The recent spate of superhero movies all share the same peculiar dynamic. After being dropped from buildings, incinerated, and slammed with high-speed projectiles, their characters invariably end their epic battles with a definitive . . . fistfight. You can’t kill them with incredible punishment, but a bout of pugilism is supposed to settle things. In the end, of course, a black hole or something opens up and withers the villain’s magic skill set. But it says something about these oversized productions that they need to bring everything down to hand-to-hand basics—as though somebody realized how dull a movie can get when the antagonists can’t actually be hurt.
The same outline prevails in the second top-lining film for its old-fashioned superhero. And the first thing to be said about this one is that, unlike 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which existed purely to set up Marvel’s 2012 ensemble summit meeting The Avengers, Winter Soldier is actually a movie: It has a story, a subtext, and a few fun pulp surprises along the way.