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Captain America: The Winter Soldier
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Photos courtesy of MARVEL STUDIOS
Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers/Captain America and Scarlett Johansson stars as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Action-packed Captain America: The Winter Soldier integrates timely political issues. Superhero cinema continues to evolve as creative filmmakers search for innovative ways to make the transition from comic book to big screen appealing and engaging.

The latest installment from the Marvel Studios bullpen - now quite comfortable beneath the Walt Disney Pictures umbrella - is no exception. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is yet another solid chapter in the sprawling Marvel Universe, bursting at the seams with deftly orchestrated action sequences, high-tech gear, noisy explosions and bone-crunching brawls. What sets it apart, however, is its clever criticism of the contemporary military-industrial complex and, in particular, government-sanctioned surveillance of its own citizens.

The sequel to 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger" is arguably the most ambitious film in the franchise to date. The story charts a darker course than most Marvel films, tackling timely political issues in a style that evokes 1970s conspiracy thrillers such as "The Parallax View," "The Kremlin Letter" and "Three Days of the Condor." Perhaps to reinforce that stylistic connection, Robert Redford - who played CIA employee Joe Turner in "Three Days of the Condor" - was cast in the pivotal role of Alexander Pierce, a high-ranking official at the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D.

As the movie opens, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, is continuing to adapt to living in the 21st century and still working for S.H.I.E.L.D. He is tapped to lead an operation to save a

S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel that has been captured by Algerian pirates. During the mission, he learns fellow agent Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, has been given a separate objective: He discovers her extracting data from the ship's computers. Rogers - who feels he should have been briefed on Romanoff's task - confronts his boss, Nick Fury.

Sensing Rogers' growing wariness with his employer, Fury reveals to Rogers the project S.H.I.E.L.D. is finalizing: Three heavily armed helicarrier gunships, linked to spy satellites and designed to preemptively eliminate threats, are being prepared to launch. Fury believes the program will ensure stability and security; Rogers, being the old school patriot he is, believes security isn't worth the price of freedom.

Don't worry, though: The political science lesson isn't overemphasized. There are well-placed speeches here and there, but "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" maintains a brisk pace and the action sequences far outnumber the encapsulated ideological proclamations.

Things really get moving when Fury - often perceived as untouchable in Marvel films - comes under fire in a suspenseful sequence that expands into a gritty, urban warfare tableau.

The situation degenerates further as it becomes clear that no one at S.H.I.E.L.D. can be trusted. Captain America and Black Widow have a mystery to solve: Who infiltrated the organization and what needs to be done to stop them from gaining control of those helicarriers that can be used to wipe out entire cities.

Add to the fun a new ally, the Falcon, and a new villain, the Winter Soldier, and you've got a sequel that is as good as its predecessor - maybe even better.

Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers/Captain America. He's clearly comfortable in the role at this point, and his portrayal gives fans a hero that clings to a form of 1940s incorruptible purity without seeming self-righteous. Scarlett Johansson is equally credible as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. Unlike Rogers, Romanoff is a hardcore cynic. Johansson delivers plenty of sarcastic jibes but never lets the character lose her compassion. The relationship between the two characters - depicted in spurts of mundane banter - helps establish their sincerity and makes them more identifiable as individuals.

Anthony Mackie joins the Marvel Universe as Sam Wilson/Falcon. He seems a perfect fit for Captain America's staunch ally and friend, and it is clear from their first interaction that the two actors want to show that the characters are on equal footing, even though Rogers might be the one with super powers: This is no hero-and-sidekick arrangement.

Samuel L. Jackson reprises his role as Nick Fury. Jackson is given so much screen time one wonders if the character is destined for a solo project of his own. The actor epitomizes the character. Seriously, it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing the part.

There are plenty of other excellent performances from outstanding actors, including Sebastian Stan, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo and, of course, Redford.

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" boldly stands on its own merits. This film is neither filler to appease genre fans zealously awaiting next summer's "Avengers: Age of Ultron," nor a convenient bridge constructed specifically to set up future productions. That said, by the time the credits are rolling, the script has revealed a few story threads - some obvious, some less noticeable - that will undoubtedly reemerge in subsequent Marvel franchise properties.

Besides being a captivating superhero adventure film, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" offers audiences an edgier story and a deeper appraisal of patriotism. Captain America faces a formidable foe in the Winter Soldier, but Rogers simultaneously realizes the team he's fighting for isn't as noble as he once believed. It's easy to make a superhero film that tests the strength and resolve of its protagonist; not so easy to make one that challenges his basic principles.

The ill-planned S.H.I.E.L.D. program clearly mirrors real-world intelligence gathering methods used by the National Security Agency and similar organizations. The political subtext doesn't bog down the action: It's there to lend substance to the narrative and, perhaps, provoke discussion ... not to serve as some kind of subversive manifesto.

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is surprisingly well executed. Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have managed to craft a superhero film that will doubtlessly please diehard Marvel fans as well as an action-packed political thriller, designed to appeal to wider audiences.
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