A superhero should always battle a foe as powerful as he is. Otherwise, there's no contest. Yet if you look at the history of superhero films, few of them have villains who pop as memorably as their blocky-chested men in capes. There's Heath Ledger's Joker, of course (the leering granddaddy of psychotic bad guys), and also Jack Nicholson's Joker, and Tom Hiddleston's Loki. Beyond that, the landscape is thick with low-camp cartoons such as Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor, boilerplate CGI treachery, or villains who simply didn't cut it. In that light, the creators of Captain America: The Winter Soldier have brought off something fresh and bold: They have taken Captain America (Chris Evans), the engagingly square strongman from the flag-waving '40s, and planted him in the black-ops cynicism of the present day, where the villain isn't some over-the-top mastermind but, in fact, the very military-industrial complex he's out to defend. He now faces an ominously timely faceless evil.
Early on, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the embattled director of S.H.I.E.L.D., dispatches Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), a.k.a. Black Widow, on a mission to rescue a naval ship overtaken by pirates. But he also plays the two against each other, and it turns out that it's Nick himself who's under siege. In his armored van, he's attacked by shadow forces that want to militarize the world and make spying as common as breathing. Sound like anything you've read recently?
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the first superhero film since the terrorist-inflected The Dark Knight that plugs you right into what's happening now. Told in enjoyably blunt, heavy-duty strokes, the movie doesn't try for the artistry of The Dark Knight it's action-fantasy prose, not poetry. Yet there's a hell-bent vitality to its paranoia. When the Captain is surrounded by government officials on an elevator, and he realizes that none of them are on his side, the fight scene that follows isn't just brutally exciting. It expresses the film's theme: that you can't trust anyone in a society that wants to control everyone.
Chris Evans once again makes our hero a compellingly pensive, furrowed-browed demigod. He moves very fast, like a Bruce Lee of bionically enhanced aggression, but Evans lets us see how the forces Captain America is up against are weighing him down. It helps to have Robert Redford on hand, wittily cast as a CIA-spirited S.H.I.E.L.D. leader a cutthroat in a suit who drily understands the mathematics of power. Scarlett Johansson makes Natasha a fast-and-furious flirt, Anthony Mackie (as Falcon) spars nicely with Evans, and Sebastian Stan puts Steve's old pal Bucky Barnes through a chilling transformation. The film is too long, and its token references to the other Avengers are just a forced attempt to join it to a ''larger'' story. Yet Captain America: The Winter Soldier has the zing and purpose that last summer's Man of Steel lacked, with a sky-high climax that's a real dazzler. What works here is setting up Captain America in a battle against…America. That's the way to turn a super-square into an awesome antihero. B+