe” only hastens the disappearance of choice at the multiplex.