One of the bigger issues facing the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the presence of a credible threat - sure, Loki (of Thor and Avengers fame) is a charismatic and powerful villain, but his goals always seem empty - devoid of any real danger. Iron Man Three and Thor The Dark World also both had villains that had little credibility. The Mandarin bait-and-switch may have been fantastic (yes, I'm on that side of the fence), but ultimately Aldrich Killian's plan was destined to fail, considering the volatile nature of Extremis. Likewise, Malekith's plan - to obliterate the known universe - played second fiddle to the Thor and Loki show.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier gives us a credible threat - and that is one of the many reasons why Steve Rogers' second outing is fantastic.
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
The Winter Soldier picks up after 2012's megahit The Avengers with Rogers (Chris Evans, impeccibly cast) as part of S.H.I.E.L.D, working primarily with Natasha Romanov, a.k.a The Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson). Through some rather opaque dialogue ("This isn't freedom, this is fear"), we quickly learn that Cap is not best pleased with the way Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is aiming to pre-empt crimes via "Project Insight".
After expressing his concerns with Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), another high ranking operative, he quickly finds himself on the wrong side of S.H.I.E.L.D's radar and teams up with The Black Widow and The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to find out why he's been pushed to vigilantism by the very organisation designed to protect people. All the while, he is pursued by a mysterious man codenamed "The Winter Soldier" (Sebastian Stan).
Without giving too much away about who the major players are in the villain roster, the overarching plan is to use "Project Insight" to control and terrify people, under the guise of 'freedom'. This plan is to be achieved by using three helicarriers (last seen in The Avengers) to target potential threats - including Tony Stark - and take them out. To do this, the project uses an algorythm to predict your next move through what you've done in the past (e-mails, Facebook statuses, angry Tweets etc).
The reason I see it as a credible threat is because - in the words of Arnim Zola from the first film - "he can do it!" It's a great reflection of the current geopolitical debate going on regarding the NSA and the various accusations levelled against them for spying on not just their own country but others as well. Except The Winter Soldier takes it to typically blockbuster movie levels and asks the question: "What if someone wanted to take action against these people?"
As I say, I don't want to go into too much detail, but it's a genuinely awesome threat that Cap and the gang have to deal with and makes the previous Phase 2 villains a little pantomime in comparison.
Outside of the main story thread, we get a couple of really nice connections back to the first film. A particular highlight was the long-awaited reunion of Rogers and his first sweetheart, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). This one scene is an absolute heartbreaker, because as you think it's going in one direction it quickly (and sadly) takes a sharp turn.
Performances across the board are excellent - Evans has made Captain America his own. Forgotten and forgiven are the previous Marvel performances as The Human Torch. His Steve Rogers is both physically imposing and personally relatable, even if he is half-stuck in the wrong century. The confidence in which he portrays a "good man" really gives a potentially cardboard cutout of a character a strong third dimension.
That's not to say that it's the Cap Show, though. Johannson does her best work as Romanov in the movie. Introduced in Iron Man 2, improved immensely in The Avengers and perfected in The Winter Soldier. This is a Black Widow that has much more humanity that we've ever seen in her and - delightfully - is the source of many of the lighter moments in the film.
Sam Jackson gets a standout car chase scene towards the beginning of the film, but is otherwise the same, great Nick Fury we saw in The Avengers. Anthony Mackie doesn't get as much screentime as I wanted, but he has great chemistry with both Evans and Johannson that I'm looking forward to seeing what Marvel has in store for The Falcon later on in the MCU. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Robert Redford is the standout supporting actor in The Winter Soldier. He portrays Pierce with fierce intelligence and guile, whilst always having the audience second guessing his true motives.
Finally, The Winter Soldier himself, Sebastian Stan, is a formidable villain. He doesn't get much to say in the film, but he carries himself so well physically that it doesn't really matter. Whether he's reloading a weapon or simply walking towards his target, he does so with such ruthless precision that he's very, very convincing as a master assassin.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo - who cut their teeth directing Community and Arrested Development - demonstrate, to the highest standard, that they are no slouches when it comes to action. From the opening ship incursion to the tri-helicarrier conclusion, the Russo's handles the action with a deft and fairly brutal touch. Cap himself pulls no punches when it comes to taking out the bad guys and the leaps and bounds they have him performing look like they were ripped right out of the comic. Guys, this is the Captain America you've always wanted to see.
Naturally, the movie has post-credits scenes and - like The Dark World before it - one is of far more interest than the other and links nicely into the upcoming Avengers Age of Ultron.
I saw the movie in 3D and whilst it didn't take anything away from it, it didn't add anything either. In fact, during some of the more talkative parts, I found it slightly difficult to focus on the characters but that was more than likely due to the fact that I was at the midnight premiere and therefore quite, quite tired.
Overall, The Winter Soldier is more than a worthy entry into the Marvel Cinematic canon. Easily the best Phase 2 film (and I loved Iron Man Three) and a great stepping stone to Age of Ultron, with some major earthquakes that will be felt throughout the universe. Excellent.
Rating: 45 stars out of 50