The list of things I love about Marvel superhero movies is embarrassingly long, but their approach to genre occupies a slot very close to the top of it. I think that's what really differentiates Marvel Studios' approach to big-screen adaptations from, say, DC Entertainment's: the DC gang seems to have decided that the superhero movie is its own clearly defined thing, with distinct parameters and expectations, while Marvel just thinks a superhero movie is a movie that happens to have a superhero or six in it. DC's way of thinking has so far proven inflexible, forcing characters who should be polar opposites into the same mold. So while Superman found himself dropped into a Batmanly exercise in dour moodiness, Captain America gets to run around in a fun, 1970s-inspired political thriller.
Until now, 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger might have been my favorite solo Avengers film of the batch. With his unwavering patriotism and old-fashioned values, Cap is a tough character to pull off nowadays. But director Joe Johnston did it beautifully, embracing the Sentinel of Liberty's square-jawed virtue and having lots of fun with World War II movie conventions and Marvel Universe backstory, even as he headed toward the film's unavoidably sad conclusion: The Captain had to sacrifice himself to save the world from Nazi mad-science club Hydra, and wound up frozen beneath the Arctic Ocean for 70 years, while almost everyone he knew grew old and died.
Cap was too busy saving the world from aliens and marble-deficient Norse gods in 2012's Avengers to really take stock of his new 21st-century surroundings, so Winter Soldier is all about giving Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a chance to figure out his role in a world that moved on without him. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who have spent the last few years helming television shows such as Community and Happy Endings, find plenty of humor in Cap's efforts to catch up on 70 years of pop culture, but there are also a few emotional gut punches that underscore the tragic aspects of the character. In one scene, the ever-young Rogers visits his First Avenger love interest, Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), only to find her bed-ridden and suffering from Alzheimer's.
Steve makes friends with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a young war veteran who leads a support group to help soldiers deal with the emotional traumas of combat, but he spends most of his time running S.H.I.E.L.D. missions with fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Steve finds that things are more complicated than they used to be, though, and that it's getting harder to tell the good guys from the bad ones. When S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tells him about the homeland defense group's latest plan—it intends to launch three "helicarriers," outfitted with a sophisticated and devastating array of weaponry, to monitor the world's citizens and eliminate those who might pose a threat—Steve is understandably suspicious. After an assassination attempt takes Fury out of the equation, company man Captain America becomes S.H.I.E.L.D.'s number-one enemy. When S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives fail to take him out, a legendary assassin known as the Winter Soldier steps in to try to finish the job.
There's a nearly exhausting amount of action in Winter Soldier, ranging from tense and acrobatic fight scenes to chaotic shootouts and large-scale CG destruction. The Russo brothers prove remarkably competent when it comes to staging the movie's spectacular set pieces, but they're even better at the quieter character moments that come between the explosions and firefights. They're extremely good at channeling the paranoia of Cold War spy thrillers, as evidenced by the film's casting coup: Robert Redford, whose Three Days of the Condor is an obvious influence here, plays Alexander Pierce, a high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. officer whose loyalties and motives are unclear.
Winter Soldier doesn't quite end as well as it begins—the final showdown is a little too chaotic, and not as tight as the action sequences that come before it—but its few third-act missteps are minor when you consider how impressive and entertaining the entire package is. It's a perfect example of Marvel's willingness to shake things up a bit, and take their sprawling franchise in some unexpected directions; Winter Soldier offers some second-half reveals that could have major ramifications for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it proves, once again, that the studio is willing to get creative in its definition of what makes a superhero movie.