Captain America: The Winter Soldier ★★★½

The Winter Soldier delivers in many ways that the first Captain America couldn't, and a lot of these new strengths owe a significant amount to the groundwork laid by the more expansive Marvel/Avengers universe.

There’s a lot that still seems forced, especially almost all facets of the newest addition to the heroes roster (The Falcon). And some really cool ideas – like the mystery of the New Jersey bunker and the identity of the Winter Soldier – are each diminished by a ridiculous amount of exposition. It’s a pretty cumbersome conspiracy plot all-around, and nothing about it elevates Hydra from its rather hokie presence with its contrived injection into history.

And yet, this film is a lot of fun. We finally get to see how badass Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is, in a surprising vehicle-based sequence that is at home in any list of “best car chase setpieces.” And while Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce are also in the mix, adding to the growing cast of characters each with plenty of screen time, it’s still Captain America’s show. Chris Evan’s Cap finally starts to feel lived-in. His clear hard-line moral system is constantly in question, which finally lends some dimensionality and weight to his decisions, and his incredibly physical combat approach is simply a pleasure to watch.

It’s a far more bleak film than even the first Captain America (which deals with a world war, which should tell you something), and it’s quite serious in its tone. It dismantles a significant amount of the SHIELD infrastructure that the other Marvel/Avengers universe films have been building, which lends a large amount of impact to the climax of the film. All of this means that there’s a surprising amount of risk that has been taken in this script, welcome in the world of a character that could easily be squeaky clean.

And while not without some pretty large flaws, the film manages to overcome them and wraps it all in an incredibly entertaining package.