Captain America: The Winter Soldier Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
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"There is nothing more horrifying," intones a shadowy menace late in this film, "than a miracle." Perhaps. But, as Captain America: The Winter Soldier so entertainingly suggests, it is not God, but humanity itself, that poses our gravest threat. The big bad here isn't aliens or Norse deities or inexplicable monsters; it's human insecurity and fear, plain and simple.

An intensely liberal film — it asks many of the same questions posed by the highly conservative Dark Knight series and offers profoundly different answers — The Winter Soldier stands out not just for its many pleasures as an escape into an action-jacked fantasy world, but also for its valiant effort to confront real life questions about surveillance, secrecy and even drone strikes.

Set two years after the events of The Avengers, this sequel to the rollicking, underrated first Captain America film is not only the top entry thus far in the Marvel Universe, it is one of the best superhero films I've seen. Intensely violent (don't take the kids), sharply witty, and surprisingly complex, The Winter Soldier finds Captain America (Chris Evans) teaming up with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) in an effort to uncover a far-reaching conspiracy within the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Along the way, familiar faces abound, from Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill to a scene-stealing Robert Redford as head of the global security council and a random (but welcome) Gary Shandling as a naughty congressman. Everyone, including the audience, is having a hell of a lot of fun.

Captain America has always been a tricky character to make interesting; he is certainly hard to make cool. He appears to be, by his very name, symbolic of American hubris, of the deeply dubious idea of American righteousness in its pursuit of security. To its great credit, The Winter Soldier, which (kind of amazingly) shares its name with the 1971 investigation into American war crimes in Vietnam(!), confronts this problem head-on.

Eschewing the frothy, Indiana Jones-ish feel of its predecessor (it was, after all, a film about a bunch of Nazis trying to win World War II using a volatile otherworldly device), The Winter Soldier follows a much darker, and so much more relevant, path. In his quest to tear down the military-security-industrial complex, Captain America becomes, in effect, a patriotic whistleblower, scourge of the deep state. Our proof through the night?

(Marvel Studios)