Marvel’s muster losing muster in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

With Captain America: The Winter Soldier, repetition has settled in the Marvel universe. Call it superhero overkill, but this follow-up to the 2011 Marvel movie – no great shakes itself – feels every bit a corporate decision whose (undoubted) financial rewards far exceed the artistic ones. Nevertheless, the Marvel movies keep coming and the audiences keep going.

The buff and tough Chris Evans returns as Steve Rogers, otherwise known as the genetically enhanced superhero Captain America, who was created during World War II then put on ice (literally) until the present day. (These events were recounted in Captain America: The First Avenger, for those keeping score at home.)

Steve is still adjusting to the realities (euphemistically speaking) of the modern world and his own super-powers, but inevitably finds himself on yet another mission to preserve truth, justice, and the American Way (to cadge a line from another superhero). There is internal dissent within the top-secret agency SHIELD, paving the way for the nefarious minions of “Hydra” to gain a foul foothold.

When SHIELD’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is apparently assassinated, SHIELD becomes the purview of slick politico Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), whose agenda isn’t made clear until late in the game … although attentive viewers will quickly figure out that the one-time Hollywood golden boy is up to no good.

Joining Steve in his heroic endeavors are the ever-slinky Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), better known as “the Falcon.” No points for guessing how it all turns out, although it takes a long time to get there, punctuated by the usual gunplay, fist-fights and CGI explosions.

Hayley Atwell and Toby Jones make token return appearances from the earlier film, as does Cobie Smulders from The Avengers (2012). Sebastian Stan also encores from the first Captain America as Steve’s old buddy Bucky Barnes, although like Steve he too has undergone some genetic enhancements to become the film’s “Winter Soldier.”

Evans and Mackie are appropriately earnest but otherwise unremarkable, Johansson doesn’t sound so much husky-voiced as hoarse, and Jackson strides through the proceedings with his customary glowering aplomb. For Marvel mavens, there are the usual nods to lore and the obligatory Stan Lee cameo. These are to be expected. So, indeed, is the consistently high quality of the film’s special effects which, after all, cost enough.

The villainy quotient is not impressive and the heavies never very threatening. Not Stan, more pitiable than fearsome in his brief time on screen; not Frank Grillo, as a turncoat SHIELD agent; and not – most especially and most surprising – Redford, who’s so laid-back he’s almost horizontal. In some scenes, he almost appears to be reading his lines from off-screen. The legendary actor has played unscrupulous characters before but never really an out-andout bad guy. It doesn’t suit him. Garry Shandling (looking embalmed) also reprises his role as Senator Stern, who’s in cahoots with Hydra.

For a movie that runs 135 minutes, the storyline is pretty slim. It’s simply that the superhero novelty is wearing thin (so, for that matter, is the 3-D enhancement, for those who bother). There are only so many ways to save the world, we’ve already seen it multiple times, and we’re going to see it again. More Marvel movies are in the pipeline, including another Captain America . For those who crave every big-screen Marvel morsel, fear not: We’ll have The Amazing Spider-Man 2 next month, the next X-Men and Guardians of the Universe later this summer. And certainly more after that. !