Watch out, Iron Man and Thor — the gauntlet has been thrown. Though the two Avengers may have had stronger origin films, it's Captain America who has the best sequel, wrapping up Marvel's Phase Two solo Avenger films with a politically-tinged thriller that's tense, exciting and genuinely game-changing for the Marvel cinematic universe.
Like "Iron Man 3" and "Thor: The Dark World," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" takes place after the events of "The Avengers." Steve Rogers/"Captain America" (Chris Evans) — a WWII super soldier who was frozen and revived 70 years later — is now a full-fledged S.H.I.E.L.D. operative, and he appears — at least on the surface — to be adjusting well to life in the modern era. He's learned how to use technology such as cell phones and the Internet, and he keeps a notebook full of things he needs to catch up on (an amusing list that includes pop culture items such as "Star Wars" and "Star Trek"). However, in quiet moments, it's easy to see the pain lingering in his eyes, and he's still grieving for the friends he left behind and the life — and love — he never got to experience. He's also beginning to realize the war he's fighting now is far more morally ambiguous.
Rogers and fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff/"Black Widow" (Scarlett Johansson) are dispatched on a seemingly routine mission to rescue hostages from a band of pirates who have taken over a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship. Or at least that's what Rogers is told the mission is about. The truth is far more complicated, and as the lies he's been told start to come to light, Rogers is no longer sure who he can trust. After a shocking and tragic death rocks S.H.I.E.L.D., Rogers finds himself on the run from the very organization he swore to serve. He has to decide how high a price he's willing to pay for his country's security, and the secret he and Black Widow uncover about S.H.I.E.L.D. creates a shock-wave that will be felt in many Marvel films to come.
"Captain America: The Winter Solider" has a different tone than some of the previous Marvel films, and it's arguably the most timely. The issues it addresses are the same ones we see popping up in real-world headlines: what are the ethics of modern espionage; how much freedom should we be willing to sacrifice for the sake of security; and how to tell the difference between the "good guys" and the "bad guys." The film's subtitle is, I think, purposefully deceptive. A mysterious assassin known as "the Winter Solider" was featured prominently in the trailers, but viewers quickly begin to wonder if he's really the main villain, or if he's even ultimately a villain at all.
Chris Evans is well cast as Captain America/Steve Rogers. Though he's played the character twice before, he's even better this time around. He captures the character's old-fashioned manners and charm, but also coveys the burden Rogers carries as a man ripped out of his own time. He works well with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow; I think it was a great idea to pair up the characters in this film. Although at first they appear to be complete opposites — unlike the Cap, Black Widow has no problems with the slippery morals of espionage — they are both haunted by their pasts and a sense of regret. The two characters share a flirty chemistry, trading banter throughout the film; it will be interesting to see where this leads in future Marvel movies.
Samuel L. Jackson is great, as always, as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, and I also enjoyed seeing Cobie Smulders return as Agent Maria Hill. My favorite of the newcomers was Anthony Mackie as a new superhero, Sam Wilson/"Falcon." His friendship with Captain America was one of the highlights of the film for me, and I hope he shows up in future Marvel projects as well.
"Captain America: The Winter Solider" is one of the best of the Marvel films we've seen so far, and it serves as a great lead-in to next year's "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (make sure you stay for the credits!) *Spoiler alert!* While I was pretty sure Robert Redford's senior S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Alexander Pierce had a sinister side, I didn't see the film's big "HYDRA" twist coming. I'm curious to see how this affects future Marvel films, as well as Marvel's spin-off TV show "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."
"Captain America: The Winter Solider" is a fun, engaging sequel, and it's my favorite movie of the year so far. It's definitely a must-see for Marvel fans.