In 2011, Chris Evans redeemed his superhero acting career with an outstanding transition from his ridiculous Johnny Storm/Human Torch in Tim Story’s 2005 misfire Fantastic Four (and its unneeded 2007 sequel) to Steve Rogers/Captain America in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. Directed by Joe Johnston, no stranger to period piece theatrical comic book adaptations, The First Avenger was a flawed, yet earnest portrayal of Marvel’s boy scout, boasted by Johnston’s always-reliable direction, a trademark Alan Silvestri (the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, The Avengers) score and exceptional performances from supporting cast members such as Hayley Atwell’s depiction of Rogers’ love interest Peggy Carter (check out Mike's look at The First Avenger here).

The film was successful enough, both critically and commercially, to not only seamlessly lead into 2012’s blockbuster The Avengers but to also warrant future sequels focusing solely on ol’ Cap, and in 2014 veteran TV director-brothers Anthony & Joe Russo (Arrested Development, Community) took the helm from Johnston to release Captain America: The Winter Soldier. What resulted was a tremendously effective Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, a film regarded by many as one of the best Marvel films to date and an outstanding superhero movie overall.

The Winter Soldier shifts the tone from the Indiana Jones-style escapades of The First Avenger to a more political atmosphere, bringing it more in line with such films as 1992’s Patriot Games or 1994’s Clear and Present Danger while still managing to maintain enough superheroism to keep fans happy. Picking up two years after the events of The Avengers, The Winter Soldier sees Rogers/Cap now firmly ensconced as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative, for all intents and purposes doing their bidding and carrying out highly classified missions around the world, usually in the company of another Avenger. As the film opens, we find Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) accompanying Cap on one of said missions, one later revealed to be a cover so Romanoff can extract some sensitive data from the main computer onboard a cargo ship. Upon confronting S.H.I.E.L.D. head Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) about Romanoff’s actions, he learns of an even bigger plan, one involving Helicarriers, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s go-to means of transportation, and, thanks to a sophisticated computer algorithm, the systematic targeting of citizens who may possess criminal traits. It’s like Minority Report, only with more spandex.

The description above merely scratches the surface of what The Winter Solider is all about, and when the titular Winter Solider makes his debut during an ambush on Fury, the plot thankfully diverts from a stiffly traditional political atmosphere to showcase some of the most exciting scenes ever to unfold in a Marvel production. As The Winter Solider, Sebastian Stan presents a cold, robotic villain, one who serves as an excellent counterbalance to Evans’ Captain America while still maintaining a conflicted personality just below the surface. Furthermore, he’s simply a far more interesting bad guy than Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce, portraying another S.H.I.E.L.D. executive with less-than-wholesome intentions. While Redford possesses a body of work loaded with numerous classics as 1984’s The Natural, 1973’s The Sting, & 1976’s All the President’s Men, he struggles to find his footing as Pierce, and instead of giving the audience a baddie to fear like The Winter Soldier or even MCU favorite Loki, it’s as generic a depiction as it comes.

Luckily, Redford’s screen time is limited when compared to the previously stated well-executed moments of action, from the aforementioned Fury ambush to several moments of Cap and The Winter Soldier going head to head. Every time the two meet onscreen, the ballet of bullets and Vibranium shields flawlessly assist the pace and the actuality of two supersoldiers truly meeting their match. The Winter Soldier also serves as an exhilarating introduction to Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon, who inhabits the role with a welcome cocksure persona and a character that is as much an equal to Captain America as a sidekick as well. The return of Cobie Smulders’ S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill, having first appeared in The Avengers, helps to move the flow along, with Johansson and Jackson again delivering top-notch performances with roles that have always felt tailor-made for them and never once phoned-in. Even Frank Grillo as Hydra mole Brock Rumlow throws further fuel onto the fire with a character that adds to Cap’s headaches without stuffing the film with villains like so many substandard Spider-Man sequels.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a triumph from start to finish, with Redford’s Pierce being the only black mark on an otherwise perfect film. The Winter Soldier succeeds on many other levels as well, due in no small part to a rousing score courtesy of Henry Jackman (Kingsman: The Secret ServiceBig Hero 6, X-Men: First Class) and another well-written script from Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, packed with plenty of excellent banter, characters who complement one another and easy-to-follow dialogue that never feels expository but rather serves the story well. This film is a great example of a sub-universe within the MCU that functions effortlessly on its own, and a movie that, even when removed from the MCU as a whole, still shines as an exceptional effort. If the upcoming Captain America: Civil War can top what The Winter Soldier achieved, we’re in for an incredible ride.

Bring it on.