Captain America: The Winter Soldier ***

Is it worth $10? Yes

Clearly darker in tone and more dramatically ambitious than any film thus far from Marvel Studios, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a resounding success. The action scenes register with the power of a Hulk smash (no, he doesn’t cameo), and the story is surprisingly tense as it tackles thought-provoking questions in the midst of dynamic popcorn entertainment.

Taking its cue from “The Dark Knight” (2008) in terms of pulse-pounding action (note the truck that flips over its front end), music that’s tense and brooding, and a narrative that prompts its protagonist to question his motivations, “The Winter Soldier” keeps the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (which includes the Hulk, Thor and Iron Man) winning streak zestfully alive.  

Living in Washington D.C., Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), continues to fight for S.H.I.E.L.D. and its leader, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Rogers is disheartened, though, by the construction of three heli-carriers, which Fury is completing in cooperation with Secretary of Defense Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Fury maintains that with the heli-carriers potential attacks can be neutralized before they happen, while Rogers is understandably concerned that perceived threats could be erroneous and innocents could be hurt. He’s so concerned, in fact, that he considers quitting altogether. This is the military-industrial complex and foreign diplomacy impacting a superhero tale, which is an unexpected moral/ethical dilemma for a movie in which zero depth is expected.

Once S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised Rogers is forced to work with Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), to try to save the world. Later, Rogers’ friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) dons some wings to become the Falcon, which Marvel Comics’ readers will appreciate. The opposition is whoever sabotaged S.H.I.E.L.D. and a Russian assassin named The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

After both “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) and “The Avengers” (2012), this is the third time the good captain has played a prominent role in a feature, so it would not be a surprise if things went a bit stale. This is where directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, really shine: Though we never truly doubt that Steve will keep fighting, the circumstances that lead to his consternation allow “The Winter Soldier” to work well in terms of both dramatic tension and action/entertainment, which doesn’t always happen in big-budget effects-driven superhero movies (ahem, “Man of Steel”).

Speaking of the action, it’s fantastic. Among the highlights are Fury in a tense car chase, Captain America taking down a plane with his shield, multiple fights and escapes from The Winter Soldier and a high-impact, high-flying finale. No new ground is broken here, but credit is deserved for a job very well done.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” does what it needs to do: It improves in every way on its 2011 predecessor, and more importantly it keeps the Marvel Cinematic Universe in fine form, which has the byproduct of keeping audiences eagerly awaiting its next project (see below).

Did you know?

1) The futuristic and seemingly unrelated “Guardians of the Galaxy” bows August 1, 2014, followed by “Avengers: Age of Ultron” May 1, 2015. 2) Stay for the credits of “The Winter Soldier” – there are two scenes, one shortly after the credits begin that you will not want to miss, and one at the end of the credits that’s cute but not necessary.

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