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‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ packs more action, substance than first installment

Unless you have been hiding under a particularly large and soundproof rock over the last couple of years, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ve heard of The Avengers , the 2012 superhero movie that combined a roster of Marvel Comics’  most iconic characters into a single movie. The conclusion of Phase One of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” The Avengers was pre-empted by Iron Man , The Incredible Hulk , Iron Man 2 , Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. After The Avengers, Marvel began Phase Two of this shared cinematic universe.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks both the third entry of Phase Two and third film in the entire Marvel catalogue to feature the star-spangled man himself. And, compared to First Avenger, Winter Soldier is a completely different beast. This time around, the pacing is faster, the storytelling is more complex and the action is remarkable.

The film picks up two years after the last filmic appearance of Captain America, or Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), in of the Battle of New York from The Avengers. Now Rogers has become a full-fledged S.H.I.E.L.D operative, leading covert operation missions alongside Natasha Romanoff, or Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). As he contemplates his role in 21st-century society and whether or not returning to duty was the right choice, he befriends Sam Wilson, or Falcon (Anthony Mackie), a veteran Pararescue trooper who counsels soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Things become tense when head of S.H.I.E.L.D Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) reveals Project Insight, a preemptive counter-terrorism initiative that automatically neutralizes threats on a global scale. Rogers is adamantly against the idea, and his sense of distrust in S.H.I.E.L.D’s methods only grows when he becomes suspect number one in an assassination actually committed by the mysterious Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan). With everyone against him, Captain America and Black Widow are on the run to uncover the truth behind the assassin.

Winter Soldier’s story boasts an intricacy unseen in First Avenger. Rogers’ unease with the surveillance-heavy, trigger-happy Project Insight echoes with many concerns that Americans have faced for the past few years. Rogers struggles with morality and ethics in a way that few superheroes have, weighing his service in World War II against the aforementioned Project Insight. Despite acknowledging that the choices he made during his time in World War II were perhaps not the best, he argues that it was ultimately a fight for the next generation’s freedom. “This isn’t freedom,” he says, pointing to a triad of S.H.I.E.L.D Helicarriers. “This is fear.”

Along with the added moral gravity, the Captain America of Winter Soldier is much more cutthroat and ruthless in his fighting. He is incredibly agile and acrobatic, and he pulls no punches. But a certain level of precision is still there, especially in combat scenes between Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Their fights play out similarly to classic Star Wars lightsaber duels, each move calculated as each tries to stay one step ahead of his adversary. Every clash of the Winter Soldier’s metal arm against the Cap’s vibranium shield is reminiscent of Luke Skywalker defending himself against Darth Vader.

Beyond the ramped up action sequences and storytelling, there is still a cast of living, breathing characters — which is more often a rare occurrence in the action-packed superhero blockbuster. Evans is able to accurately capture Captain America’s bizarre mix of awkwardness and ferocity. When in costume, he inspires hope in both on-screen characters and the audience alike. In civvies, on the other hand, he is noticeably out of touch.

Mackie’s Falcon is very much the perfect teammate for Captain America. He’s funny in the way that most superhero supporting characters usually are, yet he’s still capable of holding his own. He behaves more like a mentor than a sidekick, showing that he has something to offer the Cap and will not be relegated to the simple role of cheerleader.

Johannson’s Black Widow has come a long way since her debut in Iron Man 2. Throughout Winter Soldier, she is nearly Rogers’ equal in combat and a seasoned spy, skilled in disguise, infiltration and evasion. Her character is driven, and adds welcome zest to the film with her quick wit and sharp sarcasm.

In a post-Avengers, post-Nolan-Batman era, The Winter Soldier might just be the best superhero movie a long time. A clever balance of action, comedy and heavy themes make this movie a must-see.

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