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Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is everything a comic-book superhero movie could hope to be: smart, original, exciting and funny. It is vastly superior to the first movie featuring the title character—and not just because it draws on one of the most admired stories in the Marvel Comics canon. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have used Ed Brubaker’s concept as a springboard for bold new ideas and infused their work with a bracing sense of humor, along with a serious strain of social relevance. In the hands of directors Anthony and Joe Russo—best known for their work on the TV comedy Community—the movie feels fresh and vibrant. As icing on the cake, The Winter Soldier provides a great part for Robert Redford, who knocks it out of the park. There’s never a sense of business-as-usual here, making it one of the best sequels of all time.

One of the writers’ most impressive feats is dealing with Captain America’s adjustment from the 1940s to the present day, which they do with extraordinary economy (and comedic savvy) in the opening scene of the picture and barely have to refer to again.

At its heart, The Winter Soldier is a political thriller in which our hero is forced to question his loyalties for the first time. What’s more, the movie puts us in the same position, following the admonition of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to trust no one. This throws us all off balance, but the canny filmmakers execute their story twists with skill and panache. I’m deliberately being vague about the details because, having read nothing ahead of time, it all came as a surprise to me, and I loved it.

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Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The action scenes are equally original and exciting, from a deadly car chase to a furious fight scene set in a glass elevator. Whether it’s hand-to-hand combat or spectacular visual-effects-driven showdowns, once again the movie goes above and beyond the expected and never loses sight of the emotional stakes in every scene. Nothing ever seems arbitrary: every bit of action is tied to the story and the fate of its leading characters.

The cast is uniformly fine, with Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Cobie Smulders, and Frank Grillo delivering the goods, scene by scene. But there’s particular pleasure in watching the onetime Sundance Kid tackle the most unusual role of his long and storied screen career. I can’t say more without spilling surprises, which I refuse to do.

This is blockbuster entertainment at its best. If you’re wise, you won’t read about it ahead of time and let it work its magic; you won’t be disappointed.