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'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' review: Best Marvel sequel yet

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Some argue Captain America is the least interesting member of the Avengers.

He doesn't have an armory of cool tech like Iron Man or a magical hammer like Thor. Captain Steve Rogers is a unyielding boy scout whose only "superpower" is being an unrivaled hand-to-hand combatant enhanced to the peak of human physicality.

But "The Winter Soldier" is not only the best Marvel film not called "The Avengers" - it's an exciting ride that's part spy thriller and part superhero movie -- and it radically changes the Marvel film universe.

In short: Captain America (Chris Evans) and the Black Widow Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) must stop a dangerous threat that has infiltrated Washington DC.

"The Winter Soldier" works on several levels: as a personal journey for the 'man out of time,' a spy thriller focused on SHIELD, a sort of 'buddy' movie and a sequel that fundamentally changes the Marvel Cinematic Universe landscape.

First and foremost, "The Winter Soldier" would not work with any other Marvel superhero at its core. Captain America is, if nothing else, an absolutely reliable moral compass. While Rogers doubts his place in the 21st century, he never doubts his stalwart values.

This sequel forces Steve Rogers to question his place in the modern world and contrasts his selfless values against SHIELD's deceptive tactics.

Captain Steve Rogers is the one incorruptible pillar battling a ubiquitous conspiracy alongside shifty allies (who protect their own agendas) as well as fight a ruthless, ghost-like assassin who lives in the shadows.

Although this film is an entry in the "Captain America" series, it might as well be called "The SHIELD Movie." Steve Rogers is the emotional core of "Winter Soldier," but every absolutely critical plot point, device and character is fundamentally tied to Marvel's clandestine spy organization. While Rogers sees the world in black & white, SHIELD lives in the grey - most notably Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

Perhaps most surprising, however, is "The Winter Soldier" is the most human of any Marvel film yet. A familial bond connects Rogers, Romanoff, Fury and even the newly-introduced Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). These are not simply superheroes allied together for the sake of a plot: they are soldiers who have fought several battles together.

These bonds are absolutely critical and well established, whether it's the 'buddy cop' vibe Rogers shares with Romanoff, the bond between veterans he forges with Wilson or the director-operative dynamic he has with Fury. "The Winter Soldier" is as much about the relationships Rogers has - to his past and present - as it is a superhero spy flick.

The fight sequences must be called out: "The Winter Soldier" features the best hand-to-hand combat scenes in any Marvel film yet. While the camera work gets a little too shaky at times and some scenes are perhaps a little too dimly lit, the fight scenes are blindingly fast and incredibly vicious. Captain America uses his iconic shield as brutal offensive weapon this time around, while Romanoff and the Winter Soldier fight with ruthless efficiency.

While "Iron Man 2," "Iron Man 3" and "Thor 2" were self-contained, personal stories, the bold and surprising events of "The Winter Soldier" will have wide-ranging consequences for the entire Marvel film series.

And serious comic book nerds will want to freeze-frame several critical scenes, as some very prominent Marvel characters are name dropped ... revealing the ever-widening scope of the Marvel film universe.

Sadly, Cobie Smulders and Emily VanCamp are massively underutilized, to the point their inclusion in this film seems questionable. It's nice to see these two notable SHIELD agents in action, however, they do very little to affect the plot in any real meaningful way.

Marvel has found a way to build an incredible movie around its most elementally pure, arguably one-dimensional character - simply challenge everything Captain America values.

Final verdict: "The Winter Soldier" suffers some typical comic book problems (plot holes, predictability), but nonetheless, it is one of the finest entries to the Marvel film series. This action-packed blockbuster effectively challenges Captain Steve Rogers and completely reshapes the Marvel film universe.

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