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One of the things that’s been great about “Phase Two” of Marvel’s Movie plans is that we’re now safely out of origin stories. No longer do these movies focus on how a superhero became a superhero (or how a team became a team), now they get to play, and it’s brought new life into a genre that could have easily run out of fashion. Captain America: The Winter Soldier continues Marvel’s hot streak with what is their most narratively dense story yet, and delivers an exciting and a star-making performance from Anthony Mackie.

The Players:

Plot:

Post-Avengers, Steve Rogers is still trying to figure out his way in the modern world (he’s got a lot of pop culture to catch up with), and what it means to keep working for S.H.I.E.L.D. His most recent mission was supposedly about rescuing terrorists, but it seems that Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Johansson) had an assignment to hack information. There is no easy good guy/bad guy dynamic in soldiering any more, an issue that becomes more problematic when Nick Fury (Jackson) informs Steve they’re about to launch a drone-ish program that will eliminate threats before they commit crimes. But Fury comes under attack from The Winter Soldier (Stan), which puts him out of commission, and Cap and Black Widow have to go rogue to find out who’s behind the attack on Fury, and what exactly is going on in S.H.I.E.L.D. The only person Cap trusts is a veteran named Sam Wilson (Mackie) who flew in the war, but not the way you’d think.

The Good:

  • The Balls in the Air: With so many of the previous comic book movies, there was only one obstacle for the narrative, which was usually to get their protagonist into the position we expect of them as a hero (Generally the plot would follow this: Make main character into superhero, introduce bad guy, have them fight, set up sequel). Even though we enjoyed the first Captain America film, that movie is a perfect example of pretty good build up, but a dull third act because the only stakes are how they’re going to get to the inevitable conclusion. In The Winter Soldier there are so many machinations and plot threads that it never bores, and it never goes into entirely expected directions. Even if the film is about HYDRA, and the corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s also modeled on the paranoid thrillers of the 1970′s, like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Those are all about movie chess pieces, and so this mixes that with comic book thrills, which makes it the least formulaic comic-book movie yet.
  • Mr. America: Chris Evans is so, so perfect as Cap, he gets the grown-up boy scout aspect of the character, and plays it brilliantly. This is a hard role to nail as he’s kind of a corny character, but Evans makes him human and relateable, and something to aspire to. This understanding comes partly from his work in the first film — and he still plays him as the kid who doesn’t like bullies — but now he’s got the weight of a survivor, and though the film doesn’t get into his PTSD too much that’s just under the surface.
  • Mr. Mackie: Anthony Mackie is a talented performer, who’s been great in a lot of smaller parts. After this movie, we can’t wait to see Mackie play in the Marvel universe, and would love to see a spin-off movie for his character. This is the definition of a winning performance.
  • Action sequences: Though the ending gets a little CGI heavy, and the opening fight sequence has a little too much shakey-cam, the action set pieces are all pretty spectacular, with the siege on Nick Fury a great way to kick the movie into gear. There are often little obstacles and solutions throughout the sequences, making each fight scene dynamic, while — especially in the final stretch — the film does a good job of keeping track of the numerous threads and the film effortlessly cuts between them.
  • The Best Marvel Movie Yet?: Marvel has learned from their previous movies, and there’s a case to be made that this is the best Marvel movie yet. Iron Man 3 sags a little towards the end, while The Avengers takes almost the entire movie to get going (and the opening sequence is not very good). From the opening frames, The Winter Soldier exudes confidence, and a sense of humor. We’re no longer building to something (that stuff is built), and now we get to have fun in this universe. Even more so than Thor: The Dark World, The Winter Soldier delivers in spades.

The Spoilers:

  • Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler: So, the Marvel movie wing just does not give a f— about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., yeah?

The So-So:

  • Just a Movie: This is popcorn entertainment through and through. Nothing wrong with that, but the movie has little say about modern politics, other than acknowledging that America is not the same place that Steve left, and that we’re as likely to be culpable of bad things as our supposed enemies. Though there are modern elements, they function mostly as set dressing. This isn’t deep, but that’s not so much a complaint as it is to say that this is just a fun watch.
  • The Russos: Marvel seemed to hire the Russos because they’re competent, and because of their work on Community. Which means that they partly got the job because of their ability to work within someone else’s vision more than their personal stamp. Is it a complaint to suggest the film doesn’t have much of an auteur voice? The Winter Soldier is well staged, though it seems a lot of the biggest decisions were likely made during the pre-vis process, and surely much of the action was delegated between units. There’s nothing about this that suggests “oh yeah, this is a Russo brothers movie.” But then, the movie works, so who cares?

Overall:

This is pretty much everything you could want from a modern Captain America movie, with political machinations, clever plot twists, and fun action set pieces. It also helps set up the Age of Ultron (though only just), while it also has no problem with messing with institutions and characters that might have seemed off limits. It’s fantastic.

The Rating:

8.8/10

Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens April 4.

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Trailer: