For fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the stories of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America have done more than merely entertain, occupying our time well into the credits, while we anticipate a juicy tidbit about the next film. With the surprising credits scene in 2012's The Avengers, audiences felt a sea change occurring, as if the genre itself was embarking upon bold new ground. The release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier all but solidifies that, throwing our titular hero into a world of intrigue and drone warfare, while dusting off a conspiracy that comic fans will no doubt love.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo obviously take the MCU quite seriously, wrapping the audience in multiple tips-of-the-hat without overloading us with too much action that is usually too tightly focused. But it's the story by First Avenger penners Stephen McFeely and Christopher Marcus that surrounds Cap and team in a world of intrigue and suspense that genuinely seems too big for even them to handle. For once, we feel our heroes have bitten off more than they can chew, that Cap's shield and super strength can only defend him so for long. The Marvel world is far more complex than we thought, and that realization is played out so well throughout the second act as Fury comes under fire and Cap becomes a fugitive.
But Winter Solider is much more than that. Super hero films have always been victims of critical opinion that their stories weren't grounded enough, that big set pieces and well-placed humor weren't sufficient to legitimize themselves among serious dramas. Soldier takes a big leap forward by placing heroes and villains in the very real world of today's military state, either as their protectors or as wanna-be slave masters. This is a world of graying loyalties and shattered conceptions, leading fans down a road that few thought we would see so soon. Granted, this is Marvel's ninth studio release, but Soldier matures the franchise by revealing its slow burn as merely a precursor to blowing it all out of the water.
These are not the ramblings of some Marvel super fan who refuses to see the cracks inherent in most films. This is a well built and executed affair that ups Marvel's game, while demonstrating once again why other studios who own super hero properties shouldn't be producing them. Soldier is everything that Divergent and even the Wolverine/X-Men films are not, ill-content to rest on the success of their previous films and ready to be taken seriously as a genuine genre. It makes strong comments on the price for blindly exchanging our freedoms, while introducing us to a new kind of villain that seems well-beyond Cap's long reach.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an engrossing political thriller that narrowly misses as the best Marvel film to date, but its timely commentaries and surprise reveals come very close to besting The Avengers. Critics might complain that the runtime is too long, but we think it sets a near-perfect pace, twisting in its own wind of lies and deceit. For all the MCU has in store for us, this one reminds us that even heroes can be forced to reconsider their place in the world. This is definitely your dad's Marvel, and that's a great thing.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout, and has a runtime of 136 minutes.
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