Those of you properly hooked on Avenger juice had better enjoy the latest fix while you can. There won't be another film in the extended franchise until next summer's Avengers: Age of Ultron. Still, Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes with a very decent pedigree.
Proper connoisseurs of the form know that Captain America: The First Avenger was easily the most underrated film in the sequence. A few lunatics share your current correspondent's view that it was the best of the bunch. A little bit steam-punk, much at home to old-school serial romping, the picture dared to take place largely in the second World War and to foreswear any mass destructions of Manhattan.
Sadly, the new film allows fewer rough edges to escape the template honed by the Iron Man pictures and Joss Whedon's all-conquering Avengers Assemble.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), former weakling, current ambulatory mountain, is now largely at home in the 21st century. Taking a few weaving jabs at the Patriot Act and related US state paranoia, The Winter Soldier finds our hero getting embroiled in a sinister attempt to protect freedom through the curtailment of freedom.
Before too long – in the style of every second superhero flick – the man with the shield is branded an enemy of the state. On his side we have the permanently chilled Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and (for a while, anyway) gruff, quip-friendly Shield director Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson). Among those ranged against the Cap contingent are the sinister Hydra organisation and a one-armed, but still lethal assassin known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).
The film does sometimes succumb to Marvel’s already-wearying addiction for exhaustingly over-realised effects sequences. The enormous “helicarrier” warships manage to outstay their welcome before they’ve fully drifted into shot. Images that would have blown minds a decade ago now feel like contractually dictated sops to supposed meagre attention spans.
For the most part, however, The Winter Soldier – though never as agreeably dusty as The First Avenger – tips its shield to older, less digitally engorged schools of suspense cinema. The presence of Robert Redford as an ambiguous high-level spook reminds us of the plot's borrowings from the conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor, while a brief shot of the Watergate complex references Redford's All the President's Men.
Of course there is, here, a great deal more action than we found in those 1970s pictures, but Anthony and Joe Russo (who cut their teeth on Arrested Development) make sure to keep those sequences rough, kinetic and uncomfortable. For all its massive, airborne fortresses, The Winter Soldier is, at heart, a punchy thriller of the old school. Michael Mann will recognise some borrowings in the ordered disorder of the cacophonous gunfights. The car chases feature more than enough clang and clatter.
None of this would matter if the cast were not up to scratch. The good news is that Evans still gives the impression of being in on a joke – the cleanness of his cut is pushed to comic hyperbole – and Johansson, though given fewer gags than in Avengers Assemble, continues to make the case for a Modesty Blaise remake.
The film-makers do fail to follow up on a few enticing loose ends from the opening episode: a meeting with Rogers's now ancient love interest, played beneath layers of geriatric make-up by Hayley Atwell, is thrown away in unforgivably perfunctory fashion. But Marvel Studios has again demonstrated its seriousness of purpose. There are no great masterpieces in this absurdly lucrative stream of marquee crowd-pleasers, but none of the films has been a dud either.
Just as well. They’ll still be making these things when most of us are dead.