TheWinterSoldiercoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2014, 136 min., Color
Marvel Entertainment
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay, and action throughout
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features: C+

Superhero films are the exception to many parents’ rules against too much violence, because even without the “BAM” or “SOCK” graphics we got from TV’s campy Batman episodes, it’s understood that superheroes aren’t real and so neither, by extension, is the violence. It’s why younger children climb onboard to watch a film that, were it a straight action flick, might have been taboo.

But Captain America: The Winter Soldier does something no superhero movie has even attempted: it picks up the superhero and plunks him down right in the middle of a ‘70s conspiracy thriller. That makes sense, actually, because Captain America is probably the most human and normal of all the Marvel superheroes. He’s a regular guy who was made stronger and faster through medical experimentation, the U.S.’s attempt to counter Hitler’s “Master Race.” His only weapon is a shield that he throws like a Frisbee.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were heavily influenced by espionage thrillers such as Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, while directors Anthony and Joe Russo wanted to push the superhero movie beyond the simple nemesis-driven plots we typically see. How unusual is it for a superhero NOT to appear in just about every scene of a superhero movie? But of course it isn’t unusual for that to happen in more complex thrillers.

The Winter Soldier takes its title from a Soviet agent that Captain America (Chris Evans) goes up against, but that assassin (Sebastian Stan) is only one piece of the puzzle in a complex plot that twists and turns like Steve Rogers own souped-up DNA.  

The action picks up two years after The Avengers and the “Battle of New York.” Rogers, revived decades after he was frozen in suspended animation, has to adjust to a life in which everything is radically different. That alone provides plenty of interest and a psychological substrate, but he’s also working for S.H.I.E.L.D., a spy agency run by director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). On a mission to free hostages from a group of mercenaries, he discovers that the agent accompanying him (Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff) has a different assignment—to hack into the ship’s computers and bring back the data. Got that? Great, because younger family members might feel lost at times because of the dizzying turns this script takes.

TheWinterSoldierscreenSoon, Rogers becomes suspicious of everyone, especially after a group of assassins led by the Winter Soldier try to take him out. Both the action and the cloak-and-dagger intrigue accelerate, all because of that flash drive—though that, too, is far from the whole story. There are moles and double agents and the preserved brain of a supervillain named Arnim Zola and an organization named Hydra that springs up right inside S.H.I.E.L.D. And just when you thought you’d seen the last of the acronyms, along comes S.T.R.I.K.E. and Insight Hellicarriers that function like precision-targeted drones.

Lives hang in the balance and the world is on the brink of a new age of “miracles” . . . and warfare. It’s also the beginning of an age where everything isn’t the moral equivalent of black and white. There are plenty of gray areas, and that, along with a complex plot, will have younger family members feeling a little clueless at times.

Taking the thriller approach works well, though, because it automatically solves a problem that has plagued every director of every superhero movie: how do you get the tone right? How serious, or how comic-book do you go? Well, the espionage thriller comes with its own conventions, and it makes for a nice fit . . . at least with this particular superhero.

Captain America was a solid superhero film, but this sequel, with its greater complexity and sustained tension, is better still. But it does require more concentration to follow everything.