Transcendence is the point at which a superhero film moves beyond the confines of its home genre and firmly plants its feet in another. The most frequently cited example is 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, a modern crime drama that just so happens to star a vigilante dressed as a bat and a homicidal clown. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER makes a successful leap onto the field of the political and espionage thriller while still delivering all the expected flavors of the Marvel Studios brand.

Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, the titular Captain and the one Avenger who can never go home again. Time travel is not yet a luxury afforded to the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Steve, a member of “The Greatest Generation,” has been working for S.H.I.E.L.D. since he and his pals turned back Loki’s army in the Battle of New York. It appears, though, that Rogers works for his new employer not because he believes in the clandestine organization’s mission and principles, but because he honestly hasn’t thought of what else he could do with his life.

Steve Rogers, who enlisted to join America’s reactive fight against active aggressors, finds himself at odds with his boss, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) over the country’s new preventative approach to counter-terrorism. This prompts Steve to ask difficult questions in the beginning of the film that carry through as its ambitious central themes. This movie is not just about the latest adventure of a man in a flag costume, but the very real issues that arise when vital concepts like freedom and privacy are voluntarily given up for the promise of safety.

Promises are only as good as the people making them and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is rife with the tension that comes from the protagonists and audience not being able to trust anyone. Even Nick Fury, a man unreasonably comfortable with secrets and double crosses, is on alert. Black Widow, played by the returning Scarlett Johansson is also letdown by her adherence to need-to-know protocol.

The Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely script, based in part on comics written by Ed Brubaker, effectively delivers a straightforward assertion of its complex, dramatic themes without being heavy handed. The story doesn’t shy away from its post-Patriot Act inspirations on how power gained through paranoia can be corrupted and wielded with extreme malice. Set against the fantastical backdrop of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the impact is increased exponentially.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo build an intricate structure atop the solid foundation laid down by the script. The pacing fuels the tension while picking optimal points at which to release some of the pressure. The humor, which is a hallmark of Marvel movies, is very dry and more sarcastic than usual. This gives the film and its characters some real bite. It is a manifestation of the changing attitudes of the main cast.

The Russo brothers, best known for their work on NBC’s COMMUNITY, make an emphatic statement that they were the right choice to challenge Captain America in the modern world. Weighing his old school idealism against new school cynicism isn’t the only trick they pull off. The action is nothing short of incredible with systematic takedowns of pirates, aerial assaults, and some of the best street level gunfights since HEAT. The fight choreography is particularly impressive with hand-to-hand combat that is a new best for the genre.

The conflict between protection and freedom is perfect for a modern Captain America story. It also tees up Chris Evans for his best performance as Rogers. The inspired soldier still does the right thing, as he always has and will, but now carries a sad curiosity regarding his place in the world. He is physically and emotionally confronted via The Winter Soldier, an antagonistic trigger man who hauntingly calls back to Steve’s past. Evans is great in all phases of the performance, including the resilience Rogers shows to press on no matter how alone he may feel.

Scarlett Johansson really shines in this turn as Black Widow a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff. The script and direction help, but it is Johansson’s delivery and facial expressions that add new layers to the character we first met in IRON MAN 2. There is an unfamiliar, friendly warmth to Romanoff this time and yet she still keeps everyone at arm’s length. It’s clear that we may not approve of everything she’s done in her espionage career, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t want her in our corner.

Samuel L. Jackson finally gets to show how and why Nick Fury is America’s top spy while Marvel newcomer Anthony Mackie makes a strong bid for rookie of the year honors as Sam Wilson, better known to comic fans as The Falcon. Wilson is a Captain America fan and a fellow veteran who holds his own in action beats while providing a few laughs when they’re needed most.

The legendary Robert Redford is an invaluable presence in the film as Alexander Pierce, Fury’s mentor and a leader on the World Security Council that oversees S.H.I.E.L.D. Redford could have helped the movie achieve its political thriller feel just by showing up, but he really sells the perspective of his character. His is the performance that grounds the film in hyper reality.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is yet another highlight for producer Kevin Feige and his executive team. The film proposes and delivers high stakes that will have major ramifications on the universe in which it is set. Its ambition is exceeded only by its execution, making this CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel a credit to the genre from which it transcends and a triumph for Marvel.