During a key moment in "Captain America: Winter Soldier," Natasha Romanoff, alias Black Widow, pulls a gun on a Nazi-inspired Hydra leader whose finger rests on a button that, if pushed, will blow a hole in the superheroine's chest.
She could easily shoot him. But he might push the button.
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"Captain America: The Winter Soldier"★ ★ ★
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Toby Jones, Sebastian Stan
Directed by: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Details: A Walt Disney Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for violence. 136 minutes
I couldn't believe what happens next: She surrenders her weapon. What?
Up to 20 million people will be wiped out if Hydra's plans of world domination succeed. Yet, Black Widow is unwilling to make the supreme sacrifice.
Uh, doesn't this run contrary to Captain America's dedication to patriotic service?
Did screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely mean to suggest that Black Widow lacks the sacrificial capacities of her male counterparts at SHIELD?
Probably not. More likely the writing duo merely succumbed to one of the stalest action movie clichés ever invented, the Mexican standoff, in which the bad guy gets the drop on the good guy, then, for reasons defying the purpose of being a villain, doesn't kill the good guy when he has the perfect opportunity.
So, "Winter Soldier" winds up with a key character at odds with the message of the movie, much like the filmmakers of "Divergent," who created an easily categorized thriller all about the evils of easy categorizing.
Is this nit-picky criticism?
Only if you think that the thought put into a story doesn't matter, as long as the slickly executed action scenes never bore and the movie contains an obligatory cameo by Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee. (Hint: He's the guy who says, "I'm so fired!")
Yet, "Winter Soldier" does have some thought, particularly when its characters discuss American priorities: Will the U.S. be willing to surrender its freedoms in exchange for global peace?
Co-directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have created a nonstop action vehicle with top-drawer visual effects, a testosterone-inducing score by Henry Jackman, surprising revelations and reversals, plus -- just in time for the Easter season -- a plethora of resurrections.
"Winter Soldier" brings back beefed-up Chris Evans as genetically engineered super-soldier Steve Rodgers, who in 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger" fought Nazi splinter group Hydra during World War II before becoming a human Popsicle.
Thawed out 70 years later, Rogers continues his fight for the U.S. as Captain America, now part of SHIELD, a government organization run by tough-as-Kevlar Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, back in the black eye-patch).
Plot-wise, "Winter Soldier" makes for a more muscular movie than most Marvel-inspired mysteries. Someone tries to assassinate Fury (in one of many strobe-edited car chases/shootout sequences), prompting Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford -- yes! Robert Redford), a SHIELD honcho who also heads the World Security Council, to suspect traitors have infiltrated the organization.
Rogers reluctantly teams up with Black Widow (reprised by the lithe and limber Scarlett Johansson) and fellow army vet Sam Wilson (supersized, charismatic Anthony Mackie) to investigate Fury's attack while a new line of super military fighter jets waits in the wings to go into action.
Action for whom?
Marvel fans already know who Sam Wilson turns out to be. They also know the secret identity of a mysterious super-assassin (Sebastian Stan) with a metal arm capable of great strength and endurance. Marvel neophytes will discover these on their own.
As crowd-pleasing and fan-satisfying as "Winter Soldier" might be, it comes up short next to Joss Whedon's ultimate Marvel movie, 2012's "The Avengers," a superb meshing of character and action with wit and humor.
Not so much "Winter Soldier," a chapter starting to show franchise fatigue. It borrows James Bond's no-name crew of incompetent marksmen to fire off a jillion bullets, rockets, bombs and missiles at the superheroes.
And they all miss.
Note to incompetent marksmen: When Captain America rushes you, deflecting your bullets with his star-spangled bullet-proof Frisbee, shoot him in the feet.
One more note to Marvel movie fans: Stick around after the closing credits for two, not one, teasers for the next Captain America movie, due in theaters during 2016.