The first "Captain America" film ended with a befuddled and anachronistic Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), recently thawed out and thrust back into the world, trying to make some sense of the "future" that was now his actual "present." His adjustment period was, however, cut short by a little something called "Marvel's The Avengers," the all-star adventure that saw the eponymous team getting together in order to battle back an alien threat, one that culminating in the heart-stopping Battle of New York. Now that things have seemingly calmed down, Cap is attempting to settle into life, both as a human being and as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
It's not going to go so well.
It should come as little surprise that Cap has the most fun when digging in for a mission, and Joe and Anthony Russo"s "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" kicks off with a big one. A S.H.I.E.L.D. ship has been compromised and overtaken by a band of pirates, and Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), along with a tactical team led by Frank Grillo's Brock Rumlow, are on the case. But just what exactly is the case? For the altruistic and trustworthy Cap, it's a mission to save some captives and take out some bad guys. For Black Widow, it's an opportunity to filch some information as demanded by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). When those two plans come smashing into each other, it soon becomes clear that something else is going on.
Those three massive new next-generation Helicarriers and a large-scale plan to prevent crime before it even happens (it's very "Minority Report," with splashes of some of the "X-Men" films) probably have something to do with it.
The film's storyline is packed with twists and turns, but at its most basic level, it's a film about what happens when the seemingly infallible and impenetrable S.H.I.E.L.D. proves to be neither of those things. A rogue element threatens to take over the agency, while also threatening the lives of millions of citizens, and Cap soon finds himself alienated from the people and the organization he thought had his best interests at heart. A series of massive attacks renders S.H.I.E.L.D. (and Fury) out of commission, at least in a way that is usable to Cap, sending the First Avenger on the run and looking for both vengeance and explanations.
Every Marvel film is tasked with two primary directives — to move along the greater, overarching storyline, all while paying attention to the individual hero at the heart of each adventure — and "Captain America: The Winter Solider" accomplishes that with skill and ease. In fact, it seems likely that the Russos' first time at the wheel of the Marvel machine is actually the finest example of what can result from a project that so clearly and cleverly hits both targets. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a great superhero film, but it's also a particularly great Marvel superhero film, and it satisfies with both its own complete storyline and with the way it pushes forward the world of Marvel with excitement and entertainment.
Part of that includes the introduction of new characters (while expanding on existing stars, like Cap and Black Widow), and the Russos quite neatly ease in big names like the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and the Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan), while also bringing in new blood like Fury's boss, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and the tricky Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp). Despite infusing the film with so much fresh blood, the feature doesn’t feel overloaded, and appropriate attention is paid to everyone.
Soon set on his new mission with Black Widow at his side, Cap and his de facto partner exhibit a fun, friendly chemistry together, but the Russos never play up their big-time differences for simple wacky hijinks. In fact, the Russos, best known for the kind of offbeat humor that runs through "Community," don't lean too much on humor, and handily prove their worth when it comes to the film's many action sequences, making them all feel exciting, different, and easy to follow. This isn't a smashy-smashy bang-bang movie, it's an action movie that pays attention to geography, character placement and impact, even while it's able to do those things with characters who are able to do extraordinary things without breaking a sweat.
But the film has an emotional center that is both genuine and compelling, and Cap's struggles to feel even slightly comfortable in the new world while also trying to honor his past are stirring and understandable. But this is the Russos, so there is certainly some humor here, especially as it applies to Cap's new life (and era). Cap has been working through his reacclimation to the world in a steady fashion, toting around a notebook where he writes down brief bits of information he wants to further study (a quick look at it reveals contents like "Berlin Wall [Up & Down]," "Steve Jobs [Apple]," and "Star Wars/Trek"), and the film laces in some amusing digs at pop culture that smack of the Russos.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" neatly and entertainingly puts into motion some big changes in the Marvel universe, while still sticking to its own charms — no easy feat, but one fit for a hero.