A "perfect sequel" is a rare breed. Even (or especially) in this age of factory-pressed franchise templates ruling the mega-plexes, it's easy for a sophomore outing to merely coast on its predecessor's success (see: Iron Man 2, Star Trek Into Darkness) or completely miss what made the original film successful. For decades, sequels to good, widely-liked movies that genuinely matched or out-stripped their predecessors have been treasured almost like holy relics, an all-to-rare confluence of the right elements coming together to form something glorious.
And in the realm of big-budget genre entertainment, these films become legends. The Empire Strikes Back. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Aliens. Terminator 2. Spider-man 2. The Dark Knight. And now, they have a new member among their ranks.
Yes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier really is that good.
There's been an interesting - and, to my mind, troubling - trend in the superhero fiction of late. In an effort to make superheroes more "relatable" a lot of writers (both in comics and especially on-screen) have been taking the approach of not just giving heroes flaws, but changing their nature and flat-out turning superheroes into anti-heroes. And while there was a big influx of original characters like this in 90's, a lot of recent examples are of traditionally "good guys" being turned into violent jerks.
The most extreme example of this is probably last year's Man of Steel - now that movie had several problems, but one of the central ones was how it handled the title character. He may have talked like Superman, but he acted more like Wolverine.
So it's more than refreshing that The Winter Soldier takes the exact opposite approach.
Set almost immediately after The Avengers, The Winter Soldier beings with Steven Rogers struggling to fit into the 21st century. He saw the good that Captain America could do on the streets of New York, and so stayed on at S.H.I.E.L.D. to go on missions and help protect people. But he's already questioning Nick Fury's methods and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s reach when a legendary assassin turns his world upside down and he's declared rogue by the very organization he's been trying to help. With only Natasha Romanov (Black Widow) and Sam Wilson (The Falcon) as allies, he goes up against the titular Winter Soldier in a battle that will reshape the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it.
Divulging more than that would spoil pretty much the entire second half of the movie, and while savvy genre fans and comic readers will either know, or can guess, a good bit of it, it's still a ride you should take before having the narrative bullet-pointed for you. Suffice it to say that the film's over-arcing themes are very similar to those of conspiracy thrillers in the Robert Ludlum mold, or of earlier films like Three Days of the Condor. The influence is obvious, not just on the political subtext (the "Battle of New York as a stand-in for 9/11" undercurrent is even stronger here with the way the movie handles a government response), but even in the casting. Robert Redford plays against the type that made him a legend in that genre as Alexander Pierce (who's got history with Nick Fury), and he's obviously having fun while underscoring the film's aims.
Which are, frankly, to spell out that we don't need to bring superheroes down to our level. It's our job to aspire to reach theirs.
This is the crux of the film, a movie that introduces as many shades of gray as it can into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU), but then unleashes Captain America into the mix and watch his idealism, inspirational goodness and desire for a better world tear through the story. The result is a movie that, while it may not be the euphoric nerd fever dream that The Avengers was, is actually - pound for pound - a better movie.
Part of this comes from the film's length. At 2 hours and 16 minutes, it's the second-longest movie Marvel studios has released, and a lot of that time that is used for quiet character beats that not only strengthen the characterization of Cap carried through from previous films (and here is cemented into one of the best heroes of modern blockbusters and arguably Marvel's most inspired casting choice since Robert Downey Jr.), but also molds characters that it introduces or inherited from other movies into a compelling and well-developed ensemble cast. An ensemble in which, it should be noted, Steve Rogers himself is the only white male hero. It's also packed with actors who throw their weight into both the "fun" of the roles but also the genuine humanity of the characters.
Other times however, the film is using its running time to deliver the best up-close-and-personal action sequences I've seen in a Hollywood tentpole in a long time. The Winter Soldier is packed with stunts, brawls, and vehicular mayhem that are comprehensive, compelling, and more hard-edged than we're used to seeing in a universe of movies usually preoccupied with monsters and lasers. There are a couple sequences that go on a bit long in the context of the film, but the scenes are so good taken on their own merit that it's hard to fault them, especially since they remain so focused on character and cause/effect storytelling through action. Which is a mantra the film maintains impressively, even when the finale goes large-scale and effects-heavy.
And when the dust clears, nothing will be the same. It's almost overwhelming how much The Winter Soldier pulls from the rest of the MCU in service to its own narrative ends, becoming the best argument yet for this sort of shared-universe continuity making for richer story, but it's equally exciting to imagine where the other movies will go from here. This film shakes its character down to his foundations, but only so it can build something even greater.
The fact that this movie is drawing such a huge crowd (it set the weekend box office record for the month of April) is notable, not just because it proves that The Avengers made even casual moviegoers into fans of these previously B-level characters, but that there's still provably a place - nay, a demand - for heroes, even if they're not on "our level."
Because frankly, they shouldn't be. That's what makes them heroes.