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Captain America is sure to please, whether you're a comic book fan or not

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel Studios

Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Cast: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford

I saw the word "mega-franchise" being kicked around the net today, describing what it is that Marvel Studios is doing with their film and television properties, and it seems apt. I honestly can't think of any other time in cinema history where a constantly expanding universe has been shared by multiple franchises among multiple mediums – nine feature films, various short films, a television show, and soon five separate Netflix series -- all governed by the same continuity. On paper, it seems like it should be a disaster, but it just works, much to Marvel's credit.

And it just keeps getting better.

With Winter Soldier, Marvel is taking great strides to add a mature edge to the films. This is a much more complex take on the character, as man-out-of-time Captain Steve Rogers (an excellent, soulful Chris Evans) struggles to reconcile his Greatest Generation ideals with a post-9/11 political landscape. Really, if you were to take out the superpowers, the film would still play as a tense, tightly wound poli-thriller in the same vein as the Jason Bourne trilogy. There are plenty of allusions to real-world topics like the overreach of the NSA, or the drone warfare debate. That the film manages to layer on the more fantastic comic book elements, like a cybernetically enhanced super soldier or a sentient computer with a thick German accent, without coming across as silly is just icing on the cake.

The entire cast brings their A-game. Returning cast members Scarlet Johannson and Samuel L. Jackson (Black Widow and Nick Fury, respectively) have come to inhabit their characters so well that they fill every moment with an effortless charm, while newcomers Anthony Mackie and screen legend Robert Redford -- a major casting coup for the studio -- have no trouble fitting in.

A lot of credit needs to go to the Russo Brothers. This marks their first time directing a major feature, and it's clear that they will have a long career ahead of them. The movie is expertly paced, every scene constantly surging towards an explosive, emotional finale that promises to have seismic consequences for the Marvel Universe going forward.

Every cent of the film's $170 million budget is thrown up on the screen, filling the frame with endless eye-candy, but the Russo Brothers understand that having all style and no substance is easy way for a would-be blockbuster to turn into a disaster (a lesson Michael Bay could learn.)  Even amidst all the destruction, the Russo's find time to highlight wonderful little character beats, each one filled with genuine pathos.  It's a step above the normal summer movie season action fare.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a thoughtful, edgy thriller that's sure to please audiences, whether they're superhero fans or not.

 

Grade: A