For those of you keeping score at home, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the second solo flick from Marvel Studios featuring the shield-wielding Nazi-smasher created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, the third film to feature the character (not including this one, natch), and the ninth overall in their mammoth cinematic universe. What all that means is that while it has a particular story to tell and its own specific beats to hit, The Winter Soldier is also subservient to the larger brand that it's comfortably nestled in, dutifully queuing things up for the next movie(s) in the pipeline (August"s Guardians of the Galaxy and next summer's Avengers: Age of Ultron).
Ultimately, that sense of interconnectivity is both blessing and curse. It allows each entry to feel like it builds on the one previous as part of a larger mega-narrative, but there can also be a sense of static equilibrium at work as well, resulting in action without consequences, and movement without momentum. This is a problem that particularly afflicted the previous "Phase 2" sequels in the Marvel assembly-line: last year's Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Both did their job well enough, and were far from bad, but they still felt more functional than exceptional. Like they were treading water until the whole gang can get back together and do something that matters.
Thankfully, static equilibrium is one phrase you can't use to describe this one in the slightest. If The Avengers marked the culmination of the studio's world-building efforts in the previous wave of movies (beginning with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in '08), then The Winter Soldier is all about tearing down bits of that world just to keep us from getting too complacent. Based on one of my fave arcs from the comics, it's focused from beginning to end on forward thrust, placing our hero at the center of a story that not only resets the chessboard in some pretty substantial ways moving forward, but it drives home Cap's essential utility in a universe filled with super-folks whose power sets easily outclass him.
Picking up shortly after we left him at the end of Avengers, we learn that unlike his heroic teammates, who all have "normal" lives to return to, Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Chris Evans (who wears the role as comfortably as a glove his third time out) is still trying to find a sense of purpose some seventy-plus years removed from the World War II-era he left behind. As such, he's signed on with super-spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., serving as their secret weapon of sorts. As we join this entry, Cap is in the process of kiboshing a terrorist takeover at sea, and comes into possession of a memory stick containing the classified info that serves as our McGuffin.
Without getting too much into the weeds in hopes of preserving as many of the surprises as possible, that treasure trove of hidden data launches Our Man headlong into a conspiracy whose hydra-like tendrils threaten to ensnare not only his Avenging colleague Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, making her third Marvel appearance), but also S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, his sixth) as well as his superior Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford -- yep, Robert Redford!). Along the way Rogers is joined by de facto sidekick Sam "Falcon" Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and oh yeah, he has to face off with the deadly Winter Soldier of the title, who may or may not have some connection to Steve's previous life.
If you've been reading my reviews for awhile, you know I tend to enjoy all these Avengers flicks to some extent or another. Part of that may be that I'm still in the "honeymoon" phase of disbelief that we're even seeing these things getting made, but I think another, more valid reason is simply how well the Marvel Studios operation, honchoed by uber-producer Kevin Feige, works at conceptualizing its storylines and picking the right creatives to pull them off. In this case, while writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely return from the previous film, directors Anthony & Joe Russo step in for Joe Johnston, who ably helmed Captain America: The First Avenger.
Although the Russos' list of credits, heavy on TV sitcoms like Community and Arrested Development, made them unlikely choices at best for a project of this sort, they display such a preternatural confidence in this genre that you'd think they've been doing this stuff for years. While I have my beefs with the overuse of CGI in many action movies of late (Marvel included), it's perfectly deployed here to enhance and add-on to the practical effects in a way that makes both seem more impressive. There's a concerted effort to show that when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, there's no one more skilled than the good Captain. In fact, all the shield-slinging business here is at least as impressive as anything we see Thor do with his magic hammer just one franchise over.
This is demonstrated throughout, but most especially during a claustrophobic elevator-set fight sequence, and later in a no-holds-barred street brawl with the titular soldier. By film's end, we've got several balls in play that we can be assured will develop in different directions across multiple platforms. I'm being coy about much of the story because this is an experience best imbibed with as little clue to its machinations as possible, but suffice it to say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is everything the Marvel Studios brand represents. It's the best of the sequels, the best of "Phase 2" (thus far), and not only has it raised the bar for this year's barrage of superhero flicks (Spider-Man and X-Men sequels, from Sony and Fox respectively, hit next month), but also for Avengers 2 next year.