Most super heroes follow a fairly well-worn character arc. The hero is a normal person who gains some sort of powers, then has to learn how to use his/her power responsibly and be a hero. Captain America is a bit different. Steve Rogers (he who would be Cap) is already a hero, a genuinely decent person with a heart of gold and a desire to do good. He doesn't need to learn how to be a hero, he just needs the power. So when he receives super-human strength and athleticism, he finally has the ability to be the hero he always has been inside. The hero inside Cap, the thing that makes him special (you can eat your test tube comment, Tony Stark) is tested to the utmost in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The Winter Soldier finds Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) getting more used to changing times. He's embracing new technology and catching up on the pop culture stuff he's missed. He's also still working for S.H.I.E.L.D., and he's getting a little tired of the way Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is using him to clean up S.H.I.E.L.D.'s messes. On top of that, there's Project Insight, an opportunity for Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. to get ahead of the baddies before they can strike. That doesn't sit well with Cap, and disillusionment begins to mess with his head.
Things get worse after Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) tries to recruit Cap to work for him. That's a cakewalk compared to when a shadowy bad ass called The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) shows up, shooting people and blowing things up. Cap is caught in the middle, and has to use his sense of right and wrong, along with an assist from Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson. YUM.) and Sam "Falcon" Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to win the day. Together, our heroes endeavor to get to the bottom of things, bad guys and plot twists be damned.
One of the great things the Marvel has figured out (and that seems to have eluded DC and Warner Bros.) is how to craft stories with grit and serous stakes while never losing that sense of humor and fun. There is a lot at stake in Winter Soldier, but there are still plenty of laughs to be had. In fact, the very first scene is pretty funny. But when the action heats up and things get serious, the movie is all business and asses get kicked. The action scenes are exciting, fast-paced, and just about make your eyeballs dance. I loved the movie's logic that Cap, as an enhanced super soldier, hits harder than normal thugs. That's a small thing that I really enjoyed.
The acting is pretty great. Evans projects dignity and all-American strength as Cap. And this from a guy who used to be pretty much cast as the wise-cracking funny guy. Johansson and Jackson hold down their roles well. Redford is perfect for the role he plays, but I don't wanna give too much away so I won't say any more than that. I was truly impressed with how awesome Mackie was as Falcon. The dude kicks ass, whether he's throwing punches or flying around artillery bursts. Most impressive was the way Stan pulls of the Winter Soldier character. He does the majority his acting with only his eyes, conveying confusion, sadness, anger, and vulnerability and creating a whole, three-dimensional character. I was awed by Stan's performance, especially considering this was a "big action flick".
The directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, have never done a big movie like this before, but they've knocked it out of the park. They keep the pace brisk, the camera fluid, and the feel of things epic. They get the best out of the cast, and pull off the big set pieces with aplomb. If I have any complaints, it's that we don't spend enough time with The Winter Soldier to really get what his story is. But that's what sequels and spin-offs are for, right? This movie has the absolute perfect blend of action, drama, fun, great acting, solid writing, and eye-popping spectacle. I need to see how it holds up to repeat viewings, but this movie may be my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe film thus far. Some folks may be tempted to compare to compare The Winter Soldier to that most sacred of comic book movie sacred cows, The Dark Knight, but that's foolish cuz there's no comparison. The Winter Soldier is way better.