Captain America meets modern-day paranoia

In the new Captain America sequel, our unthawed avenger visits the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to see an exhibit devoted to his Second World War exploits. It’s the only thing in the film that sniffs of embalming fluid.

Cap (Chris Evans)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Three stars (out of four)

Rated: PG

In the new Captain America sequel, our unthawed avenger visits the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to see an exhibit devoted to his Second World War exploits.

It’s the only thing in the film that sniffs of embalming fluid. Marvel’s corniest and most archaic superhero otherwise gets a thorough upgrade this time out, in thinking if not in costume, learning through multiple revelations that trust is more elusive than peace.

Subtitled The Winter Soldier, a nod to the Captain’s mysterious new cold-blooded nemesis, the movie comes wrapped not only in the Stars and Stripes but also Watergate-meets-9/11 paranoia from influences like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, the latter especially so thanks to the forceful and nuanced presence of Robert Redford.

It’s gung-ho vs. shadow as Captain America gets wise in a hurry and while being pursued. The contrast makes for the best kind of blockbuster comic-book movie, tweaking the brain while dazzling the eye.

When we first rejoin Cap (Chris Evans), aka Steve Rogers, he’s still coming to grips with the 21st century.

Having fended off the Nazi-allied HYDRA criminal organization in origin film Captain America: The First Avenger, he’s now engaged in more current heroism. Things like stopping pirates in the Indian Ocean, aided by his sexy (and sneaky) fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), aka Black Widow of The Avengers alternate universe.

Cap is as valorous as ever, if also a little too virginal. He brushes off dating advice from Natasha, and admits to his new military pal Sam (Anthony Mackie) that he still needs to bone up on such pop-cult totems as the music of Nirvana and Marvin Gaye and such movies as Rocky.

More vexing to this Greatest Generation do-gooder are the flexible ethics of S.H.I.E.L.D. The agency’s high-priority Project Insight is a gussied-up drone missile program devised to take out evildoers before they do evil (shades of Minority Report).

It finds targets by violating civil liberties on a global scale — much like what America’s National Security Agency wiretappers are actually doing — and this doesn’t sit well with the righteous Captain.

“This isn’t freedom,” he tells S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). “This is fear.”

Cap has a point, one even the ferocious Fury can see. But when Fury seeks permission from his government overseer (Redford) to hit the pause button on Project Insight, the good guys barely have a chance to move before the bad guys storm in — including a one-man wrecking crew with face mask and mechanical arm known as the Winter Soldier.

And who really are the bad guys this time? That’s the beauty of the script by returning writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, brought to the screen with malevolent gusto by sibling directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, who were last seen helming considerably tamer material with You, Me and Dupree.

While the Russos prove themselves more than capable at handling the film’s many muscular set pieces — an elevator ambush scene is a highlight — they’re also dab hands at building a mood of unease and distrust.

It gets almost supernaturally spooky at times — is that echoes of the Twin Peaks theme in Henry Jackman’s score? — and cinematographer Trent Opaloch imparts a similar sense of totalitarian menace he also brought to the compromised cityscapes of Elysium and District 9.

And while things get a little too complicated midway through, what keeps us grounded and interested is the continuing education of Captain America, whom Evans impressively frees from his comic book origins.

“It’s kind of hard to trust somebody when you don’t know who that somebody really is,” he confides to an ally.

Cap is learning the hard way, much like the superpower he symbolizes, that an imperfect modern world doesn’t offer perfectly moral choices to complex problems.

Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.

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