photo 4Ever since Marvel Studios smelled money in the water by in-sourcing its superhero universe with essentially unified storytelling, instead of farming it out to the highest bidder (other studios still control Spider-Man, X-Men and the Fantastic Four), the genre has been a blockbuster of blockbusters: Franchises stacked upon each other, with occasional crossovers whether small (Nick Fury appearing briefly at the end of one movie) or extensive (2012’s The Avengers). There’s Iron Man 1-3, Thor 1 and 2, The Incredible Hulk (just one, thank you), the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, Age of Ultron and a planned Black Widow. But of all these, the one that stands apart has been Captain America.

First, with 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, and now with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we get a superstud who exists in a kind of separate sphere. In First Avenger, it was literally a journey across time: Cap (Chris Evans) was a WWII hero, and it took some fancy maneuvering to deep-freeze him in 1945 and revive him 65 years later (muscles intact) to join the modern-day heroes. First Avenger looked nothing like the other films: It was muddy and sepia-tones, like old news reel footage, and the costumes were intentionally muted and old-school, as if derived from technology (and fabric) long past. It had grit and a John Wayne-esque moral center: Captain Steve Rogers is a Boy Scout — a terrible liar who truly stands for something better in ourselves. It was corny, but not cloying, and it worked.

It works again with The Winter Soldier which, despite some dubious choices of technique, may be one of the best of the Marvel movies to date … second only to The First Avenger.

photo 3It’s the modern era, and Rogers is now the equivalent of a one-man SeAL Team 6: An ass-kicking, relentlessly brave soldier who does his duty. But he’s not accustomed to the cynicism of the post-9/11 era, and he resents that his boss, SHIELD leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), lies to him about his mission. Fury is just doing what his boss and longtime friend Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) wants him to do. Rogers is justly suspicious of a planned program that would create the modern equivalent of Reagan’s Star Wars initiative: An unstoppable fleet of nuclear airships that could destroy millions with the touch of a button. But just whose finger is poised above it?

When it gets going, it’s clear that The Winter Soldier is a different genre from all the other Marvel films: Not sci-fi, not ever a war picture, but a Watergate era political thriller, complete with duplicitous allies, corrupt politicians and a weary sense of malaise that everything you thought you knew about the American Century was a complete and utter lie.

The casting of Redford only reinforces this; in addition to his role in the actual Watergate movie All the President’s Men, Redford starred in one of the classics of the thriller genre, Three Days of the Condor. His performance as the glad-handing but reptilian Pierce is the flip side of his Condor role, the CIA operative finally corrupted.

photo 5Evans, who wears a wife-beater better than any man since Brando screamed out “Stella!,” doesn’t let the aw-shucks potential of the role overwhelm him. He’s square-jawed but not humorless, and the physicality he delivers is awesome, especially in the numerous hand-to-hand combat scene.

The screenplay builds on characters you thought had died once First Avenger jumped across decades, and the directors, Anthony and Joe Russo (best known for directing Arrested Development — !!), manage to juggle the numerous plot complexities without ever (significantly) losing us. Still, their reliance on furious cross-cutting and hand-held motion during the early action scenes reveals inexperience with the big-screen effect of jumpy camera movement, and detracts more than it enhances. Once that gets under control, though, you can appreciate the style and intelligence that went into this film. Maybe that’s why it got an early spring release, instead of one in the traditional  summer season starting next month: The Winter Soldier requires a little thoughtfulness to fully appreciate.

Four stars. In wide release Friday.