I don’t like ice or snow and I hate being cold, but I love winter.
“The Winter Soldier,” that is. The much-anticipated sequel to 2011’s “Captain America” is nothing short of marvelous.
Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) is still adjusting to his new version of normal, 70 years removed from his own time. Yet, he has settled into a sort of routine of running around the Washington Mall and kicking bad guy trash with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) for S.H.I.E.L.D. and its director, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). But then someone starts trying to kill Fury, and whispers are heard of a mysterious assassin, known only as The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).
Soon, Black Widow and the Cap find their lives are on the line, too, and have to try to identify and stop the growing danger with the help of Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Sam “Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie). A discovery of another threat from within S.H.I.E.L.D. itself only adds to the peril.
Each three movies in on their respective characters, Evans and Johansson have this thing nailed down, and it’s hard to know for sure, but there’s a good chance Jackson was actually born to play Fury. As the biggest new name, Robert Redford adds a little more weight as government chair over S.H.I.E.L.D. Smulders is a welcome return, though she’s mostly just a blip until the second half, and Emily VanCamp debutes as Cap’s neighbor who is more than meets the eye. Usually I hate new characters like VanCamp’s, but in her case, I actually don’t think I’ll mind wherever they decide to go with it.
At first glance, Mackie’s character also feels kind of tossed in — yet another military-trained semi-superhero — but I thought his talks with Cap about accepting change and moving on from combat went a long ways to grounding the movie more than the “Thor” and “Iron Man” sequels have ever managed. This is a world where a do-gooder super soldier has been frozen in ice for decades and has to adjust to a completely different way of life, but in one way finds that not everything has changed and he’s not the only one who struggles to change.
According to the all-knowing Internet, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” has only a small fraction of the CGI action scenes as 2012’s “The Avengers” did. I’m not saying anything against “The Avengers,” because that was a great movie, but the action sequences in “The Winter Soldier” are nothing short of incredible, even without knowing the filmmakers tried to keep them all (relatively) legit.
But awesome action scenes do not a movie make, and it’s all too easy for action movies to grow too dependent on their thrilling sequences (cough, cough, “Man of Steel,” cough). “The Winter Soldier,” however, deftly sidesteps that blow to its quality and manages to throw enough punches and crazy kicks to satisfy audience bloodlust while balancing a tight, well-paced story. That’s right, folks, it has an actual plot.
Not that the plot is a secret or anything. The Winter Soldier storyline, as well as the tenacity of Hydra — that’s not a spoiler, right? — is all over in Captain America comics and cartoons (including the excellent but short-lived animated series, “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”). Although most viewers will be able to call at least parts of the end from the beginning, the ride never feels stale.
As always with Marvel films, stick around after the credits start to roll. A clip after the stylized credits teases “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” coming out next May, with the first glimpses of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). There’s a second clip at the end of the scrolling credits, too, though it wasn’t exactly revelatory. Having a tee-up like “The Winter Soldier,” though, might be a tough act to follow.