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Movie review: 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' might be Marvel's best yet

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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"CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER"-- 5 STARS

Two years ago while reviewing "The Avengers," I spoke at length about the historic broken ground that came from the culmination of Marvel Film's brilliant and ambitious blueprint to connect their individual franchise movies together in a merged adventure and universe. In doing so over the course of five years and six films, Marvel raised the bar for world-building and superhero cinema to unmatched heights. While brilliant in their own right with the "The Dark Knight" trilogy and last year's more-than-impressive "Man of Steel," chief competitor DC Comics over at Warner Bros. can only dream of matching Marvel's success in small doses. Backed by Disney's clout and battle-tested as bankable worldwide, Marvel has public appeal that even the classics like Batman and Superman can't touch. The patience of their plan paid off in spades.

I know I asked then, two years ago, how Marvel could hope to sustain this unprecedented momentum as they moved into "Phase 2" of their master plans, especially after the peak success of "The Avengers" becoming the third highest-grossing movie in history. How would they keep their characters connected moving forward? How would they avoid overexposing their properties and saturating the market? How could they follow or match arguably the greatest long-term studio planning ever attempted? Now, at three films into Phase 2, Marvel has continued to surprise us.

With "Iron Man 3," "Thor: The Dark World," and now "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," premiering this week worldwide and in your local Chicago theaters, Marvel has stuck to their guns to not overindulge in their piles of money. Mega producer Kevin Feige and company have stayed true to the blueprint that got them to this point of success. Rather than open the floodgates to a post-"Avengers" superhero parade, Marvel went back to individual films for their top characters to further their back stories and mythologies towards the next big showdown being teased down the road. They could have beaten a dead horse and given us endless team-up spectacles hoping to duplicate "The Avengers," but they didn't. They had more world-building to do. Other movie franchises (just look at "Transformers" as a prime example with their sort-of-reboot fourth film coming this summer) would have burned out their fireworks by now.

Unlike a real comic book where the next issue is a new adventure with a short term memory towards the last one, we have been treated now to three films that have gone to great lengths to show the repercussions and effects of that climactic peak that occurred two years ago. "Iron Man 3" followed a paranoid Tony Stark rooted in plans to prevent the next New York invasion while questioning his longevity as a hero. "Thor: The Dark World" responded to the defeated "Avengers" villain and had a demigod choose Earth over the throne, shifting the balance of power. Both films addressed the road down from that "Avengers" climax and the towards the next hill along the path. This shows that Marvel is in this for the long haul with the continued slow-play of a dynamite winning hand.

Speaking of poker, if "Iron Man 3" is a hefty full house and "Thor: The Dark World" is a handsome straight, then "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a straight flush. I will echo the early reviews coming in across the interwebs and say that this is arguably Marvel's best made film to date. The movie is a kinetically smart clash of political espionage set on a superhero action stage. There's not a wasted moment of non-importance and the twists and turns triple anything attempted by "Iron Man 3" or "Thor: The Dark World." I will firmly do my best to keep this review SPOILER FREE, so stay with me.

In the two years since the events of "The Avengers," Steve Rogers (the insanely fit Chris Evans), as the good soldier he is, has continued the heroics as Captain America by working for S.H.I.E.L.D. as a top operative for director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Commonly partnering alongside the morally and physically flexible assassin Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Steve believes he's on the right end of the fight to stomp out threats that arise around the globe. Away from the secret missions, Captain America is his own exhibit at the Smithsonian, but the real man still walks (well, runs) around the modern world hoping to adapt and fit in after being displaced for 70 years. He develops a fast new friendship with a former parachute specialist veteran named Sam Wilson (scene stealer Anthony Mackie) who works as a PTSD counselor at a V.A. hospital in Washington, D.C.

After a pirate hijacking rescue mission at the hands of a French/Algerian terrorist known as Batroc (UFC champion George St. Pierre, perfectly cast) turns out to entail more than Steve bargained for, the question marks arise. Nick Fury has been leading the massive government-approved construction of three updated and nearly-autonomous heli-carriers that can orbit, target, and neutralize any threat on the planet right down to their detected DNA signature. The political clout behind that push is Alexander Payne, played by film legend Robert Redford, a member of the World Council. Payne is an old war buddy of Fury's, but acts as his only superior and oversight. Between the two, Steve sees competing agendas that show more fear than freedom. The pressure comes to a boiling point when Nick Fury is attacked in broad daylight by a mysterious Russian-trained killing machine known only as "The Winter Soldier."

I'll stop there and let the twists unfold for you on their own. For many comic book fans and movie rumor followers, more than a few cats are likely already out of the bag when it comes to what characters are what and who they represent. I'll let you read that information somewhere else and stay pure here. Still, even to this informed writer, there were plenty of great reveals and unseen aces up Marvel's sleeve. More than just name drops, much secrecy is structured in this film and not all the cards are played, meaning many seeds being planted for even more chapters to come.

The men at the helm of "Captain America: The Winter Solider" are the directing team of brothers Anthony and Joe Russo. You would never know from this highly polished and special effects-driven showcase that their last feature film credit was the atrocious 2006 comedy "You, Me, and Dupree." After bombing a little with feature films and having a few strikeouts on television too, the brothers broke through with successes steering "Arrested Development" and "Community."

Even those experiences weren't going to prepare them for this kind of blockbuster. Marvel put good people around the Russos with the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who moved from the "Chronicles of Narnia" series to become Marvel's go-to writers. They penned the excellent throwback first film, "Captain America: The First Avenger," (as well as "Thor: The Dark World") and are on tap for the green-lit third Cap film as well. That narrative consistency is much appreciated in a world of blockbusters that seem random, thrown-together, and pointless in comparison to a quality effort like "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

In essence, through deliberate homage, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" plays very much like a political thriller first and a comic book movie second. The heroic eye-popping action sequences, hand-to-hand fight scenes, and extraordinary stuntwork are still present, but there is legitimate exposition going on that matters. This isn't just a roller coaster ride delivering you predictably on a clear track to the next loop of explosions.

Beyond the inclusion of Redford's role reversal as the government big wig after his younger days playing the rebel in films like "All the President's Men" and "Three Days of the Condor," the Big Brother government allusions to today's national security and clandestine intelligence issues play very well in the context of this movie's scope. Without a doubt, the big picture scaffolding in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" makes this film Marvel's smartest cinematic entry by a wide margin. That's great for the adults who remember those 1970's thrillers and enjoy healthy hit of substance with their action, but, buyer beware, that, and a healthy body count, may put this film over the heads of some of the costume-wearing and shield-toting little kids that are going to be brought to see this movie by the Disney marketing machine. This former educator would caution this PG-13 film to be appropriate for ages 10 and up and no younger.

That said, there is no greater example of the continued shrewd storytelling for Marvel's Phase 2 than "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." As usual, stay into and after the credits for two more prerequisite post-credits teases of future dealings. Before then, this film does the most to address the necessary movement needed to move from one climax to another as-yet-unseen one. This film does the most to improve upon the Marvel's vast and deliberate world-building.

It does so using, in my opinion, its best character, Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans. The glitzy cool kids all love Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark and his crass, edgy appeal, but, make no mistake, Steve Rogers is the moral compass of this superhero universe. Where Tony Stark gets to be two people of different morals, Steve lives and breathes what he stands for and that's important. Sure, Chris Evans isn't going to win any acting awards for this role as the man-of-action (and neither is Scarlett Johansson, playing the most unconvincing Russian assassin possible; there's my one allowed Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons" moment), but that doesn't matter. Stark is the celebrity, but Rogers is the symbol. Symbols last longer than celebrity. Of all of the "Avengers" headliners, Captain America has been given the best and richest back story. He may not be the MVP, but he's your leader and for good reason.

LESSON #1: STAYING A GOOD MAN-- This is the part of the review where it's hard to not reveal spoilers. I could do better, but I will stay general. The first lesson is a repeat from "Captain America: The First Avenger." While able to do things above and beyond his fellow soldiers as the reluctant government agent and historical icon, Steve Rogers retains the chivalrous, courageous, and heroic traits of that Brooklyn kid who won't back down from any challenge or bully. Fame and power don't change him, rather it enhances the initiative, effort, and cause towards what he can accomplish to only be greater.

LESSON #2: NATIONAL SECURITY THAT COMES WITH THE PRICE OF FREEDOM-- This lesson comes from Steve experiencing the subterfuge of being a spy instead of a soldier when working with S.H.I.E.L.D. Thanks to the colossal threat that came to U.S. soil from the thwarted alien invasion of "The Avengers," the government agency has multiplied its efforts to watch, monitor, and, if necessary, squash potential threats before they happen. They are upping their defense and intelligence efforts to never be caught defenseless again. Much like the NSA data mining revealed by Edward Snowden in real life, the question of what price of freedom are we willing to pay for security and safety is paralleled by "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

LESSON #3: WHAT WE LEARN FROM PEOPLE FROM SHARED PAST EXPERIENCES-- A person's resume only tells you so much. You get the greatest hits, not the full journey. Having shared personal experience with someone trumps written credentials. Many of the characters in this film have shared past experiences that kept them connected and informed them of what kind of person they were working with or for going forward. This is the case with old allies Fury and Pierce and it's a growing relationship between Captain America and Black Widow. More of these are in the film, but are spoiler-filled again. You will trust a team or partnership based on shared experiences more than word-of-mouth reputation or unseen accolades. Those people have proved themselves.

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