The latest spectacle from the Marvel movie factory—entry #2 in the Captain America franchise—is exactly what you would expect. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is entertaining, clever, polished, loud. It's a bit better than its predecessor, 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, and better than most action films in its budget bracket.
But as much as I sat amused (occasionally highly amused) for 136 minutes, I never felt particularly engrossed or even all that thrilled. The stakes were too low. The hero's fate, the fates of his co-heroes, the fates of the villains and the fate of mankind were never much in doubt.
And that's a bit of a problem.
That's not to say the film is not enjoyable. It's a lot of fun to watch Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), team up with vampy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), wing-man Falcon (Anthony Mackie), ringleader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and other agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as they fight to save the world (again). It's also fun to see the various baddies — including chief baddie, the mysterious Winter Soldier himself (Sebastian Stan) — try and fail to vanquish the good guys. The plot takes intriguing twists and turns and (under-)utilizes the formidable talents of Robert Redford.
One of the marks of a great film is how much it makes a palpable, physical, real impact on me as I watch it, whether it be holding my breath in tension, unconsciously welling up with tears, gripping my seat handles, or simply losing any sense of time and place because I'm so lost in the world of the movie.
I felt these things watching last year's Captain Phillips, for example, or the Robert Redford one-man-show that is All is Lost. But I felt little—if any—of these things watching The Winter Soldier. If I felt anything it was numbness.
The film is essentially a blitzkrieg of bombs, blasts, and bullets from start to finish, a cornucopia of knives, guns, and techy displays of military-industrial might, interspersed with kicks, punches, flips, fist-fighting, and all manner of martial arts. The Nazis and Soviets are referenced, as are terrorists and WMDs. There are double agents aplenty, corrupt senators, Wikileaks allusions, war veterans support groups, and Cold War-era bunkers. Set in Washington D.C., the spy/sci-fi/superhero film is a cinematic fireworks show inspired by the last 75 years of American military history. It's loud, proud, and full of explosions.
So why does it all feel so tedious?
As the film progressed I began to understand. Amidst the nonstop barrage of bullets and bombs, something was conspicuously absent: blood and bodies. Feeling. Pain. Sure, some characters get bruised or scratched. A few occasionally wince. Once or twice we worry that one of the heroes might be mortally wounded.
But [spoiler alert] they always bounce back. Always. Even after being pummeled by a bionic metal arm, shot in the chest by sniper's bullets, electrocuted or thrown from a skyscraper, our heroes emerge largely unscathed, ready to resume their world saving.