Just as superheroes evolve throughout various graphic novel incarnations, so too must their on-screen counterparts and franchises. Arguably the most drastic metamorphosis stems from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Following in the wake of 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and a bevy of Marvel entries, the recently deployed film continues the legacy of Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans. “The Winter Soldier” drastically separates itself from the 2011 inaugural title, and not simply because of the modern setting. The 2014 blockbuster is gritty, increasingly complex, and further tied to Marvel lore. Proving that Marvel flicks mature with age, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” continues to exceed and accordingly set new precedents for forthcoming franchise productions.

Steve Rogers resides in Washington D.C., and though it’s been a few years since his rude awakening into the 21st century, he’s still acclimating to the environment. The Cap meets veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) during an early run, and the two quickly bond. Undoubtedly this derives from Wilson’s recommendation that Rogers check out Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” album. Oh yeah, and both vets are struggling to adjust to post-war life.

Captain_America_Winter_SoldierNatasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) soon calls upon Captain America to aid in reclaiming a ship hijacked by Algerian pirates. During the mission, Cap happens upon Black Widow retrieving data from onboard the ship, leading to a confrontation with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Fury explains that S.H.I.E.L.D. has begun compartmentalizing information rather than sharing mission objectives with the entire team. Though Rogers initially rejects the practice, Fury’s motives are validated after an attack on S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” despite concentrating on the titular hero, feels like a completely different film than its predecessor. While “The First Avenger” was a highly stylized World War II period piece, “The Winter Soldier” is more a political thriller, bordering on a whodunit. As the trailer suggests from Captain America decimating gargantuan helicarriers, S.H.I.E.L.D. struggles internally, and there’s an “X-Files” theme of distrust oozing throughout the framework.

The notion of blurring friend and foe is further presented in the juxtaposition of Rogers’ WWII fights and the present day combat. Previously the enemy had a clear face, and conflict was relatively black and white. However technological changes have led to an era where preventative measures are taken to stop crime. The good ol’ Cap questions this tenet, wondering why punishment shouldn’t follow the crime rather than precede the act. Yet when the seemingly almighty S.H.I.E.L.D. institution is compromised, Rogers must shed his past beliefs. While “The First Avenger” found him stating his mission to stop bullies, not simply shoot Nazis, he’s altered his mentality a tad. When Falcon (Mackie) asks how they identify their adversaries, Captain America explains “If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad.”

“The Winter Soldier” is truly one of Marvel Studios’ strongest flicks, largely owing to interconnectivity and relevance to modern times. Ok, so we don’t have helicarriers and badass flying suits (that we know of), but we do have ever-expanding NSA surveillance. Steve Rogers fundamentally disagrees with the proposed Project Insight, an initiative to fight crime before it occurs. The political intrigue and ulterior motives of high ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. officials feels refreshing, and poignant in light of constant real world political scandals. The clear cut dividers of “good” and “evil” are torn down. As S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) explains, “to build a really better world, sometimes that means you have to tear the old one down.” This pertains not only to the plot, but of the entire Marvel Universe; the days of straightforward heroes and villains are passed.

This relevance isn’t relegated to modern politics, as it seeps into Marvel lore. There’s a sense that everything is connected, and not only from the obligatory post-credits teaser. Re-watching “The First Avenger” offers a number of “ah-ha!” moments in which you’ll likely pick up on several tie-ins to later Marvel flicks and even the TV show. Fans of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” watch for a familiar face in “The Winter Soldier.” However, despite the strength of Cap’s latest flick, there’s a bit of a tradeoff. What “The Winter Soldier” gains for complexity and intrigue, it sacrifices a startlingly unique setting. The WWII era “The First Avenger” stood out among Marvel entries as a slower, delicate adventure. An update loses this quality, and “The Winter Soldier” falls prey to the Marvel formula. That being said, the Marvel recipe is really a framework upon which self-differentiating movies are built, and “The Winter Soldier” benefits from faster pace, riveting plot, and superb acting. Another Marvel masterpiece, the biggest flaw is the long wait until “Captain America 3.” At least we’re assured it’s in development.