Captain America: The Winter Soldier is better than it has any right to be.

It’s a sequel to both Captain America and The Avengers and the lead up to The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It has to be a standalone movie that introduces new characters for future films while staying true to what has been established in previous films. In short, it has to serve many masters. And as we’ve seen with Iron Man 2, that can make a film feel disjointed and overcrowded.

But Winter Solider does this effortlessly. It picks up right where The Avengers left off, with Captain America (Chris Evans) working alongside the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. to take down bad guys. The rest of the Avengers are off having solo adventures (or eating more shawarma), but Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) all appear in the film working alongside the Captain.

The film also introduces a new superhero, Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Falcon is Sam Wilson, a retired soldier/war veteran who befriends Captain America as both of them attempt to re-acclimate to normal society. He gets the name Falcon thanks to a pair of motorized wings on his back that extend out on command, allowing him to soar through the air.

We are also introduced to Alexander Pierce, played by Robert Redford. (Yes, that Robert Redford.) He is Nick Fury’s boss and old friend who is overseeing S.H.I.E.L.D.’s creation and implementation of three massive robotic aircrafts capable of recognizing and eliminating anyone it deems a credible threat.

And then there’s the titular Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a mysterious masked figure working for the Nazi-offshoot organization Hydra as an assassin. He’s a silent, brooding bad ass type, but the film does a good job establishing him as a credible threat. The reveal of who the Winter Soldier is also adds a great wrinkle to the film’s final act.

Winter Soldier plays out like a high tech spy thriller (like a slightly more embellished and less realistic Jason Bourne film). It also taps into what’s going on in this country right now with the obvious parallels between the armed crafts used in the movie and the controversial drone program currently being implemented by the U.S. government in real life. Like in The Avengers, Captain America questions S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tactics, but the film isn’t too heavy handed with morals or a political agenda.

At the end of the day, it is really just a giant action movie. But a very well-made one. It feels suitably epic and it has a storyline that feels complex and different enough to make it stand apart in a world overflowing with superhero films. Most of the twists are pretty easy to see coming as they follow well-worn movie tropes, but it’s fast-paced and exciting enough that the predictability of the twists don’t take away from the overall film.

The one thing that did take away was the frenetic, shaky-cam style used for the action sequences. I continue to hope this style will eventually fade out, as it makes tracking the action needlessly difficult and isn’t a substitute for a well-staged, straightforward approach to the action (which Joss Whedon executed flawlessly in The Avengers).

One really great thing about this massive cinematic world Marvel has created with all of these intersecting films is what a deep bench of characters it has created. There are a ton of cameos by characters featured in previous films, including Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) from Captain America: The First Avenger, Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández) from The Avengers (and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) from Iron Man 2. It also features the mandatory cameo by comic book legend Stan Lee.

And, as always, make sure you stick around through the entire credits for Easter Eggs teasing future Marvel movies. This films has not one, but two different vignettes in the credits.

If you have enjoyed these Marvel films, you definitely want to check out Winter Soldier. It’s also a nice jumping on point if you want to dip your toe into the superhero film well. It’s easily one of the best Marvel sequels yet.

Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at murphyslaw@hobotrashcan.com.

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