By Greg Popil

“When I went under the world was at war.  I wake up, they say we won.  They didn’t say what we lost.”

Those words, spoken by Steve “Captain America” Rogers in 2012’s “The Avengers,” planted the seeds for the most surprisingly entertaining and organic character evolution in the Marvel cinematic universe.  Long dismissed by non-comic book diehards as a cheesy, Hitler-punching fossil, Rogers was brilliantly reworked in 2011’s “Captain America: the First Avenger” as an intense, charismatic leader of men:  earnest, yes, but also passionate, funny and human.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” continues Rogers’ acclimation to the 21st century.  The Captain is seemingly doing a fine job of it, making friends with fellow former soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), checking items off his charmingly hand-written list of pop culture that he needs to catch up on, and working with military agency S.H.I.E.L.D. to take down bad guys and protect freedom.  It doesn’t take long, however, for the storm clouds to gather.  S.H.I.E.L.D., it seems, is sporting a very modern American philosophy of identifying targets before they become a threat, a philosophy that is championed not only by government high-up Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford!) but also by fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

Taking a stance against government policy is hardly revolutionary for a big action movie (last year’s “Man of Steel” had an anti-drone bit, and even as far back as “The Terminator” we were being warned about unarmed aircraft), but “Winter Soldier” takes an impressively hard-line stance against government overreach.  After a thrilling attack that kills off one of his prime allies, Rogers is exiled from S.H.I.E.L.D. (an organization that, up until now, has been portrayed in the Marvel universe as a figure of benevolent government bureaucracy, to the point that it got its own TV show) and hunt down the titular villain, whose true identity will not be spoiled here.

All of this action is helmed by Joe and Anthony Russo, probably the least likely directors of a big-budget comic book movie of all time.  Marvel studios has shown admirable faith in unlikely directors for their projects (Kenneth Branagh for “Thor,” Shane Black for “Iron Man 3”), but allowing a 9-figure tent pole franchise to be shot by a duo whose last feature was the mediocre Owen Wilson comedy “You Me and Dupree” and who have spent the last five years directing (admittedly excellent) sitcoms smacks of borderline insanity.  And yet the brothers do such a spectacular job that they seem like the most natural choice in the world.  “The Avengers” and the Thor movies climax with soaring action sequences that could leap between entire worlds, but the Russos’ lower-budget experience allows them to make the most thrilling scene in the entire movie a fistfight in an elevator.

The cast is uniformly excellent as well.  If you couldn’t tell from the exclamation point behind his name, Robert Redford’s casting is a huge coup for the franchise, but it’s no stunt; he brings a real sense of weight and gravitas to his scenes, while also appearing to have the most fun he’s had onscreen in years.  After a career-best performance as the voice of an AI in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Johansson continues her hot streak, bringing further shades and depths to a Black Widow character that many dismissed as one-dimensional and flat when she debuted in “Iron Man 2.” Johansson shows great command in the action sequences, and a wonderfully light touch in her scenes with Evans.  It’s enough to make one hope that Marvel finally pulls the trigger on a female-fronted superhero (or, at least, superspy) movie.

At the end of the day, though, this film lives or dies with Chris Evans’ performance, and he knocks it out of the park.  Captain America, perhaps even more than Superman, requires a defter balancing act than any other superhero:  it’s easy to imagine the portrayal falling into a boring, corny caricature or a lamely winking parody.  Evans, who showed that he knows how to play an over-the-top smug bastard (and do a grindy…thingy) in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” perfectly balances the humor and earnestness of the character.  His Captain is perfectly aware of how amusing his Un-frozen Caveman Super Soldier situation is, yet he can find the pathos in it too, and make a scene where he says goodbye to an old friend genuinely moving.

Like all Marvel movies, this one ends with more of an ellipsis than a period, but it’s to the film’s credit that this does not feel at all unsatisfying.  Captain America knows what he’s lost now, and he begins the next phase of the Marvel series on a quest to find it.  In his wake he leaves an admirably dark movie that skews away from easy answers and genuine uncertainty about what direction the franchise will go next.  It’s a move that’s exciting, scary and dangerous, kind of like the freedom Rogers loves so much.

Rating:  78/81

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