“God Bless ‘America’”

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

There was a time, not that long ago, when the long Memorial Day Weekend at the end of May marked the official start of the lucrative summer movie season – that time of the year when the Hollywood studios roll out the big guns for popcorn-minded moviegoers who have nothing on their minds except having a good time.

Then, on May 3, 2002, when the first “Spider-Man” opened, summer movie season officially moved up by three weeks, and the studios kept the momentum going every year after that with the release of one highly-anticipated spectacle after another that first weekend of May. And most of the time, it was with a Marvel Comics-based superhero movie: “X2: X-Men United” in 2003, “Spider-Man 3” in 2007, “Iron Man” in 2008, “Thor” in 2011, “The Avengers” in 2012…you get the idea.

This year looked to be no different, with “The Amazing Spider Man 2” swinging into theaters on May 2. But when Disney jumped the gun by releasing “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” on April 4, they effectively changed the game by moving the summer movie season up another full month.

And for good reason, for not only is “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” a great way to kick-start the summer; not only is it far superior to its stylish, but otherwise routine predecessor from 2011 (“Captain America: The First Avenger”); and not only is it the best movie yet from Marvel Studios (which, starting with the first “Iron Man” in 2008, has been on an incredible roll); but it’s even – dare I say it – better than “The Avengers.”

That’s right, it’s better than “The Avengers,” that crowd-pleasing juggernaut from 2012 that grossed $1.5 billion worldwide. Not to knock “The Avengers,” but other than the way-cool gimmick of seeing Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and Captain America team up for the very first time on the big screen, the ensuing proceedings felt way too conventional by comic book movie standards, with our heroes saving the world from alien invaders during overlong, CGI-heavy, “Transformers”-style action sequences.

“The Winter Soldier” has a more grounded and provocative story, which alone makes it a better movie. As written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, “The Winter Soldier” finds Captain America – a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) – confronting a new enemy (or maybe it’s an old one), watching his back after the infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. and butting heads with the World Security Council head (Robert Redford), who favors the loss of freedom for the sake of national security. Then there’s his personal struggle as a war hero from the 40’s whose still trying to find his footing in the 21st Century.

But Markus and McFeely also infuse the smart, clever and twist-filled screenplay – which itself is based on a landmark 2005 comic book storyline – with an infectious sense of fun, wit, confidence and heart. In addition, directors Anthony and Joe Russo move the 2 hour and 16 minute proceedings along at a steady and engaging pace that favors character development and thrilling hand-to-hand combat over mind-numbing computer-generated special effects. The result is an exciting, suspenseful, humorous and extremely entertaining adventure that stands on its own terms while also pleasing fans of the previous Marvel movies and comics.

And with all the superheroes running around here, “The Winter Soldier” feels like a mini-“Avengers” movie unto itself. After playing Captain America two times before (or three times, if you include his choice cameo in “Thor: The Dark World’), Chris Evans seems much more confident and charming in Cap’s shoes, and he has great chemistry with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Anthony Mackie makes for a great addition to the big-screen Marvel superhero family as the Falcon, while Samuel L. Jackson has his best scenes yet in a Marvel movie as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury.

But if there’s a weak link in the chain, it’s with Robert Redford as the shady head of the World Security Council. While the casting of such an iconic big screen legend gives the comic book-based movie a fair amount of credibility (not that it needed it), he seems to be going through the motions with a rather uninspired performance. But as usual, don’t forget to stick around for the closing credits, which features not just one, but two bonus scenes that set the stage for future Marvel movies, including 2015’s highly-anticipated “Avengers” sequel, “Age of Ultron.”

Amazingly, “Captain American: The Winter Soldier” is the ninth Marvel Studios movie in six years. What’s even more amazing is that there’s not a dud in the bunch. Some are better than others, but “The Winter Soldier” is easily the best entry since the first “Iron Man.” It’s rousing, exciting, smart, more ambitious and more fun, it continues Marvel’s unprecedented roll and it raises the bar for how truly great a superhero movie can be. And if that’s not enough, it kicks off the 2014 summer movie season on April 4 with a message that’s loud and clear: “Amazing Spider-Man 2,” you’ve been served.

-Scott Mantz