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Winter is Coming
Captain America: The Winter Soldier continues Marvel's never-ending upward trend.

While I'll never discount the thirst males aged 18-34 have for seeing things blow up, the main reason Marvel's cinematic universe has taken such a foothold in the pop culture consciousness can be boiled down to two main things: immaculate casting and a surprising focus on character development. These both reached their apex for Marvel with the coup that was Chris Evans as Captain America – with his matinee idol looks and effortless charisma, Evans brought to life a character that seemed anachronistic at best and outmoded at worst. What Joe Johnston did so admirably with the period piece Captain America: The First Avenger is make the character not just an integral part of what Marvel was trying to accomplish with their initial wave of films, but make his old-fashioned notions of heroism and love of country feel vital and necessary. If Robert Downey Jr.'s motor-mouthed Tony Stark is the quippy face of the franchise, Chris Evans' work as Steve Rogers comprises its heart and soul.

The Avengers dealt with the 'man unstuck in time' aspect of his story, save for the occasional pithy one-liner. My biggest concern was bringing Captain America wholly into the modern age,  in an era of unmanned drone strikes and unchecked government surveillance, that we'd drive a stake into the heart of his patriotism. I shouldn't have been worried. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a thrilling bit of pop filmmaking. It continues the character work that caused us to fall in love with these characters in the first place while reasserting the absolute necessity of the characters’ altruism and self-sacrifice. The rare modern picture feels breezy despite a two hours plus running time. Taking most of its cues from the acclaimed comic book story from Ed Brubaker's run with the character, The Winter Soldier finds Captain America at odds with the very military branch he's attempting to serve. The titular Winter Soldier proves a formidable enemy determined to wipe both he and his compatriots (Marvel movie regulars Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders and Scarlett Johansson all have big parts to play here) off the map entirely.

The Russo Brothers may have seemed like another left-field choice to direct a major action franchise (their only two previous film efforts were the small-scale comedies You, Me and Dupree and the wildly underrated Welcome to Collinwood), but the work they've accomplished on the small screen while cutting their teeth on such critically acclaimed comedies such as Community and Arrested Development proves a perfect match here. A sense of levity allows what could've proven relentlessly grim to become fantastically entertaining. More surprising, though, is their deft handling of the film's numerous action sequences, creating the most polished mayhem seen yet in a Marvel picture. These sequences escalate logically and feature brutal fight choreography – this sets the bar high for not only future Marvel movies but also summer action blockbusters full stop. This is also the widest cast of characters outside of The Avengers that any one film has had to deal with, and instead of feeling overstuffed, the Russos allowed each their own moment to shine (we finally get to see Sam Jackson's Nick Fury do something other than glower and stand in corners). It even allows for the introduction of Anthony Mackie as new ally, Sam Wilson, who integrates into the proceedings wonderfully, having a different chemistry with the leads than we've seen to this point.

The superhero genre is here to stay at this point, but instead of feeling abject dread at this costumed takeover, Winter Soldier suggests an infinitely malleable canvas that could keep evolving for Marvel for years to come. This is a paranoid thriller that speaks to our modern unease that also features giant airships blowing each other out of the sky, without any cognitive dissonance generated by combining these elements. It's summer filmmaking that entertains and also deepens our connection to these characters while allowing newcomers to step into the universe with relative ease. If only all big budget filmmaking could prove as effortlessly entertaining, our summers would look a whole lot brighter every year.

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