Of all the four-color icons, Captain America should be the least open to interpretation. Ol’ Winghead seemed a charming anachronism from the time Stan Lee assembled the uncanny freaks and amazing geeks of the Marvel Universe 50-some years ago, and the sheer strangeness of past generations’ uncomplicated ideals fueled the unexpected delights of Captain America: The First Avenger
. Alas, where the 2011 film found a dreamily compelling momentum somewhere between magical realism and newsreel propaganda, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
wades through thankless cameos (Robert Redford? Emily VanCamp? Garry Shandling?) and interminable exposition (imagine Iron Man
interrupted with discursive tangents about electrical engineering). The fractured plot pits the superspies of S.H.I.E.L.D. against Hydra’s shadowy cabal and Cap against a steel-armed, greasy-maned assassin. The first film’s foot chase through 1940s Brooklyn thrilled to Cap’s newfound grace and athleticism, and once again, star Chris Evans’ unaffected certitude and boyish self-regard suggest why a mortal might one day command the Marvel gods and monsters. But now his appealing mix of officer and gentleman has been reduced to frat-house moralizing. There’s more setup for the surrounding saga: Sam “The Falcon” Wilson is deftly introduced, ScarJo’s Black Widow finally has some backstory, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is no longer just a framing device. For all the failings on display, the mighty Marvel machine rolls along. The Winter Soldier
might not be much of a movie in and of itself, but maybe there are no second acts in Captain America’s life.