rating: 4Last year's explosive, lighthearted and ultimately benign sequel, Thor: The Dark World, set an interesting milestone for the immensely popular - and never-ending - stream of motion pictures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon: whilst providing fans with a fun, inconsequential entry in the series, it also felt like a movie lifted straight from a conveyor belt. Because although The Dark World certainly had its good points, it also exposed a small chink in the MCU's armour: after so much interconnected, shared universe work, doesn't it become harder to justify solo outings? So whereas that movie felt like something of a bombastic but ultimately passive placeholder, content to fill the passing of time between The Avengers and the forthcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron, the filmmakers behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier - brothers Anthony and Joe Russo - manage to craft a movie that exists in harmony with the MCU whilst feeling like its own fully-fledged motion picture experience. What's more, The Winter Soldier isn't simply a far more competent movie than its predecessor, The First Avenger, but is perhaps the most complete and assured MCU film since Iron Man, the movie that launched the franchise all the way back in 2008. Our story picks up an undisclosed time after the events witnessed in The Avengers - a story we could presume is running parallel with those featured in Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World - with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), better know by his alias "Captain America," still adjusting to life in the 21st century. Before long, he's whisked off by the beautiful Natasha Romanoff, alias Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who - under S.H.I.E.L.D. orders - needs him to accompany her and a dedicated team on a hostage rescue mission on a cargo ship off the coast of who knows where. What appears, at first, to be a routine rescue operation turns out to be way deeper than anything Captain America might have expected, starting with an assassination attempt on Nick Fury's (Samuel L. Jackson) life, and a misplaced USB stick that brings the events of Captain America: The First Avenger full circle. What follows is a movie that clings to the conventions of a '70s political thriller (and Robert Redford is here as a high ranking S.H.I.E.L.D member to remind you of that very fact) whilst simultaneously making it count as heart-stopping, relentlessly-paced, balls-to-the-wall blockbuster. The plot really shifts into gear with the arrival of the eponymous Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a skilled assassin who we already know as the Captain's best friend Bucky Barnes. Like the Captain, Barnes was cryogenically frozen in the 1940s but was awoke in the present by the wrong people. Brainwashed, his memory vanished, the Winter Soldier has been programmed to assassinate his former ally under the orders of a shady organisation that lots of MCU fans will have presumably thought to be long disbanded. As a force of physicality, he provides the Captain with his greatest challenge yet (as a force of charisma - not so much). It's probably fair to say that out of all the heroes assembled thus far in the MCU - and perhaps with the exception of Bruce Banner - Captain America remains the most difficult character to nail down: it's not just that he's super patriotic - clad in red, white and blue - or that he's so sincere and was designed to represent the ideal American "citizen" (these aren't particularly interesting or dramatic traits - just ask Superman), it's that a big screen incarnation of the WWII veteran requires an actor who can embrace such po-faced characteristics and still have us rooting for him. Thankfully, Marvel found the right man for the job when they plucked up Chris Evans, who reprises his role as Steve Rogers for the third time in this sequel, and manages to bring his "man out of time" schtick to its apex here. Evans plays the Captain's built-in sense of serious justice to exactly the right point (and always has done), but it's in the self-deprecating, coming to terms with living in modern day New York City moments that we really get to know the Captain away from his responsibilities and the occasionally jarring patriotism. Joss Whedon made light of the Rogers' very strange situation with a few self-aware gags in The Avengers, of course ("I know that reference..."), and similar remarks endear us to Captain in The Winter Soldier (one such instance has the Captain writing down things he's missed out over the past 60 years and needs to catch up on, which includes "Star Wars"). Initially perhaps the least popular member of The Avengers, Evans absolutely ensures that he's right up there as a character to be appreciated alongside Tony Stark and Thor in a movie that brings deserved justice to his character. Better yet, The Winter Soldier seems to have learnt its lesson with regards to some of the more niggling aspects inherent to previous Marvel films, the most important of which seems to be that of "character development." There's a noticeable willingness here to open up and explore the backstories and personal lives of some of the franchise's more frequently-observed characters, who have remained mostly enigmatic for the sums of their entire MCU lives, serving mostly as blunt tools for advancing the plot. Though these moments aren't always successful and don't necessarily lead to the places that the movie seems to suggest they will, it's appropriate that - after so many filmic appearances - we finally get to learn something about Nick Fury's personal life. Same goes for Scarlett Johansson's mercilessly underdeveloped Black Widow, who gets to be more human - and more humorous - in her solo scenes with the Captain, and as a result, will feel far more rounded as a character in future MCU appearances. In these aspects, at least, The Winter Soldier feels like something of a progression. The plot itself is winding and occasionally confusing, and probably could have done with a little streamlining - did they take the twists and turn elements of the '70s political thriller a little too far? Convoluted, overly complicated - who cares? The most noticeably impressive thing on show here are the brilliantly-plotted and downright thrilling action sequences - the set-pieces, though occasionally too long, are arguably the best and most accomplished action sequences to have graced the MCU so far (who knows where the comedic Russo Brothers honed their action chops?). The standout scene includes a road ambush that pits Nick Fury and his automated car against an army of assassins (an action scene that has been rendered with lots of imagination and is genuinely tense and unexpected), a lengthy, opening infiltration sequence on a ship that finally gives audiences the chance to see the Captain using his shield to devastating effect, and - in an instance of pure fanboy service - a joyous scene that gives Captain America his own "Legolas takes on the Mumakil" moment (it's the sort of scene that invites cheers and applause in the theatre). That's not to say everything here is absolutely perfect. The movie struggles from the same problem that pretty much every MCU has struggled with to date - a weak villain. The Winter Soldier, unfortunately, falls short of memorable bad guy standards because there's simply nothing to him - he's a shell of a character with minimal personality. Sure, this makes sense from a plot perspective, given that he's been brainwashed and must act accordingly, but it also means that he doesn't leave much of a lasting impression as far as big bads go. Given that the subtitle of the film includes the words "The Winter Soldier," the movie never feels like it has a lot to do with him; he's more like a silent obstacle. This problem extends to the movie's secondary (or perhaps primary, depending on how you look at it) villain, who has pretty much been thrown together as an amalgamation of other "rich white businessman" types and does an efficient enough job spouting his lines with charismatic malice, but isn't somebody you'll remember when the credits start rolling. The film also fumbles what could have been its greatest, most reverent moment, by momentarily appearing to break down the conventions of what we expect from the MCU, before later reassuring us that everything's okay, that the conveyor belt is still running. The emergence of Anthony Mackie's Falcon superhero, too, feels a little bit like overkill in an already jam-packed movie and doesn't seem to quite fit in with the established tone, whereas a half-assed romance plot between the Captain and Black Widow feels more like filler than something to take seriously. Still, these aspects don't do much to discredit what is undoubtably a well-written, near-perfectly paced, exciting, funny and - would you believe? - sufficiently self-contained - Marvel outing. Though inevitably lumbered with some of the baggage of the MCU, The Winter Soldier grants Captain America the solo vehicle he deserves. In its willingness to embrace new genre trappings, too, the movie ends up feeling fresh and unlike anything we've seen before - and although it still bears the unmistakable mark of having been hatched in a factory, it's thrilling enough that you'll momentarily forget that the MCU is even a thing. Once in a while, that's a pretty good feeling. 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