As a walking Army recruitment poster, complete with hokey slogans and blinkered idealism, Captain America is a character that shirks modernization. However, besides for those frantically brief few minutes at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, we’ve never really delved into that super-fish out of water aspect in his cinematic adventures. The main reason for this character development oversight being that he was just too busy punching the crazy out of Nazi super-scientists/megalomaniacal gods, as superheroes tend to do.

So it’s a credit to co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and returning co-writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is filled to the brim with the type of volatile widescreen spectacle that threatens optic nerve burnout, and yet still boasts the type of grounded character drama that adds real human stakes to all those spectacularly imagined action beats.

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As one half of the movie’s title, Chris Evans plays his Steve Rogers\Captain America with a straight-faced earnestness that helps us to not only buy into the ideals of this man out of time, but also overcome his lack of naturally alluring Stark snark or Thor familial drama. Not that the film is short on either though, with the latter being mainly provided by the second half of the title, the Winter Soldier – a metal armed assassin who destructively weaves in and out of the story, leaving both broken bodies and questions in his wake, as he clearly has a rather significant link to Rogers’ past (I won’t spoil the Winter Soldiers’ true identity here, for the three of you who don’t know/haven’t guessed by now).

And when she’s not too busy trying her best to not get filleted by the Winter Soldier and friends, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff\Black Widow, with her easygoing charm and easy on the eyes appeal, plays the perfect foil to Evans’ straightest of straight men. The duo’s effortless chemistry and constant banter (mostly about Rogers’ lack of love life), along with the self-deprecating wit of Sam Wilson\the Falcon – Anthony Mackie’s high-flying franchise newcomer – means that despite the encroaching (and unexpected) seriousness of it all, audiences are never too far away from a jovial jolt.

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But these are mainly sly laughs and clever winks, and not the belly shaking gags of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. And there’s a reason for that (well, a reason other than Joss Whedon), because whereas The Avengers was ripped straight off the comic book splash page, The Winter Soldier plays out very realistically (as realistic as a 95-year old guy pinballing a metal frisbee off people’s sternums can be, I guess). It eschews pew-pew lasers, cartoon brawls and alien invasions for violent gun battles, practically performed bone crunching hand-to-hand combat and, most importantly, controversial real world politics. McFeely and Markus’ script, as rip-roaring of a yarn as it is, almost heads into the subversive, giving (sometimes not so) subtle social commentary on the American military-industrial machine, the NSA Age and the pitfalls of a “might makes right” policy.

The might, in this case, being three advanced helicarriers – constantly airborne gunships (supersized drones, anyone?), bristling with city-levelling firepower – being developed by global peacekeeping force and Cap’s “employers”,  S.H.I.E.L.D., as part of a initiative that will allow them to eradicate anything/anyone they deem as a threat, even before that threat materializes. But this “guilty until proven innocent” approach doesn’t sit too well with the ramrod Rogers, putting him at loggerheads with Samuel L. Jackson’s Director Nick Fury and his mentor and head of the World Security Council, Alexander Pierce, as played by Robert Redford. From that premise, the story spins off into a gripping episode of paranoid suspense, as shadowy secrets and even shadowy-er traitors lurk around every corner. And as the senior statesmen of the cast, Jackson and Redford anchor this tale with very game performances from both, with Redford especially giving a gravity-laden showing, despite this being the type of tentpole blockbuster he’s avoided his entire storied career.

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His casting also gives a nod to another aspect of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is that for the most part it plays out like a classic espionage thriller (which Redford is definitely no stranger to) viewed through the lens of modern action filmmaking. Instead of Captain America: The Comic Book Sequel, this was often more akin to Captain America: What If Jason Bourne Had Super Powers?, and it’s this spy game flavour that gives the film it’s unique place in Marvel’s ever expanding stable.

Now there was a point in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger at around the halfway mark, where the movie decides that it no longer wants to be this pulpy, retro-actioner, and instead just wants to paint by normal superhero movie numbers and go all explodey-kaboom, and admittedly the same thing does indeed happen again in The Winter Soldier, as conspiracy gives way to pyrotechnics. However the difference here is that the final explodey bits are of a scale unmatched by anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe outside of The Avengers, and the film also sticks to it’s super-spy roots for as long as possible before going a little Michael Bay.

I didn’t choose the Master of Baysplosion’s name haphazardly there either, as all this screen shaking chaos right at the end – a contrast to the tighter focused action earlier – does unfortunately end up a blurry conflagration of CGI destruction on occasion. Not helping matters is the Russo’s tendency to sometimes employ just too kinetic a camera, obscuring the film’s impressively tactile action choreography. Another tick in the wrong column is that despite his name being right up there on the marquee, the Winter Soldier himself actually flits in and out of the story rather sparingly, and although some laudable character development takes place around him, he barely receives any of it (or dialogue for that matter). In fact, his story easily plays second, perhaps third fiddle to all the cloak and dagger (tights and shield?) antics on display.

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But these black marks don’t detract too much from a film that is not only an invigorating standalone tale with its very own feel, but which also does the most world building out of any of Marvel’s offerings to date, and I’m not just referring to the litany of fan service characters and easter eggs throughout the film (thankfully, done very subtly, I might add). By the end of this film, the chessboard that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t so much get its pieces reshuffled, as a big red, white and blue boot simply kicks over the board, with the pieces falling into wholly new territory. This new Marvel landscape is one that I can’t wait to explore further.

There have been some proclamations of this film dethroning The Avengers as Marvel’s current movie kingpin, but I wouldn’t quite go that far. However, with its strong focus on character and drama, mostly masterfully executed action beats, surprising social commentary, and often being just plain wide-eyed awesome to behold, it’s unequivocally right up there.

PS: This movie, just like Thor: The Dark World, and I suspect all Marvel movies going forward, has both a mid-credits AND post-credits scene, so make sure you keep those butts in your seats, because one of them should leave fanboys giddy.

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Last Updated: March 27, 2014

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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