- - Thursday, April 3, 2014

These days, when you go see a Marvel movie, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get: An appealing superpowered hero, character-driven humor, giant-sized action, clever sci-fi production design, and a heavy sprinkling of fanboy-friendly comic-geek references.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the latest of Marvel’s house-produced, comic book-based movies, shows up in fit and fighting shape with all of the above — and, somewhat unexpectedly, a real attempt at a story to go along with it.

While it doesn’t quite match the superspectacle of “The Avengers” or the appealing wit of the original “Iron Man,” it’s darker, grittier, and better crafted than either, and easily the best of the studio’s post-“Avengers” crop.

Like “Iron Man 3” and the “Thor: The Dark World” last year, “The Winter Soldier” picks up shortly after the events of “The Avengers,” with Steve Rogers — a.k.a. Captain America — ensconced in the massive S.H.I.E.L.D. bureaucracy. He’s a secret soldier who helps his organization fight secret wars, stopping terrorists and other threats across the globe, often with the help of his fellow agent, Natasha Romanov, otherwise known as The Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson).

Under the direction of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the supervision of senior official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), S.H.I.E.L.D. is looking to expand its reach with a big data-crunching, super-surveillance program that will give the agency the power to target threats before they emerge. But all is not as it seems at the agency, and the surveillance program’s patriotic exterior masks a more menacing purpose. Soon Cap, Romanov, and their newfound ally Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) — a fellow soldier who comes conveniently equipped with a robotic flying wing suit — are on the run, fighting the agency they used to work for.

There’s a Jason Bourne-esque feel to the action sequences, especially the opening sequence in which Cap fights off a group of pirates who have hijacked a cargo ship. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo emphasize crisp, clean, muscular action rather than computer-generated excess; their action scenes are the sharpest and toughest that Marvel has produced.

Indeed, in tone and attitude “The Winter Soldier” often feels as much like a spy movie as a superhero film: It’s grimmer and more intimate, more paranoid and conspiratorial. At times it plays like a blockbuster riff on the great ‘70s thrillers, with double and triple crosses, and secretive government forces lurking in the shadows. As in many of those films, there’s a not-so-subtle political undercurrent, as the story essentially pits Captain America against a radically amped-up version of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance efforts.

The presence of Mr. Redford, star of one of the best of those thrillers, “Three Days of the Condor,” highlights the ‘70s throwback vibe. Mr. Redford’s presence gives the movie a certain gravitas, but in some ways it’s not necessary.

Mr. Evans, Mr. Jackson, and Miss Johansson are now franchise veterans, having played these roles for years across multiple films. As they’ve done so, they’ve grown into the characters, and the characters have simultaneously grown around them. There’s an understated confidence to their portrayals, as well as to the script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, which boasts genuine humor and humanity.

Marvel has its stride as a maker of big-screen superhero adventures. It’s no longer necessary to qualify its films as pretty good, for comic book movies. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is simply quite good, for any kind of movie.

★½

TITLE: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

CREDITS: Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo; screenplay by Chrispher Markus and Stephen McFeely

RATING: PG-13 for mild profanity and shoot-‘em-up action

RUNNING TIME: 136 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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