The casting of Robert Redford as a high-ranking, low-scruples D.C. power player in Captain America: The Winter Soldier plays on The Sundance Kid's status as the ranking elder statesman of Hollywood's liberal eite. But it also serves another purpose. The presence of the star of 1970s' chestnuts such as Three Days of the Condor and All the President's Men gives The Winter Soldier a fetchingly old-school texture, and more heft than you'd expect from the usual brand extension: This is the first Marvel Studios movie since the original Iron Man that really stands on its own.Not only that, but by bringing in Redford, a titan of the so-called New Hollywood, to shore up its ensemble cast, the studio shows that it hasn't forgotten about the grown-ups in the audience. And by tweaking this sequel to play more like a cloak-and-dagger thriller than a special-effects blowout (though of course there's plenty of that, too), directors Anthony and Joe Russo have delivered an unusually satisfying and substantive superhero movie.
Redford's impeccably dressed Alexander Pierce is a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official with close ties to cycloptic head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who remains the terse centre around which the whole Marvel Universe revolves. The Winter Soldier smartly throws things off-kilter when Fury is brutally assaulted in broad daylight by a masked, cybernetically enhanced assassin – the Winter Soldier of the title – who has an inside line on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s operational protocol. And when Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) tries to figure out who ordered the hit, he finds himself on the outs with the suddenly unstable spy agency, whose agents are angling to take him down.
The idea of the red-white-and-blue-clad Captain America involuntarily matched up against the military-industrial complex that created him is compelling, and Evans imparts a sense of disillusioned weariness to his performance that clashes with his character's rah-rah norm. A scene in which Rogers clandestinely visits the Smithsonian to see an exhibit about his Second World War exploits is clever and melancholy in a way that transcends the jokey glibness of the Iron Man franchise. It also counters Captain America's image as a '40s-era relic (he was the straight man in The Avengers) while evincing a fond, possibly foolish nostalgia for the unambiguous heroism of the Greatest Generation.
There are some surprisingly sombre notes in the script, such as a bittersweet encounter between Rogers and his former lover Peggy Carter (a heavily but convincingly made-up Hayley Atwell), now in her 80s and confined to a retirement home, and the scene where Afghanistan war vet Sam Wilson (the superb Anthony Mackie) exhorts a post-traumatic stress disorder support group to work through the impacts of their battlefield experiences.
While it never quite crosses over into the fashionable "darkness" of Christopher Nolan's determinedly grim (and ideologically incoherent) Batman movies, The Winter Soldier still makes an effort to bounce its plotting off real-world issues. For all his formidable fighting skills, the titular villain is ultimately just a cog in a larger war machine that would use orbiting satellite technology to pre-emptively vaporize foreign threats.
Not that the film is too heavy: In one refreshingly campy flourish, Toby Jones reprises his role from the first Captain America as an evil Nazi scientist who's since transferred his consciousness to a computer – he's like Dr. Strangelove by way of Hal 9000. There are also some funny one-liners for Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, who keeps threatening to become a romantic foil for the Captain, only to pull back (Johansson's teasing performance here is like a warm-up for her man-eating turn in the impending Under the Skin).
If there's something formulaic about the way the film's ragtag heroes – including Sam, whose skill as a pilot comes in handy – come together for the inevitable final action blow-out, the crispness of the storytelling is still pleasing.
What it comes down to is the difference between spectacle and craftsmanship. The Winter Soldier has plenty of the former – every dollar of its estimated $170-million (U.S.) budget is onscreen – but it's also got an intricate dramatic and thematic structure holding everything in place. For instance, Steve and Sam's bond over the fact that they both lost wingmen in wars six decades apart is never overstated in the dialogue. And in an adventure that finds S.H.I.E.L.D. cracking from the inside-out, the Captain's two most spectacular hand-to-hand battles see him discarding his trademark shield and absorbing body blows along the way. There's comic-book poetry in that juxtaposition, and The Winter Soldier is just grave and graceful enough to make it work.