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Latest ‘Captain America’ Plays It Too Safe

Even though it starts out as fun and refreshing, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” takes an interesting theme and wastes it by reusing just about every hero movie cliché in the book, leaving us with little more than a half-baked premise for world domination and a series of underwhelming action sequences. The character himself survives thanks to a couple of clever scenes that make him as likable as ever, yet you get the feeling that there isn’t much room for good old Captain America in the 21st century by the time bullets finally stop whizzing by. Complete with borrowed twists, a couple of painfully silly action sequences and an underdeveloped villain, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” barely escapes being a complete misfire.

After saving the world and solidifying himself as the greatest hero in American history, Captain Rogers (Chris Evans) is now taking a speed course in catching up on what happened over the last seven or so decades. Though he still loves the nostalgia of the 40s, Rogers is optimistic about the current era too, making hand written notes to himself about reading up on major events and icons like the Berlin Wall collapse, Steve Jobs and soul music. He may be a workout warrior who embarrasses other casual joggers on the regular, but no one can say that he’s a dumb jock – even if he hasn’t quite figured out that there’s a notepad app on his smart phone.

Before expanding on Rogers’ adjustment to skipping multiple generations, however, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” follows the old action cliché of finding some easy bad guys to take down in order to remind audiences what he’s capable of. After pirates stupidly seize some high-level members of intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D., it provides the perfect opportunity for Rogers to sport his Captain America suit and pound some bad guys into submission with his trusty shield. Of course, it makes it a little easier that he has the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) on his side, mainly because she helps pass the time in between fist fights.

After cleanly taking out a whole score of villains in a black ops mission, Rogers soon finds himself questioning the leadership of S.H.I.E.L.D. commander Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in addition to having a minor existential crisis. At one point early on, he follows in the footsteps of many heroes before him and starts wondering aloud about not being able to tell the difference between right and wrong. While he grew up in a fairly simple age in which good and bad were much more clearly defined, these days he can’t tell what is helping or hurting the prospects of Americans. Not really helping is the role of slick politicians like Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who oversees S.H.I.E.L.D. with icy calculation and has his eyes on big plans for the agency.

Complicating matters further for Rogers is a powerful new villain on the scene, making him feel like maybe he’s not so invincible after all. As far as supervillains go, the Winter Soldier is more interesting than some, yet writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely don’t quite know how to separate him from countless other villains we’ve seen before. We get the sense that the movie wants us to think he’s the ultimate tough guy assassin, but he turns out to be surprisingly bad at his job, which doesn’t exactly help make him a worthy rival for Captain America. More than anything, the Winter Soldier is there to wear a cool suit and try to look as menacing as possible.

But if “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” gets anything right it’s the overall plot, which involves Rogers’ terror at seeing gross demonstrations of military force. After war heroes from Rogers’ era like Republican President Eisenhower would warn about the dangers of the military industrial complex, Rogers isn’t comfortable seeing such consolidated power first-hand now that he’s living in the 21st century. While Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. see such military expansion as necessary to preserve world order, it smells a lot more like unbridled fear to Rogers. Superhero movies in recent years have strode to deliver at least some connection to world events to balance out the fantasy, and “The Winter Soldier” at least finds a good starting point that makes ironclad sense for a hero from the 40s.

Ultimately, though, “The Winter Soldier” takes a fitting premise and some good chemistry between Evans and Johansson and loses itself by playing it frustratingly conventional. PG-13 action movies aren’t exactly known for firearm marksmanship, but here we might even be in record territory as villains empty clip after clip at our heroes and bullets never seem to be an actual detriment. Those who struggle with the breaks from reality needed for most superhero movies might just find themselves laughing their way to the exits, which is a shame considering the promising of early scenes that suggested we were in better hands.

Much like “Man of Steel,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is another superhero movie with the right actor in the lead but lacking the courage to escape the rigid formula. While recent Marvel entries like “The Avengers” and the refreshingly offbeat “Iron Man 3″ colored outside of the lines to keep the storylines fresh, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” ends up the victim of a limited imagination.

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