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by Kevin J. Johnson

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is the next installment in the Avengers saga, starring Chris Evans as the super-soldier Steve Rogers. Whereas THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) was a period WWII actioner, THE WINTER SOLDIER is a conspiracy thriller with a superhero flair. Our tale resumes with Cap alongside the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) taking on SHIELD’s enemies at the behest of Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). However, even Fury isn’t prepared for the sudden arrival of a dangerous assassin: the titular Winter Soldier.

This new adversary is taken straight from the pages of arguably the best Captain America comic run by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting, a duo that revitalized the once flagship Marvel character. Another duo has taken it upon themselves to revitalize the Marvel Cinematic Universe onscreen: Joe and Anthony Russo, the brothers known for directing comedies such as Arrested Development and Community. These two demonstrate a remarkable set of action chops throughout the entire film, keeping the momentum on full throttle, and balancing the non-stop thrills with an increasing, pervading panic.

Although things look bad, horrible even, Steve Rogers is not alone. Sam “The Falcon” WIlson, portrayed by Anthony Mackie in what is an expert update of the longtime Avengers character, joins Cap’s ragtag group to bring the bionic Soviet assassin to justice once and for all. As Mackie himself stated, the film is essentially Captain America and the Falcon “just handing out business for two hours.” Truth in advertising, folks. Cap kicks ass, Nick Fury kicks ass, Black Widow and the Falcon kick ass, damn near everyone in this movie is kicking some sort of ass.

What we have is a political film hewn from the same trust-no-one cloth as THE CONVERSATION, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, even casting Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce in a tip of the hat. This movie has a sense of paranoia that grows deeper and thicker as the shadows envelope our heroes. There’s even a car chase straight out of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, albeit turbo-charged.

The wonder and majesty present in the earlier Marvel films have been replaced with pragmatism and geopolitical murkiness.The gee-whiz retro-futurism of SHIELD is now a deadly serious tactical machine, with laser precision against its enemies both foreign and domestic. Play time is over, kids, and it’s up to Captain America and his small team of secret Avengers to find out the truth of the Winter Soldier and those who have unleashed him before it’s too late.

Once again, I have to applaud the Russo brothers, and Marvel impresario Kevin Feige for having such a keen eye for dark horse talent. The action choreography is great, with some of the most bare-knuckle fighting in a Marvel movie ever. The stakes are high in every fight; even though Cap is a hero at the physical peak of human athleticism, he is not immune to bullets or blades, both of which come in copious amounts in this movie. The film does not ignore the “man out of time” aspect of Cap, either. It reinforces his WWII-era idealism, since it’s one of the few things he has left to cling to in this day and age.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER does exactly what a sequel is supposed to do. It expands the tale of Captain America, and adds new characters to compliment the existing teamwork between heroes. It builds the world of the MCU, while simultaneously crashing it down. It upends everything before it, one jaw-dropping reveal after another. I haven’t seen a film dismantle its own mythos this gleefully since REVENGE OF THE SITH (which also starred Samuel L. Jackson; go figure). Simply put, this is Marvel Studios’ best film yet.

Rating: [IMAX/matinee/dollar-show/redbox/netflix/skip-it]

Note: Stick around for both end credits scenes. They set up the dramatic stakes of the next Captain America adventure, as well as hinting at the infinite possibilities awaiting this brave new cinematic universe.

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