Captain America: The Winter Soldier sidesteps this pitfall by saving up its central and moving twist until well into the second hour, setting up a finale that's more about the recovery of a relationship than the decimation of a cityscape. The identity of the genetically-engineered Winter Soldier (which will be no mystery to most fans, but nonetheless plays like a surprise reveal) ties Anthony and Joe Russo's second chapter poignantly back into its 1940s-set predecessor without alienating newbies.
Despite featuring three Avengers in lead roles, Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels tonally distinct from its Marvel forerunners, more spy thriller than superhero sequel.
The time jump that ended The First Avenger allows for a sequel that feels closer to a reboot, throwing Chris Evans's Steve Rogers into a brave new world in which keeping his head down and following orders no longer flies. After a very personal attack on S.H.I.E.L.D., he allies with the now company-employed Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) to face down the mysterious Winter Soldier, but rapidly comes to realise that the powers behind his new mission are far murkier than anything he encountered in wartime.
While the casting of Robert Redford feels engineered to add a sense of 1970s political thriller pedigree, the paranoia feels largely theoretical - real-world concerns about homeland security impinging on civil liberties are unsurprisingly underdeveloped. The Manchurian Candidate is briefly invoked in a chilling brainwashing sequence, but this too is a passing glance rather than a fully explored subplot. What really sing are the fight sequences, choreographed with brutal elegance and focused almost exclusively on hand-to-hand combat over superhuman spectacle.
For all the serious themes, there's a tongue-in-cheek quality at play; masks are removed with such frequency that the act of unveiling becomes a running gag. The Captain himself remains something of a blank slate, interesting only in relation to other characters, but Evans bounces well off Johansson and particularly Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson, a fellow veteran with his own superhero alter-ego.
Despite featuring three Avengers in lead roles, Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels tonally distinct from its Marvel forerunners, more spy thriller than superhero sequel. Trading in the lush period specificity of The First Avenger for a stripped-down, glossy aesthetic, it's a grounded and character-rich midpoint for Phase Two.