Captain American: The Winter Soldier (2014)     ★★★★

When an imaginary universe continues to expand and grow, with new characters and story lines constantly being added and built upon, as Marvel has been doing with their superheroes, at some point there is going to have to be an episode that just takes care of business, and plants seeds for the future. Captain America, being very one-note and an inherently unevolving character, is the perfect superhero for that. When you want to double-up on superheroes without worrying about detracting from the main character’s screen time, Captain America, for the reasons mentioned above, is the perfect superhero with whom to pair up. If you want to be able to indulge a ten minute set piece that doesn’t even include your main character, Captain America, again for the reasons mentioned above, is the one to leave out. And when you want a streamlined tale of political espionage that inspires both nostalgia for the way things used to be, and trepidation at the way things have become, Captain America, you guessed it, is the perfect man for the job. The fact that this film is able to juggle all of those characteristics, while at the same time delivering non-stop, thrilling action, and a twisting evolving narrative are the reasons why Captain America: The Winter Soldier is by an extreme margin better than its predecessor, and one of Marvel’s finest hours thus far.

My major complaint about the film, other than its quick descent in the final act into pure action spectacle, which all but consumes the thrillingly nuanced cat-and-mouse narrative peppered with short bursts of blockbuster present throughout the first ninety minutes, is the way the film pretends to be debating a current hot-button issue only to assume its own conclusion. Whether or not you agree with the government collection of data and phone calls, and the NSA spying (it is certainly a debatable issue),Captain America all too easily stacks the deck by making the endgame so preposterous there is little room for doubt that the motivation behind it is unilaterally evil and immoral.

I appreciate the recent onslaught of Hollywood films tackling the problems that technology is causing in the twenty-first century, most recently in the laser sharp focus of Robocop. But many of those films are able to spark debate without oversimplifying, and that ultimately leaves The Winter Soldier intellectually unsatisfying. The Marvel films have always had a slight Libertarian bent, but this film is not afraid to don the tinfoil hat en masse. And considering the steely resolve and rampant simplicity of our hero there is nobody to absorb the conflict, and in the last half hour you can literally watch as the film deteriorates back into a comic book. And no, I don’t mean graphic novel; when it comes to Captain America I mean comic book.

That said, The Winter Soldier re-energized me for future Marvel films. It is the jolt the second phase desperately needed, after a rather self-contained Iron Man and an abysmal Thor sequel. There are big reveals in this film, and extremely clever ways employed to bring back old villains and introduce new heroes. There is an erratic, freewheeling spirit of anything goes that the brothers Russo capitalize on from the start, and the film manages to stay one step ahead of the audience for a good long while, before things start blowing up. Looking back at Cap’s origin story, there is just no comparison between the first and second films, and I can’t wait to see what kind of filler they come up with to pad out the third one; just so long as it is executed this well.

The Verdict: Rave