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This image released by Marvel shows Sebastian Stan in a scene from ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’. (AP)
‘Captain America’ zippy but hollow Did Marvel tease a Dr Strange movie?

NEW YORK, April 2, (Agencies): For the latest Marvel release, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” most fan boys might prefer a Consumer Reports-style product review. New character introductions: Smooth. Action sequences: Excellent if sometimes lacking finesse. Viewer satisfaction: Likely high. Box-office prospects: Bankable. Teasers for future Marvel installments: Yes, two. With slick design and plushy interiors, “The Winter Soldier” is an excellent product. But is it a good movie? Are the two indistinguishable at this point? Like the recent “Thor: The Dark World,” ‘’Winter Soldier” is a sequel to a pre-”Avengers” franchise starter. The earlier “Captain America: First Avenger” was a mostly clever period film, set in the ‘40s and awash with a charming WWII thriller nostalgia.

“Winter Soldier” brings Steve Rogers — the weakling recruit made a brawny Greatest Generation icon, played by Chris Evans — up to present day for a Washington D.C. conspiracy thriller. Fittingly, Marvel has attracted the default hero of such films, Robert Redford. He’s a major get for the franchise, especially since (unlike in last year’s “All is Lost”) he’s actually talking now. While Rogers runs laps around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and jots notes on the pop culture he missed while frozen for 70 years, there’s trouble brewing at S.H.I.E.L.D.

Its head, Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson), believes something is amiss with the agency’s latest project: a trio of “helicarriers” that can kill evildoers from the sky even before the evil is done. It’s in this way that Marvel films use a complicated current-events issue — NSA-like spying — to feign contemporary relevance. It’s the appearance of having something to say. Captain America, a stand-in for a more innocent, noble America, wonders if the helicarriers are like “holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection.” But that’s about the extent of such talk in “Winter Soldier”: a political thriller without the politics. (Be warned: some small spoilers follow.)

Fury, having doubted the project, finds himself a hunted man. Captain America is left to investigate with only a few trustworthy friends: Scarlett Johansson’s scarlet-haired former KGB agent Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow (an “Avengers” toss-in, added like a dash of paprika) and Anthony Mackie’s veteran Sam Wilson (a welcome newbie). The best thing “Winter Soldier” has going for it is its cast, a uniformly likable bunch, particularly the winning Mackie, whose character dons mechanical wings to become the Falcon. And then there’s Redford, who plays Alexander Pierce, a S.H.I.E.L.D. director.

Redford, naturally, classes up the joint. Historically, in films like “Three Days of the Condor” and “All the President’s Men,” he’s been the regular guy fighting government conspiracy — which makes his duplicitous turn in “Winter Soldier” exciting. Like Jackson, he lends a gravitas to the film that it perhaps doesn’t quite deserve. Directing brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (“You, Me and Dupree”) and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (“Thor: The Dark World”) put perhaps a bit more into character development than these films often do. (The biggest misstep is with the handling of the title character, an assassin played by Sebastian Stan, whose true identity is mysterious.)

The brightly lit D.C. environs, too, give the film something of a sense of the real world. Yet when Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” plays — pop-culture homework for Rogers — it’s like a window into another, wholly separate universe. One with soul. It’s getting difficult to tell the Marvel movies apart. The fight scenes on a departing aircraft blur together. The reversals of friend and foe refract like an infinity mirror. The characters are spread across so many movies that you’d need a detective’s cork board to keep it straight.

So while “The Winter Soldier” succeeds as finely engineered merchandise built to be crowd-pleasing entertainment, for moviegoers and shareholder alike, it has a shelf life that won’t last much past its running time. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” a Walt Disney release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout.” Running time: 136 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

NEW YORK: “Captain America:
The Winter Solider” comes loaded with Easter Eggs, those tantalizing clues that have become staples of the Marvel movies and hint at the sprawling comic book universe beyond the action films’ borders. One of the most intriguing of these fanboy tidbits hints at a possible Dr. Strange spin-off. For those who didn’t grow up with stacks of dog-eared comic books alongside their bed, Dr. Strange is a sorcerer who wields various mystical objects and sports some colorful facial hair. In the film, it’s revealed that HYDRA, the terrorist organization that routinely does battle with Captain America, has targeted Stephen Strange as a possible threat. As true comic book fans know, Stephen Strange is the good doctor’s alias.

A spokesman for Marvel did not immediately have comment about plans for a Dr. Strange spin-off movie, but Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige alluded to a possible stand alone adventure for the magical warrior in a recent interview with Moviefone. “I do think Strange is one that I certainly think you start off with his own movie,” Feige said. “There’s no right way or wrong way necessarily in the big picture, but because he’s associated with such a different side of the Marvel Universe, to suddenly have our characters turn a corner and go, ‘Oh, hey, let’s go see the Sorcerer Supreme.’ What? What are you talking about?” He noted that Marvel is currently meeting with possible directors for a Dr. Strange movie and is in the process of developing a film. If all goes well that means that the Seven Rings of Raggadorr, the Vapors of Valtorr, the Icy Tendrils of Ikthalon and other Strange spells and conjurings will soon be getting their big screen debuts.

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