Because Captain America: The First Avenger took place mostly in World War II, when Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) turned from wimp to hero as he fought off the Red Skull and the HYDRA faction of the Nazi army (or were the Nazis merely a part of HYDRA?), and ended with Cap thawed out just in time for the 21st century and The Avengers, it figured that The Winter Soldier would be something different than Joe Johnston's 1940s adventure. But what's surprising is how different - and how much better - the sequel is.
At first, I thought The Winter Soldier could be called The Avengers 1.5, as it feels more like a sequel to that hit, and definitely seems to set up a number of plot points that will be relevant to the next Avengers film - or not. (This is the ever-shifting Marvel Universe, after all.) But as the plot unfolds, it reveals more and more connections to the first Captain America, and the end result is quite satisfying.
The film opens up some time after the events of The Avengers. Rogers appears to be treading water as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s go-to superhero, or as he calls himself, "Nick Fury's janitor". But the story quickly darkens into an authentic political thriller, as Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) finds himself attacked by police officers, and soon informs Rogers not to trust anyone. The inspired casting of Robert Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s government overseer cements the film's status as an homage to '70s paranoid suspensers - in particular Redford's Three Days of the Condor.
What follows is a series of plot twists, some surprising (to the point where they turn the whole Avengers/S.H.I.E.L.D. thing on its ear) and some well-telegraphed (who is that mysterious "Winter Soldier"? You have essentially one guess). But they all serve a delightfully pointed storyline that's a welcome contrast to its enjoyable, if kind of forgettable, predecessor.
Marvel understands that Captain America isn't all that interesting a character, and that Evans is fine but lacks the charisma of Robert Downey Jr. or even Chris Hemsworth. So they team him up with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Fury, and newcomer Anthony Mackie as Falcon - a nod to another old Marvel superhero. Together this quartet - later joined by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Cobie Smulders - becomes a sort of "mini-Avengers"; The Winter Soldier is very much an ensemble film.
The directorial choice is unexpected: the Russo brothers are best known for their work on the sitcom Community. Their previous features? The little-seen crime comedy Welcome to Collinwood and the little-loved Owen Wilson vehicle You, Me and Dupree. I don't know how they landed this blockbuster gig, but they do a great job at balancing plot, character, and action on several fronts.