First and foremost, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is the best action film out of the entire Marvel movie universe so far, bar none. Just in terms of sheer impact and choreography and execution and clarity of geography and did I mention impact because DAMN. If that is all that this film did well, that would be enough for me to recommend it.

Beyond that, though, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a tremendous piece of pop entertainment, smart and engaging and featuring a home run movie star lead performance by Chris Evans and the best overall supporting cast in one of the Marvel movies in terms of everybody having something significant to do and everyone being written for to a degree where they're playing people and not just types. Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, this movie hits the ground running, literally, in a great scene where Steve Rogers (Evans) meets Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a former member of a para-rescue unit who now works at the VA hospital. In one quick moment, they dispense with any need for fish out of water jokes and they introduce the notion that Steve is struggling with the bigger issues that affect him as a man out of time. He is having his doubts about the work he does for S.H.I.E.L.D., and in the film's first big set-piece, we see just how wet that work actually is.

They made a smart choice to have Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow aka Scarlett Johansson paired up with Cap for most of the movie. She's got a different perspective on the kind of work they do, and a very different backstory, and contrasting the heroism of these two as well as the methods creates an interesting tension, especially once things really start getting crazy. In that first big set-piece, there are two totally different threads being followed. First, there's the actual mission, in which they're supposed to liberate a S.H.I.E.L.D. boat that has been seized by pirates led by Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre) and rescue the hostages aboard, particularly Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez). Watching Cap move through the boat, taking out pretty much the entire crew single-handedly, it's obvious right away that directors Joe and Anthony Russo have a knack for comic book action in particular, but the close-up bone-breaking kind. Captain America is a wrecking crew in this film. He isn't shy about using a throwing knife or pretty much shattering a sternum with a strike of his shield. He doesn't pull his punches. He's got a mission, and when it comes down to it, the strike team that was sent with him, including Brock Lumlow (Frank Grillo) and Jack Rollins (Callan Mulvey), pull the triggers and put the pirates down.

The other thread is a playful but genuine banter in which Natasha is trying to figure out who she can set Steve up with, because she's convinced that he needs that connection. They play it for the laughs, but there's something real underneath it, and it's interesting that Natasha simply isn't an option herself. It seems like the easy lazy choice would be to play their relationship as a possible romantic or sexual entanglement, but they don't even hint at that. After all, Steve's feelings about Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) are still fresh for him, and if there's anything that haunts him, it is the loss of an entire life with her. Evans and Johansson have great chemistry, and any scene that is just the two of them talking is a winner.

There's not much time for that, though. When they get back to DC, it's apparent that Natasha was sent to retrieve more than the hostages, and whatever she took from the boat sets off a chain of events that manages to snare Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson playing the biggest role he's had in any Marvel film so far), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and as Alexander Pierce, the guy above Fury in the chain of command, no less than Robert freakin' Redford, who brings his A-game. This is not a case of someone dropping by to pick up a paycheck. Pierce is a real character, and Redford's really good playing him.

If you want to go in relatively spoiler-free, stop here. Suffice it to say the scale of the film is impressive, the action is relentless, and the plot manages to genuinely shake the power structure of the entire Marvel movie universe. This is not a film designed to maintain the status quo. It is a film full of big choices that will have a big impact on every other film that's still in the works. The Russos turn out to be an inspired choice, and the end result is a film that ranks very near the top of the list out of any of the films made by Marvel Studios so far.

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