Thawed-out war hero Steve Rogers (Evans) is ever more uneasy about his affiliation with deep-spy network S.H.I.E.L.D.. And when the organisation turns on him, he uncovers a horrifying conspiracy.
There is something pleasingly, and no doubt deliberately, ironic in Marvel Studios' flag-wearing hero fronting its most subversive movie yet. Not that writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus are being subtle about it. "You're holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection," Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) tells Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) early on. During the very same dialogue he says, "I thought the punishment usually came after the crime," and - just in case we hadn't got the point - "This isn't freedom, this is fear." Even so, what we have here is the key to Captain America's real appeal, the answer to any criticism that he's just a stiff-necked, steroidal boy scout. As a 95 year-old thirtysomething with an early-'40s value set in War-On-Terror America, he is less the USA's poster boy than its most steadfast foil. Something co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Welcome To Collinwood) clearly relish getting their indie-cred teeth into on a blockbuster scale.
Post-Chitauri invasion, Rogers is a useful asset for shady superspy network S.H.I.E.L.D., but also a pain in the ass. During a great opening set-piece in which Rogers, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and a squad of S.H.I.E.L.D. goons take out a crew of French/Algerian pirates, our blond hero complains of being forced to play "Fury's caretaker". This is not what he signed up for. This is not what America should be doing. History has seen the nation gradually diminished from world's saviour, to world's policeman, to a "caretaker" over the course of decades. For Rogers the moral decline appears instantaneous, and it rankles intensely. There are then indirect tributes to Edward Snowden's whistleblowing and shades of the NSA privacy-invasion scandal. Pretty bold stuff to be sneaking under the canvas of this primary-coloured marquee.
It's uncertain how much any of it will land with the film's young, core audience, although this does feel like Marvel's most 'mature' picture yet, an admirable risk to take. It is certainly the studio's most talky and plotty, and the big wink that is the casting of Robert Redford (who, by the way, would have been ideal Cap casting in the '70s) as S.H.I.E.L.D. suit Alexander Pierce suggests 1975's Three Days Of The Condor as its most obvious inspiration. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is in there too, for sure. But, as Rogers' journey manhandles him out into the cold and makes him a hoodie-wearing renegade advised to "trust nobody" and targeted by a similarly empowered super-agent (the titular Winter Soldier), the influence of the Bourne trilogy weighs down, too - the Russos even going so far as to steal a famous Bourne shot directly towards the film's end.
The action and violence are the most grounded we've seen in a Marvel film. The First Avenger, with its steampunk-laser weirdness and numbing, never-ending montages, felt dull and insulated. Iron Man, Thor and Hulk all dodge (or brush off) bullets via their self-evident fantastical/sci-fi trimmings. But, apart from the fact that he lobs a big metal Frisbee around and has been artificially pumped to the very peak of attainable physical fitness, the Captain is operating on the same plane as Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan and James Bond. He even throws a knife at someone.
Evans has settled comfortably into the title role, and bolsters its appeal with a precise charm, never letting you forget that the heart of a regular and sincere wimp beats beneath that rock-sculpted chest. He spends much of the film working up a will-they-could-they? partnership with Johansson's still-sparky Black Widow, who enjoys her greatest chunk of Marvel screen time yet. It's an engaging double act. And when he isn't ticking off Fury, running righteous rings around the cycloptic boss' persistent, end-justifies-means ambivalence, he's fostering a whole new buddyship with Anthony Mackie's likable veteran support-group organiser Sam Wilson.
And then the wings pop out. Wilson, after all, is also The Falcon. Not just any ex-forces guy, but someone with secret impossi-tech that enables him to flap about like a supersonic swift. To chide this development as silly in a comic-book movie may be like spitting out a jellybean for tasting of chemicals, but even so, after the Russos' first-rate work setting up a smart, Washington, D.C.-based conspiracy thriller, it feels like a backstep into formula. And The Falcon does look naff: Three Days Of The Condor giving way to Condorman.
Inexorably, the whole enterprise drifts into business as usual. The more the story refers back to the first Captain America film, the less interesting it becomes - its subversiveness becomes subverted. The twists are easy to figure, and certain reveals are just stamp-your-foot hoary. Plus, given the constant reminders that this is just one adventure within the greater Marvelverse, you can't help but be distracted by one, nagging question: wouldn't Tony Stark have something to say about all this? Especially when those huge, deadly S.H.I.E.L.D. machines - now propelled by his technology - launch into the sky.
Speaking of which, The Winter Soldier is the third of the last four Marvel movies to take its final-act set-piece into American airspace and feature a lot of shiny CG things whizzing around amid orange-blossom detonations. In Avengers Assemble it was exhilarating. In Iron Man 3 it was acceptable. Now it's a case of, "This again? Really guys?" There's also an earlier action gag, in which the Captain single-handedly takes down an aircraft on a bridge, that is almost a beat-for-beat repeat of Heimdall's dark-elf ship takedown on the Bifrost in Thor: The Dark World - and it, too, feels like a last-minute, studio-led insertion.
None of this is ruinous, though. The Winter Soldier does go out on an intriguing note, which should have big repercussions on future Earthbound Marvel stories. Captain America is an interesting character, arguably the most interesting of the Avengers, the one with the greatest thematic scope. And that can only bode well for his next solo, hopefully Helicarrier-free, outing.
It may climax with an overly formulaic splurge, but The Winter Soldier benefits from an old-school-thriller tone that, for its first half at least, distinguishes it from its more obviously superheroic Marvel cousins.