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By Jacoby Bancroft

“You hold a gun on everyone on Earth and call it protection. This isn’t freedom. This is fear.” Ladies and gentleman, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” actually has something to say.

Marvel movies have a tendency to drift into light-hearted territory, delivering big-budgeted popcorn spectacles the whole family can enjoy, but never expressing any deeper meaning or significance. “The Winter Soldier” breaks that cycle with a clear message it tries to get across to its audience. On the surface, it is an extremely entertaining blockbuster, but on a deeper level, it is a superhero film that surprisingly delivers some of the most socially relevant commentary since “The Dark Knight.”

It would have been easy for the movie to focus on Captain America’s struggle to adapt to all of the shiny new futuristic advances the world has gone through since the 1940’s, but thankfully the “fish out of water” gags are kept to a minimum, and instead, the film examines the much more serious issue of Cap’s outdated ideals regarding justice and honor. The idea of safety being more important than freedom is a running theme throughout the movie, and it is easy to draw parallels to what is happening in the real world today with the National Security Agency and phone-tapping scandals.

Since it was announced, “The Winter Soldier” has been marketed as a political thriller instead of a superhero film, and it is easy to see why. There is always an ambush, always someone to distrust, always something that is not quite what it seems, which leads to plenty of twists and turns to keep the audience engaged and interested in the story.

The film is also a complete game-changer for Marvel’s overall canon, and the ramifications will be felt in all the Marvel movies going forward. Recent Marvel films, such as “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World,” suffered from feeling more like standalone stories instead of continuations in a connected cinematic universe, so it is refreshing to see a Marvel film that suggests long-lasting consequences. Since the first “Iron Man,” Marvel has slowly been establishing S.H.I.E.L.D. as the noble and heroic government organization which operates secretly to save the day from all sorts of villainy and evil, but “The Winter Soldier” effectively makes the audience question that image.

With the exception of Loki, Marvel’s biggest problem with its films tends to be developing engaging and memorable antagonists for the heroes to fight (see: Malekith the Dark Elf in “The Dark World,” or any bad guy from the Iron Man films). Though the Winter Soldier is in the title, the real Big Bad of the film is governmental control, a concept that Captain America cannot beat with a smack from his shield, and a presence that is more frightening than any other past Marvel villain.

Basically acting as the film’s biggest thug, the Winter Soldier himself feels more like an afterthought, though those with a little bit of comic book knowledge know that his story continues on after the events of the film. This movie acts as more of an introduction to his character (or reintroduction for those who already know his identity), leaving the door open for expansion in future films.

Captain America is the star of the film, and Chris Evans has never been better as the defrosted World War II veteran, but the movie also gives plenty of chances for its supporting characters to shine. Black Widow and Nick Fury feel like actual human beings in this movie instead of underdeveloped cardboard cutouts, and The Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie, steals almost every scene that he is in.

Anchored by strong performances, conveying a topical message and delivering some of the best action sequences of any Marvel movie yet, “The Winter Soldier” is a rare sequel in that it surpasses its predecessor in almost every way. Marvel’s brand has been unstoppable so far, and one could wonder when the studio will start running out of steam, but if it continues churning out smart, thrilling adventures like “The Winter Soldier,” it will have no problem staying the dominant force in superhero movies.

Jacoby Bancroft can be reached at