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Pop Stuff: Captain America: Winter Soldier

What I've been reading, watching, hearing, etc.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier 

After the so-so "Iron Man 3" and entertaining but inconsequential "Thor: The Dark World," Marvel turns things up a notch with the second Captain America film.

This is the best second installment of any of the Marvel movies, having the advantage of being able to place its hero in an entirely different context from the first Cap film. We saw some of Cap's interactions with the 21st century in "The Avengers" movie, but here the "man out of time" theme has more space for development, and it serves as a commentary about what's happened in, and to, our world since World War II.

Cap is the heroic symbol of the Greatest Generation (at least in the Marvel Universe), and represents the American ideals of fairness and freedom at their best. But modern-day America in the film looks much like our own -- a nation obsessed with security, often at the expense of liberty. The film's political commentary isn't terribly sophisticated and it's not at all heavy-handed. But it's there, and it works, making this -- S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers and the debut of the high-flying Falcon aside -- the most realistic and down-to-earth Marvel film to date.

Chris Evans strikes a nice balance between bemusement and grim disappointment as he learns more and more about what's become of his country over the 60 years or so he's been in deep freeze. In a funny scene early on, we see him jotting down things to learn about and catch up on, that he's missed between 1945 and 2014: the moon landing, Thai food, Marvin Gaye albums. But he can also lecture his "younger" colleagues like they're ignorant whipper-snappers, getting in a heated debate with Nick Fury about a plan to take out threats in death-from-above drone fashion "before they become threats."

There's more suspense than super-heroics here, though there are plenty of those, too. The key villains here aren't super powered, but they are super evil. And though Evans holds our focus, there are nice supportive performances, too. Samuel L. Jackson gets plenty of screen time, and plenty of action as Fury. Same with Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow, who has nice chemistry with Evans. Anthony Mackie is good and likeable as Sam Wilson, the Falcon, acting as a foil and equal partner -- not an obnoxious sidekick -- to Cap. And Robert Redford, after many years, gets to play a politician again -- this one with formidable power and skills.

With Marvel making so many films with so many characters, there's a danger of all these films becoming repetitious, of losing the individuality of these different heroes and what makes them tick. This time out, at least, they've made a film that stands on its own, that comments on aspects of our world, and provides some genuine intrigue and suspense.