In just about every way imaginable I am what you would call a "Marvel fanboy". Grew up on Marvel Comics, still read them faithfully and probably always will. But Marvel's movies haven't always hit the mark for me, and the one that did the least was Captain America: The First Avenger. Not that it was bad, but the character suffers from much the same problem as Superman. He's a hyper-patriotic (practically draped in the flag) Boy Scout whose every move is totally predictable. The last film's retro WWII vibe was a novel way to vary Marvel's expanding franchise by putting Cap in his natural element as the unabashed hero against the evil Nazis.
But transporting Cap into the modern world, one filled with shades of grey, paranoid government bureaucrats and rampaging super villains, should have been a more difficult task. And yet, the shadowy world of espionage and Black Ops proves to be exactly where Steve Rogers belongs as Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not only the most action-packed Marvel movie yet; it's also one of the smartest conspiracy thrillers we've seen in a long time. Couldn't be the presence of Robert Redford, could it? Nah, what would he know about such things?
Chris Evans slips into the role he seems to have been born to play, that of the altruistic hero Captain America, who is still trying to acclimate to a world he doesn't recognize. That's more than just figuring out how to work an IPOD or catching up on pop culture, it's figuring out who the bad guys when they seem to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Like Three Days of the Condor and The Bourne Identity jacked up on super serum, the film takes us on a dizzying ride through the murky world of SHIELD, the peace-keeping organization run by the king of all spies, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). After a brief, comedic introduction to Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are sent on a mysterious mission to a hijacked vessel, taken over by the French savate supervillain, Batroc the Leaper. But he finds a superior opponent in Captain America, who unleashes a lethal combination of acrobatic and brutal shield-slinging violence. Although the vessel is reclaimed, they soon come to learn that SHIELD, and specifically Fury, weren't telling them the whole truth. After Fury is suddenly attacked by the bionic-armed assassin the Winter Soldier, it begins to look like someone within SHIELD is taking out heavy-hitters. Those fears are confirmed in an awesome elevator brawl between Cap and a crack SHIELD unit led by Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), the future villain known as Crossbones.
One thing Marvel has always done better than DC Comics, and continues to excel at on the big screen, is make their movies topical and relevant to today's issues. As SHIELD tightens its global grip in an attempt to maintain order in a rapidly changing world, Cap sees it as instilling fear to tame the populace. Fury "takes the world as it is", and sees it as a necessary step in the war against terror, but Cap still holds true to his possibly antiquated notions of good and evil. While nobody's going to claim the topic is explored in any real depth, it serves as the perfect way to throw Cap for an even greater loop. What does a soldier like him do when punching somebody isn't going to solve anything?
Not that there isn't plenty of punching to be found, and directors Joe and Anthony Russo have proven they can do a lot more than comedy. The duo, who most people have probably never heard of, have long established their comedic chops, but nobody saw them as action directors. It was Marvel's ballsiest gamble yet hiring them for this gig, and they do not disappoint. Not only is the pace heart-stopping brisk and unrelenting, but it packs the immediacy and grounded tone of Paul Greengrass' 'Bourne' flicks. Even better, the early stages of the film aren't drowning in CGI baddies flying, all of that is saved for the super-sized final battle, and even then it all works. By the time Anthony Mackie is swooping around a SHIELD heli-carrier (those things always crash, so why build them?) in an incredible dogfight, you'll be in comic book geek heaven.
Speaking of Mackie, he's another great addition to Marvel's growing roster of stars you want to see more of. Always the coolest guy in every movie he's in, Mackie brings a much-needed swagger not just to this film, but to the entire Marvel Universe. And what makes Falcon even more impressive is that he is another character, much like Black Widow and Hawkeye, who is formidable without the need of super powers. Evans and Johansson are so comfortable in their roles now that they pull them off with ease. Evans is always best when he gets to crack a few jokes, and the banter between Cap and Widow is very light and funny. Redford gets to play against type, setting aside his fiercely liberal politics as a SHIELD higher-up, adding even closer Three Days of the Condor ties. Others don't fare so well. Without giving anything away to those unfamiliar with the classic Ed Brubaker comics storyline, the mystery of the Winter Soldier's identity feels secondary considering the movie's title, and the actor portraying him giving little to do but look like a bad ass. Emily VanVamp turns up as Agent 13, a potential love interest for Cap. But she, much like the Winter Soldier, is due to have bigger parts in the already-confirmed sequel, so perhaps they were being held back.
There are plenty of cameos and Easter Eggs to be found for those who look for them, and more than any other this feels like the first real follow-up to The Avengers. Marvel has been hitting on all cylinders of late, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes them to a new level of excellence. They've done it by taking risks both in front of and behind the camera; expanding the scope, trying out new genres, and never forgetting to show the humanity behind these amazing characters. They've somehow managed to make Captain America the most interesting, compelling Avenger of all. Sorry, Tony Stark! If they can pull that off, then the sky is truly the limit what else can be accomplished.