Synopsis: In the aftermath of the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers aka Captain American (Chris Evans) struggles to find his place in a world that he wasn't born into and he finds that his old school beliefs don't necessarily match those of S.H.I.E.L.D. or its director, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). But when Fury becomes the target of a shadowy assassin known as the Winter Soldier, Cap is suddenly embroiled in a clandestine battle that threatens the lives of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. With the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Cap pulls at a dangerous thread and wages war against an old enemy.
What I Liked: The post-Avengers Phase II of Marvel's grand universe of superhero properties, consisting of the good-not-great Iron Man 3 and the thoroughly boring Thor: The Dark World, hasn't lived up to the spectacle of Phase I. The Winter Solider, however, puts the series right back on track by delivering what very well might be the best of the standalone films in this franchise. I'm partial to the original Iron Man but at the very least, I think Soldier gives it a serious run for its money.
Directors the Russo Brothers (known best for their work on Arrested Development and Community) display a great understanding for how to use Rogers/Cap both within this universe and within our modern world. Moreover, whereas Cap felt a bit lost within the grandeur of The Avengers when compared to Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk and against a demi-god opponent like Loki, the stakes are lowered a bit in Soldier and Cap fits here much better. In this context, you get a full dose of Evans' charisma and the character's strength and the entire film plays to his abilities. The action sequences involve a great deal of extremely well choreographed hand-to-hand combat against fellow human opponents and because of this, you get a real sense of Cap's power. He's basically a roided-up Jason Bourne with a sweet shield and boy, is it fun to watch him in action. Likewise, in the less action-centric scenes, the Russos give the character a chance to develop into something more than a symbol of Good Old Days syndrome like he came across at times in the first Captain America movie. Through all of this, what you now have in Rogers/Cap is a superior character to almost any within the Marvel universe and a guy that I personally would be thrilled to see in action again and again. It doesn't hurt, either, that Soldier uses its supporting characters better than any of the other standalone Marvel movies have done to this point. Johannson and Jackson especially make the most of the opportunities afforded their characters and Mackie, too, proves to be a worthy addition to this world.
What I Didn't Like: I have very, very few complaints about Soldier as a whole. It is a bit overstuffed at times as plot points come bursting forth at a rapid pace in the second act. Also, it appears that the central plot will have a big role in the future of the Marvel properties (including or perhaps especially the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and I'm not sure this development lends itself as much to inspired writing and plot development as it does to easy writing and plot development but obviously this remains to be seen. At some point, the Marvel minds are going to have to introduce something new to build upon rather than routinely returning to the devices laid out in the first series of films but perhaps that day will come later rather than sooner. It should be noted, too, that Robert Redford's performance is incredibly droll and lifeless and if he was replaced by a crash test dummy, Soldier wouldn't suffer in the slightest. Oh how the mighty have fallen.
In Conclusion: What some saw as the weakest franchise within the Marvel universe is now suddenly one of its strongest assets. Soldier gives Cap an edge he was lacking in his first two appearances and the surrounding story lets him fully display his greatness. I'm a huge fan of Tony Stark/Iron Man but after Soldier, if Marvel announced tomorrow that they were only going to make standalone films for one character, I'd be disappointed if they didn't choose Captain America.
Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for comic book violence and a bit of language)