ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

Two years following the events in The Avengers, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is living in Washington, D.C., continuing his work for S.H.I.E.L.D. After a covert operation that reunites Captain America with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Captain America discovers, through Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Project Insight, which is three Helicarriers designed to preemptively destroy threats.

Once an attempt on Fury’s life is made by a mysterious assassin known the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Captain America and Black Widow realize that their agency has been compromised. With S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) overseeing the entire operation, Captain America must decide who he can really trust.

Well, we’re now finally out of the garbage season of film year 2014, and are at the start of the blockbuster season, with [Captain America: The Winter Soldier](movie:254973) Captain kicking things off. While Marvel films aren’t anything new to the comic film industry, they’ve still provided some damn good entertainment over the past few years, starting with 2008′s Iron Man. Six years later, Marvel Studios president/producer Kevin Feige has put together a well-oiled machine known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (unlike the potential disaster in the making over at WB known as Batman vs. Superman). Captain America may not be the most charismatic or exciting of the Marvel characters, but that doesn’t stop his second film entry from being quite an entertaining ride.

Of course, we get the usual comical fodder that we normally see in other Marvel films. At the beginning we get a quick glance at Rogers’s notepad which includes jottings like Steve Jobs, moon landing and Rocky (my personal favorite, which has an addendum next to it: Rocky II?). There’s also a recurring gag with Black Widow suggesting potential dates to Cap at times you’d never expect. However, unlike other films in the Marvel canon, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is darker in tone with story themes that are much more relevant today. At times, this film is more akin to Three Days of the Condor than The Avengers.

Chris Evans has had an inconsistent career in terms of quality, but has found a role he really fits in Steve Rogers/Captain America. From the first Captain America film to The Avengers to this current film, Evans has gotten better at bringing to life a character who lacks the smarmy charm of Tony Stark, the brains of Bruce Banner, or the other-worldly dimensional appeal of Thor. It’s a performance good enough to wipe the bad taste I got from his Fantastic Four films.

One of the stronger aspects of this film involving Evans is his interaction with Scarlett Johansson and Marvel newcomer Anthony Mackie. All three have a solid chemistry together, with more room to develop relationships further. We don’t get much of Mackie as Falcon as we do Sam Wilson, a PSTD counselor, but there’s a natural vibe between Mackie and Evans, particularly when they first meet, that works enough to create a personal investment in us for the two when they’re fighting together in the few scenes we get of Falcon. Unlike her character in the Iron Man films and The Avengers, Scarlett Johansson gets a bit more to work with as Cap’s primary sidekick throughout the film, allowing us to get more of a glimpse of her past and who she is.

Also given more to work with is Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, who gets one of the more intense action sequences in the film. Considering that we’ve normally seen Fury as the guy running the show in the background while everyone else goes out to play, it was nice to see Jackson get a chance to play the badass for once.

Of course, one of the main reasons I was looking forward to this film – and speaking of the aforementioned Three Days of the Condor – was Mr. Sundance himself, Robert Redford, playing against type for once. Redford is the type of actor that you’d never expect to show up on the screen four rooms next to a Marvel film much less actually in a Marvel film. Then again, if Marvel can land acting chops such as Oscar winners William Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Jeff Bridges and Ben Kingsley, never say never, right?

I’m championing it right now. Daniel Day-Lewis for Dr. Strange. Who’s with me?!

Redford plays this role just as seriously as if he was in another Sydney Pollack film, and it was a great thrill to see someone of his caliber get to have some fun in a genre film of this type. It’s not a showy, scene-chewing performance by any means, that’s not Redford’s way, but it’s still an effective one that provides a few spotlight moments for him.

Directors and brothers Joe and Anthony Russo (taking over the Captain America reigns from Joe Johnston who helmed the first film), along with screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (returning from the first), have crafted a finely balanced film that holds together the lighthearted Marvel elements with the dark spy-thriller ones. Whether it’s the visually stunning CGI no one will be surprised to see or the excellently choreographed hand-to-hand combat between Cap and the Winter Soldier, the action scenes are some of the more better constructed sequences that I’ve seen in a Marvel film. Sure, some of the references to Iron Man, Tony Stark and Dr. Banner border on cutesy, as if we actually needed to be reminded that Captain America is a member of the Avengers. Take the good with the sorta bad, I guess. Just accept the fact that Iron Man, Thor and Hulk are on vacation while America’s security is again at stake (such amazing resilience, though, in taking punishment film after film) in another character’s stand-alone film.

That said, who’d ever have imagined The Natural telling Nick Fury that Iron Man can’t just do a flyby at his niece’s birthday, but has to mingle?

While not on par with my favorite of the Marvel franchise, Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier improves on its predecessor and is on par with Thor and The Avengers. There are a few moments in the second act that lag just a bit, but between the solid performances, terrific visuals and thrilling action sequences, this is another fun, worthy entry from Marvel that will not disappoint in the slightest.

Like all things Marvel, of course, be sure to stay for the closing credits post-scenes.

I give Captain America: The Winter Soldier an A- (★★★½).

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