The man who can't keep up with Rogers on the morning jog is a former soldier himself, Sam Wilson (who comic fans will know as the good captain's future sidekick The Falcon) and after a brief chat about tours of duty The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) drives up to collect her fellow Avenger for a top secret S.H.I.E.L.D. mission. And they're off and the story with them as they speed to the first action setpiece and the one after that. They all spin fairly organically from plot points that might fairly be called ridiculous: artificial intelligence, Nazis, cyborgs, resurrections, and then at the core shadowy organizations embedded within other shadowy organizations embedded within still other shadowy organizations like some espionage thriller matryoshka doll
Captain America shares billing this time with The Winter Soldier, a mythic and extremely formidable assassin who wants all the heroes dead. But why? Or, a better question: who are the heroes? Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) after a very narrow escape from an extremely tense assassination attempt sequence warns Steve to trust no one which leads to some wonderfully prickly moments with The Black Widow. Scarlett Johansson continues to spin gold in the role, despite that weirdly dull start in Iron Man 2, slyly suggesting not so much duplicity as the thrill of conveying duplicitousness. Evans and Johansson have great chemistry and one of the welcome surprises of the movie is how much of a Black Widow feature it turns out to be (Hey, if she can't get her own movie…)
And the action sequences. Can you say "upgrade"?
Joe and Anthony Russo are the new directors and though their previous filmography does not immediately suggest facility with mega-budget action, they apparently learned from the right movies. They seem to have studied at the school of James Cameron and other masters in that you can actually follow (most of) the fight scenes, where the characters are, what they're doing and how it might affect the other characters in the fight. That's so rare in modern blockbusters when they usually just edit a million tiny little shards of movement together and presume you'll be excited because it's fast and there's very loud music playing.
Not every scene works as well as others of course. As per usual the finale gets way bigger than it needs to and feels a little anti-climactic because it's not as tightly focused as the "smaller" setpieces leading up to it. But the action here has great stunt work and numerous playfully staged surprises including one absolute knockout sequence in an elevator. It keeps things simple but you don't need visual pyrotechnics for every scene, not when you have a tightening vise of a plot and a really solid hero at the center of it all. Even better, the fights feel genuinely dangerous this time around now that it's mostly humans punching and kicking and firing at each other; the red caped demi-gods, iron men, and angry green giants are nowhere to be seen. Literally every character here, even the ones that at first seem indestructable, experience authentic-looking pain during all the explosions, shootings and death defying leaps and runs.
On the left and, now, well out front. The Captain America franchise is now lapping its (plentiful) superheroic competition. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best superhero film we've seen since the genre's double peak in 2004 (Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles). And it couldn't have happened to a nicer or more unlikely hero. Chris Evans is on record that he plans to retire from acting when his Marvel contract is up. It's easy to see why playing a stiffly noble and patriotic hero in film after film might be less than artistically satisfying but he's aces in the role regardless. His quiet resolve and lack of actorly tics — he does just enough to sell each scene and never pushes — are a perfect fit for the modest personality of this All-American hero who's just trying to be the best man he can be. And, you know, save the world. Again.
Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.