Captain America protects the S.H.I.E.L.D.

The Winter Soldier is Marvel’s biggest and best cinematic extravaganza to date.

When last we checked in on Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), he was kicking the Chitauri out of Loki’s invading forces with his fellow Avengers (pronunciation joke). The Sentinel of Liberty was also still adjusting to the modern world after a 70-year organic cryo-snooze, coming to grips with the loss of his friends and the prevalence of technology.

As Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins, Cap is working as the world’s first super-powered mop boy, cleaning up Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) messes around the globe with the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and S.H.I.E.L.D. Strike Teams. His role in the modern world of military intelligence has led to a crisis of conscience, and though he's mastered his own shield, Cap is getting more than a little tired of the endless compartmentalization and potential double dealings of that other S.H.I.E.L.D.

So, finally, Fury offers him some insight into, er, Project: Insight, a pre-emptive strike system of Orwellian proportions, with three next-gen helicarriers as the world’s ballistics-bloated Big Brothers. But Cap, outdated optimist that he is, can’t jibe with Fury’s well-informed hyper-cynicism. Order by way of fear is tantamount to tyranny, not peace. Of course, it's an easy perspective for Cap to defend; he's not the one burdened by the role of global chess master. Besides, Fury has his own bosses to whom he must answer. One such superior is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a member of the cabal World Security Council and Fury's longtime friend and ally. Nick has a big favor to ask of Pierce:

Stall Project: Insight at any cost.

The temperature steadily rises as the Project: Insight deadline approaches; the cauldron boils over when the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), wet work ghost story and espionage legend come to life, enters the game. Unsure of who to trust, Cap is given a glimpse behind the veil and starts to understand Fury's point of view. The star-spangled man with a plan must first sort friend from foe to figure out who he's fighting among all the familiar faces.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a high super-powered moral debate that lumps idealism in with naivete and extends skepticism to a point that makes Machiavelli look like Mother Theresa. It's brought to you by the veteran screenwriting team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The First Avenger and three Narnia flicks, also with colons in their titles) and the almost virginal directorial duo of Joe and Anthony Russo, the go-to guys for small-screen snickers whose most well-known feature is You, Me and Dupree.

No, seriously. Look it up.

Whatever magic they brought to the pitch meeting that got them hired is also lavished upon the film itself. The Marvel folks must be impressed with the results — they've already signed the boys on for Captain America 3 before this second outing has grossed its first dollar. After seeing Winter Soldier, you'll understand their thinking.

Based heavily on Eisner Award-winning writer (think “Academy Awards for comics”) Ed Brubaker’s run with the title character, this superhero sequel is a darker, grittier entry into the Marvel cinematic canon than most of its predecessors. It's also more complex and intricately plotted while maintaining an ambitiously Avengers-sized scale. Even the most ardent of fanboys should be satisfied with how grounded it is in the source material while still managing to generate tremendous appeal for the casual moviegoer. Winter Soldier also eschews the CGI extravagasm of other comic flicks in favor of the viscera of a great thriller.

Evans could probably change his name to Captain America at this point and no one would bat an eye. He embraces the fresh-faced nonagenarian with aplomb and continues to add depth to the character with each turn. Ditto for Johansson's Widow; she's given much more to do than in her previous appearances, and the opening scenes showcase the amazing moves of which the sexy spy is capable. Jackson as Fury is simply Samuel L. Jackson. Nuff said. Redford does unsurprisingly well in his role, recalling his turn in Spy Game. Anthony Mackie is better than fans could have hoped for as Sam Wilson. As for Stan as the co-title character, draw your own conclusions.

The Captain America franchise has packed on plenty of lean muscle for the chills of The Winter Soldier and it should flex his way to the forefront of the Marvel cinematic universe. It's got plenty of popcorn power without the buttery sheen of The Avengers; these kernels are seasoned with napalm by a guy who just punched you in the face.

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