Once More Unto The Bleach: Part 3

Okay, it’s been a while but here it is: Once More Unto The Bleach Part 3!!!

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If you haven’t read the last two installments, here’s what this blog feature is about: I’m going through each season of the long-running, legendary anime series Bleach–which is available entirely for free on Hulu (in Japanese w/English subtitles)–and writing about it. I do this because I want to see what attracts people to shonen (boys’ action) anime that run on for years and years. I’m only covering the seasons that are adapted directly from the original manga, because even in a shorter anime, filler is a killer™ and I don’t want to slog through it. The title of this feature comes from the fact that this is my third attempt at making it through the series, after trying to get into it through the English dub a couple of times before.. The 3rd season, “Soul Society: The Rescue,” has a lot to cover, so let’s get to it!

Last season, “The Entry,” involved Ichigo (Masakazu Morita), Orihime ((Yuki Matsuoka), Chad (Hiroki Yasumoto), Uryu (Noriaki Sugiyama), talking cat Yoruichi (Shiro Saito) and Rukon District native Ganju (Wataru Takagi) blasting their way into Seireitei, the home of the Soul Society, to rescue Rukia (Fumiko Orikasa) from execution. They got in successfully, but were split up as a result, with Chad stoically fighting on his own, Orihime and Uryu trying to stay out of sight, Yoriuchi prowling the rooftops and Ichigo and Ganju bumbling their way into taking Soul Reaper Hanataro (Koki Miyata) hostage.

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(Left to Right: Chad, Orihime, Ichigo, Ganju, Hanataro and Uryu)

Ichigo wound up fighting Lieutenant Renji Abarai (Kentaro Ito), who had helped bring Rukia back to await execution. After a long, epic battle, Ichigo won (barely) and was admonished by Renji, who it turns out had known and looked out for Rukia since they were kids in one of the poorest areas of the Rukon District, to save her from death. Ichigo’s defeat of Rukia was so alarming to the top of Soul Society that all captains of the 13 Guard Squads were sent out to pursue them.

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(L to R: Byakuya and Renji)

The next morning, 5th Squad captain Sosuke Aizen (Sho Hayami) was found brutally murdered, nailed high up on a building with his Zanpakuto driven right through him. Naturally, this freaks out the rest of the Soul Reapers, with Aizen’s lieutenant Momo Hinamori (Kumi Sakuma) lashing out and attacking 3rd Squad captain Gin Ichimaru (Koji Yusa), who she had been warned not to trust by her old friend, 10th Squad captain Toshiro Hitsugaya (Romi Park). Ichimaru’s lieutenant and Momo’s other friend Izuru Kira (Takahiro Sakurai) was sympathetic but refused to let her attack his captain, leading to a fight between the two of them that was stopped by Hitsugaya, who ordered them both restrained and imprisoned.

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(L to R: Momo, Hitsugaya, Izuru)

Meanwhile, on their way to rescue Rukia, Ichigo and Ganju–and later, Hanataro–were pursued by 11th Squad captain Kenpachi Zaraki (Fumihiko Tachiki), easily the strongest person inside Soul Society, who eventually located them along with his lieutenant Yachiru Kusajishi (Hisayo Mochizuki), who’s also incredibly strong despite being around 8 years old. Kenpachi and Ichigo have an enormous fight that ended in a standstill with them both collapsing. Ichigo is then rescued by Yoruichi, who spirits him away to a cave and revealed that he is actually a she (Satsuki Yukino) who can merely transform into a cat. Of course, when transforming back into a human, she’s completely naked, which led to some great comedy between her and Ichigo.

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(L to R: Zaraki and Yachiru)

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(L to R: Yoruichi…and her real form)

Not gonna lie, folks, I did not see this reveal coming one bit. But it works because it upends our conception of Yoruichi as well as provide the series with a strong female mentor for Ichigo. On top of that, Yukino brings a nice sense of energy and purpose to her role, which helps sell Yoruichi’s authority very well.

Meanwhile, Ganju and Hanataro made their way to the prison Rukia is in, but upon seeing her for the first time, Ganju freaked out. It was revealed last season that Ganju’s older brother, Kaien, was killed by the Soul Reapers. A flashback by Rukia showed that Kaien was actually her former lieutenant and her mentor. But after his wife died at the hands of a Hollow, he went crazed and went off to fight it alone. Rukia and their captain, Jushiro Ukitake (Hideo Ishikawa), followed on foot. They saw the Hollow fuse with Kaien and attack them, leading Rukia to stab Kaien in self-defense, which killed the Hollow and brought Kaien back briefly before he died. A young Ganju witnessed Rukia bring Kaien’s body home and admitting to killing him.

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(L to R: Ukitake, Kaien)

Ganju, however, didn’t learn of this. Enraged, he almost attacked her, but was interrupted when Rukia’s brother, 6th Squad captain Byakuya (Ryotaro Okiayu), arrives and attacks him. While fighting him, Byakuya releases his Shikai and nearly kills him in the process. Ukitake appeared to try to dissaude him from doing that–as it’s a class offense to do so within Soul Society–but Byakuya told him that with war declared, it’s okay.

Okay, now to explain Shikai: as Yoruichi tells Ichigo while they’re in hiding, there are two other forms a Zanpakuto can attain if its welder is powerful enough to obtain them. The first form is the Shikai, which can be activated by the Soul Reaper learning the name of their Zanpakuto and saying an incantation including the name. Ichigo’s Shikai is what was responsible for turning his zanpakuto, Zangetsu, from its initial katana-esque form into the huge blade it stays as. Byakuya’s Shikai causes his zanpakuto, Senbonzakura (which translates into Thousand Cherry Blossoms), to scatter into a thousand tiny blades that look like flower fragments and proceed to slice up his opponent from all angles.

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(L to R: Byakuya’s Shinkai; Hitsugaya’s Shinkai)

The effect of Byakuya’s Shikai nearly killed Ganju, but just as Byakuya was about to finish him off, Ichigo arrived to battle him. Rukia, for her part, wasn’t pleased at all to see him, telling him he should have stayed in the human world; Ichigo responded that she can yell at him later after he beats Byakuya. Just before Byakuya uses his Shikai on Ichigo, Yoruichi whipped a bandage around Senbonzakura, stopping it from releasing itself. She then greeted Byakuya to the shock of everyone else; Byakuya said it’s been a long time since anyone has seen her and he alludes to her having been in charge of some part of Soul Society at some point or other.

As Season 3 begins, Yoruichi knocks Ichigo out by punching anesthetic into his wounds and spirits him away from Byakuya using Flash Step, a move that enables whoever’s using it to teleport really fast. Rukia passes out from all the strain and Byakuya leaves in a huff. While Ukitake has his lieutenants tend to Ganju and Rukia, Yoruichi takes Ichigo back to a network of caves underneath Soul Society that look like the area underneath Urahara’s shop.

She explains to Ichigo that there’s another form to Zanpakuto besides Shikai: Bankai, which usually manifests as some sort of gigantic monster or other form that inflicts a tremendous amount of damage. Although it normally takes ten years for a Soul Reaper to unlock Bankai, Yoruichi tells Byakuya that Ichigo will reach that level in three days in order to save Rukia from execution. Using a special device made by Urahara, who is also revealed to have been a Soul Reaper and a Captain the same time Yoruichi was, over a century ago, Zangetsu manifests and agrees to help Ichigo obtain Bankai in three days.

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(L to R: Mayuri…and his Bankai)

While Ichigo trains harder than ever before, Orihime and Uryu, after being sidelined for most of last season, are revealed to have largely stuck to the shadows, stealing Soul Reaper uniforms to blend in and fighting 7th Squad member Jirobo (Kazuhiro Nakata), an enormous man who it turns out is the brother of Seireitei gatekeeper Jidanbo, shown last season. Orihime manages to attack him with Tsubaki (Toshiyuki Morikawa), the most warlike of her Shun Shun Rikka, but as she does not have killing intent behind her attack, Jirobo easily cripples Tsubaki and manages to attack Orihime before Uryu drives him away.

Uryu and Orihime make some more progress, unaware that they’re being stalked by 12th Division captain and absolute psychopath Mayuri Kurotsuchi (Ryusei Nakao), who eventually gets their attention by having them being confronted by members of his squad right before he blows them up and confronts them directly. In a terrifying monologue, he reveals his surprise at Uryu being a Quincy, as he thought he had violently tortured and experimented on the last one, Uryu’s grandfather. Enraged, Uryu confronts him head-on in an incredibly tense battle. This fight provides the best showcase yet of Quincy powers and shows just how skilled Uryu really is. However, he’s out of his depth when it comes to fighting against Mayuri who has leagues of power over him. The toll their battle wages and the final cost Uryu winds up paying is a genuinely shocking and inspiring moment.

Meanwhile in prison, Momo is given a letter from Aizen addressed to her by Hitsugaya. Reading it, Momo is shocked to learn that, according to Aizen’s own words, he was killed by Hitsugaya. Enraged, Momo escapes her cell and confronts Hitsugaya, intending to kill him. Hitsugaya, for his part, has confronted Gin and Izuru, revealing his suspicions about the two of them relating to Aizen’s death. Hitsugaya fades off Momo’s attack and directly confronts Gin by unleashing his own Shikai, an enormous ice dragon that results in not only some impressive visuals but leads to a truly impressive fight that reveals just how powerful Soul Reaper captains truly are. A similar fight between Renji and Byakuya is even more impressive, with the creative designs of the Shikai leading to some awe-inspiring images.

Rukia’s execution is moved back one more day, and while Hitsugaya and his lieutenant Rangiku Matsumoto (Kaya Matsutani) rush to Central 46, the hub of the leaders of Soul Society, to stop the execution and Ukitake tells his lieutenants that their only option left is to destroy the Sokyoku, the powerful spear that is used to execute Soul Reapers, Rukia is brought to the execution spot and levitated by blocks to await being killed by the Sokyoku’s spirit form, a giant phoenix made of fire.

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(L to R: Rangiku and the Sokyoku)

As Rukia calmly accepts her fate, the Sokyoku charges at her, only to be stopped by…Ichigo, who is flying thanks to a device given to him by Yoriuchi and using his zanpakuto to repel the flames. Astonishing all below, he frees Rukia, lowers them both to the ground and challenges Byakuya to a fight.

There’s a whole lot more I haven’t mentioned, but trust me, this season sees things get really complicated as more and more Soul Reapers are introduced and a wide circle of intrigue widens outside of the immediate attempt to rescue Rukia. Remarkably, the show manages to deal with this all successfully, never giving any character short shrift and even helping to shed light on a lot of their personalities.

As I’ve said, the animation is particularly stellar with the introduction of the awesome Bankai sequences, which result in some truly epic creative fights. Furthermore, the pairing off of characters into individual arcs helps viewers get to know them and identify with them and for me, the strengthening of the bonds between Uryu and Orihime is particularly enjoyable, as well as Ichigo learning from Yoruichi, proving that he hasn’t conquered everything that easily.

Of the now greatly expanded cast, Morita still provides a strong anchor, giving us insight into Ichigo’s thoughts and feelings as he proceeds on his quest; his wonderful banter with Yukino and  Takagi is also a great highlight. Being largely isolated from everyone else, Orikasa has to give Rukia a LOT of heavy lifting in order to sell her introspection and she does, giving Rukia’s thoughts and memories a great layer of heartbreak.

As the incredibly creepy Kurotsuchi, Nakao basically gives us this show’s version of Hannibal Lecter, and his haughty attitude is terrific to square off against the righteous Sugiyama. Koji Yusa once again excels as the terrifying Ichimaru and Hitsugaya’s opposition is given wonderful stern life by Romi Park (best known as the Japanese Edward Elric in both versions of  Fullmetal Alchemist).

The scripting, as I said, combines all of these characters and more in a perfectly balanced plotline. It reminds me a lot of Game of Thrones‘ writing in the sense that, while you may be unable to recall who some of these characters are, you’re invested in their struggles whenever they appear on screen. Series director Noriyuki Abe and his time utilize their considerable talents and Shiro Sagisu’s excellent score in order to bring the show to exciting, frenetic, breathtaking life.

The stretching out of this arc to two seasons could’ve been risky, but I’m glad they went that way, as just when one threat ends, another one pops up and it majorly defines the tone of the series going forward. It’s terrific stuff and I recommend it.

As I said up top, I’m skipping the filler, so now I’m watching Season 6, “The Arrancar.” It’s proving exciting so far and I can’t wait to tell you about it. A special thanks to the Bleach Wiki, where all the above images are taken from. See you next time!

 

 

 

 

 

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Temporary Shutdown

Hey guys, just a quick note: we’re going dark for the next week or so over here. I’ve got exams and moving out of an apartment to contend with, so it’s gonna be pretty busy in the future.

But don’t worry, I’ll be back soon and with some exciting announcements about this blog, new places to find my writing and more! So stay tuned.

My Free Comic Book Day 2014

Free Comic Book Day

For those of you who aren’t aware of Free Comic Book Day aka the greatest secular holiday on the calandar that’s not Halloween, let me fill you in. Since 2002, every year on the first Saturday in May, Diamond, the comic book industry’s largest (and basically only) distributor, coordinates with all major and minor publishers as possible to produce books that are given away for free in stores for the purpose of providing a nice treat for regular readers as well as hopefully luring lapsed readers and new readers back in.

Additionally, since comic book stores voluntarily operate at a loss by participating in the event–they still have to pay the publishers for the books after all–they offer pretty wide discounts in-store to get people to buy something else as long as they’re there. It’s worked pretty well, honestly, and is a big reason for the changing face of fandom away from being overwhelmingly the nerdy white guy (like, y’know, me).

Finally at a point where I could find a way to a store and knew about multiple stores in my area this year, I went whole hog and decided to do a FCBD crawl: that is, going directly from one shop to the next. I went to two with a friend this past Saturday and, yeah, that’s not a big number, but the day was great regardless.

Because this is easily the most attendance a comic shop sees all year, my friend and I knew we had to leave early, so we go ton the bus at 9 AM. We arrived at Vault of Midnight–which you’ll recall I wrote in February for the Rapidian–about a half-hour before opening to stand in a pretty decent line and felt thoroughly embarrassed as we were two of the few people not really in costume. However, my friend was wearing an awesome Godzilla shirt and I was wearing my Captain America shirt because I went and saw The Winter Soldier later, which you can read my review of it here, so it was all good.

Vault of Midnight only allowed its customers to take 3 of the free books, which is perfectly understandable. After all, this is the number one day where kids come in to comic shops as well as parents with kids. I grabbed Fantagraphics’ Uncle Scrooge & Donald Duck: A Matter of Some Gravity by Don Rosa, a preview of the publisher’s upcoming Don Rosa Library, which will reprint all of Rosa’s Disney comics in chronological order and begins this July. I also got the #0 issue of Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, IDW’s version of…exactly what it sounds like, and the hotly-anticipated Dark Horse book, which contained three stories, headlined by an Avatar: The Last Airbender story written by Gene Luen Yang and drawn by Faith Erin Hicks. (I’ll review those and my other purchases below.) While at Vault, enthused by the spirit of the day–and the fact that my tax rebate had just hit the day before–I took the opportunity to get caught up on Action Comics and Superman (the only super comics I read at the moment that aren’t Captain America) and took a chance, since it was $10, and bought the just-released first volume of Sex Criminals, which made untold numbers of best-of lists last year, was nominated for two Eisner Awards, and which I can’t wait to dive into.

After that, my friend and I walked all the way over to the Eastown neighborhood of Grand Rapids–about a 2-3 mile hike from where we were downtown–and to Argos Book Shop, a lovely little place that reminded me so much of all the used bookstores I romped through when I was in New England a few years ago, but if they had an explicit SF/fantasy/comics bent. There, I picked up Bongo Comics’ Spongebob Freestyle Funnies (yup, they make Spongebon comics!), the Biongo Comics sampler itself, full of Simpsons stories, the Kaboom! Summer Blast full of comics by the kids’ imprint of Boom! Studios and a 100-page digest of Archie stories (hey, it was 100 pages).

After that, my friend introduced me to a really great hot dog place here in town called Crazy Charlie’s, where one can purchase a hot dog, fries and a large shake for under $10. Nice capper to a wonderful morning. Then we went back to campus and wen tour separate ways, with me hanging around my apartment for a while before heading off again to see The Winter Soldier, grab myself some nice Jimmy John’s after, and,on my first connecting bus back, managed to have a great conversation with a stranger about the books we had picked up today and about anime of various sorts (I told him how I review Bleach, and he told me of the arcs I should skip. Thanks guy!). It took a while before I got back to my apartment but the whole great, wonderful day was very much worth it.

I mean, getting free comics, spending money on even more awesome comics, delicious food, and a great movie? And also hanging out with a friend and making a new one for the duration of a bus ride? How cool is that?

If you’ve stuck with me so far, here are the reviews of all the free comics I got!

Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: A Matter of Some Gravity by Don Rosa (Fantagraphics)–given how much I love Disney Duck comics, I knew I’d like this and I was proven right. The title story involves Magica De Spell stealing Scrooge’s Number One Dime, as she often does, by performing a spell that reorients Donald and Scrooge’s personal gravity: they now stick to walls and other sideways surfaces instead of floors. This leads to a huge chase, which leads to some absolutely wonderful, hilarious visuals that will make you turn the book in all sorts of directions to follow the action. Rosa, a longtime Disney cartoonist now retired due to eye problems and upset with less-than-stellar working conditions, wrings every bit of potential out of this story and the other one reprinted here, “Sign of the Triple Distelfink,” which reveals that Gladstone Gander, Donald’s ever-lucky cousin, is actually unlucky on his birthday and when he tries to avoid a party being thrown for him, all sorts of slapsticks ensues. There’s also a really nice afterward by Rosa where he explains how he got involved with Disney comics and reveals the inspiration behind the two stories. If this is what the Don Rosa Library will look like, consider me onboard.

Transformers vs. G.I. Joe by Tom Scioli and John Barber (IDW)–This isn’t the first time such a concept–giant robots fighting army guys–has been explored, of course, but it’s the first time IDW has done it and they went all-out bonkers in the best, possible way. The story–written by Scioli and Barber, with all art handled by Scioli–opens with Starscream chasing Bumblebee, then turns into a massive, sprawling tale of the Joes fighting Cobra (as many Joes as possible show up), with Snake Eyes coming up against Starscream and thinking he’s a Cobra weapon. That sounds pretty boilerplate, I realize, but Scioli’s absolutely astonishing art tells a different story. For one thing, it feels like you’ve stepped right back to the late-’70s or early-’80s days of comics, with Scioli channeling as much of Jack Kirby as is possible for one human to do. A nice little touch is Starscream and Bumblebee speaking in sinewaves with translated text underneath, which really sells the alienness of the Transformers as compared to the earthbound stuff with the Joes and Cobra. If this sort of charming, exciting throwback is what the rest of the upcoming miniseries is, then I’m pumped–and I’m a guy who HATES crossovers and event stories. Super recommended.

Kaboom! Summer Blast (Kaboom!)–Over the past couple years, Boom!’s kid imprint, Kaboom! has built up a huge swell of critical and commercial support for itself with licensed content, mostly Cartoon Network shows like Adventure Time and Regular Show (WOO!) and stuff like Uncle Grandpa and Steven Universe (which I don’t know anything about), new stories about comic strip icons like Peanuts and Garfield, as well as original books like Mike Kunkel’s Herobear and The Kid series. An excerpt from Kunkel’s latest adventure in his series about a boy who’s the descendant of Santa Claus and has a magical bear toy for a sidekick opens the book, with Kunkel’s stark yet lovely pencils an utterly unique thing compared to the rest of the book. Course, the rest of the book is pretty good too, particularly a Regular Show story involving a 20-sided die that grants wishes, a pretty funny story from The Amazing World of Gumball (a show I don’t really care about) about how fish-kid Darwin doesn’t wear pants that has some pretty inspired gags and a Garfield story written by the legendary Mark Evanier and with some great artwork by Genevieve Ft that proves my theory that Garfield is only funny when people who aren’t part of PAWS, Inc are doing something with him. A really sharp book full of fun stories told in a variety of good art styles that proves there’s creativity in kids’ licensed comics.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (Dark Horse)–Y’all readers know how much I love Gene Luen Yang, and his script doesn’t disappoint here, offering a great, inspiring story about Sokka ( the funny guy from Avatar) and his girlfriend Suki, a Kyoshi Warrior (read: lady fighter who can kick all sorts of butt) visiting a shell store full of collectible shells where they deal with a girl who loves shells being talked down to by the store’s jerk dude-bro owners…and anyone who pays attention to comics knows exactly what this is a metaphor for, right? The basic message of the story–people should like whatever they like without being mocked for it–is a great, empowering one and Yang’s delightful script is given great life by Hicks’ expressive, detailed art that’s not only true to the look of the franchise, but is marvelous all on its own. While Yang and Hicks are the headliners, the supporting acts here are pretty good, too: a two-page “Itty Bitty Hellboy” story by kid-comic masters Art Baltazar and Franco that’s a nice bit of fun and a short story from David Lapham’s Juice Squeezers series, which I guess is about a team of kids who all have the powers of Ant-Man. Good stuff all around.

Spongebob Freestyle Funnies (United Plankton Pictures/Bongo Comics)–For the past couple years, United Plankton Pictures, in conjunction with Simpsons comic publisher Bongo, the production company behind Spongebob Squarepants, has been recruiting all sorts of independent cartoonists like James Kochalka of American Elf fame to draw little stories about the people of Bikini Bottom. The sampler offers a pretty varied range, with a story about Squidward relocating by turning his house into a robot (it’s in the homeowner’s manual) and a tale about Spongebob and Patrick making their own comics among others. It’s all fun, cool stuff that showcases a lot of great cartoonists and I think this series will satisfy older fans like me who think the show has gone way downhill in recent years.

Bongo Comics Free-For-All 2014 (Bongo)–a nice collection of Simpsons stories that not only shows off the depth of the franchise’s world, but also pays tribute to comics itself, particularly with the last story that involves Bart and Prof. Frink traveling to a world straight out of popular culture and a lead story with Bart and MIlhouse trying to gain superpowers through emulating comic book origins. Fun, solid stuff, like Bongo always provides; I AM a little disappointed that a back-cover pin-up is the only Futurama-related material we get, though.

Archie Digest (Archie)–I’m not exactly an Archie “fan,” but I DO admire the company’s commitment to diversity and risk that they’ve done this past decade. Plus, I liked the Archie’s Weird Mysteries cartoon as a kid and some of the oldest comics I own are old Jugheads. Plus, at 100 pages, this definitely packs the most bang for the non-existent buck. The stories–all reprints–are all pretty solid stuff, particularly the ones where Archie master Dan DeCarlo is on pencils. There’s also a surprising amount of Josie (of & The Pussycats fame) stories that threw me for a loop because I didn’t really know anything about them, but were pretty fun too. If nothing else, it’s a nice primer to the one company that a lot of people are surprised to still see around after all these years, doing what they always do.

SO no superheroes this year–that’s kinda surprising, right? Well, while the DC offerings looked abysmal, the Marvel stuff I was interested in but not THAT much. Besides, the Big Two usually use this day as an excuse to promote their summer crossovers and like I said above, I HATE crossovers. But that aside, I think I made out pretty good this year.

And that was my Free Comic Book Day 2014! How was yours? Let me know in the comments, if you are so inclined.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Review)

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Over the past couple years, partially thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and partially due to delving into the excellent comics with the character (including the excellent current ongoing series), Captain America has slowly become one of my favorite superheroes. There’s something so refreshing in his earnestness and hope about the American Experience, and his desire to protect it and fight for it when all goes wrong, that gets to me, a person living in this age of cynicism.

So naturally, when Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out three weeks ago, I was expecting to be the first in line to see it. BUT nobody wanted to see it with me and I didn’t have enough time to do so, but yesterday after the joy and the rapture that was Free Comic Book Day (which I’ll write about on Friday, don’t you worry), I managed to get to a screening, although bus delays and stops meant I missed the first few minutes. But what I got was still a great film, easily the best Marvel Studios film yet and probably my favorite superhero film next to Superman. It’s that good; if you can’t tell from this space, I know and love superheroes and it takes a lot for me to truly embrace a particular story. But this is one of them, offering a taut spy thriller that just so happens to be a star vehicle for Anthony Mackie, a reminder of why Samuel L. Jackson is one of the greats, further proof that this whole shared universe concept is here to stay, and just a damn entertaining movie that has some insight into current politics.

Two years after the Battle of New York and The Avengers, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) is living in Washington D.C. working for the super-spy agency SHIELD under Director Nick Fury (Jackson) and with fellow Avenger Natasha Romanov aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). He’s also trying to adjust to contemporary life (he keeps a to-do list of all the modern culture he needs to catch up on, a list that it turns out is different in every country) and it’s while feeling a bit down that he meets Sam Wilson (Mackie), a veteran of Iraq who now runs support meetings for other vets who immediately empathizes because he knows what it’s like to feel adrift after combat.

Cap, Widow and SHIELD’s counterterrorism team STRIKE, led by Agent Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), are sent to rescue hostages aboard a SHIELD-affliated ship that’s been hijacked by a group of Algerian terrorists led by Georges Batroc (known in the comics as the much sillier Batroc the Leaper and played by MMA champ Georges St-Pierre) and includes prominent agents like Jaspar Sitwell (Maximilliano Hernandez, reprising his role from Agents of SHIELD). They succeed but Cap discovers that Black Widow was also told to extract relevant SHIELD data from the ship’s computers.

Back in DC, he grills Fury as to just why this is happening and is told about Project: Insight, a plan involving three state-of-the-art helicarriers that will remain permanently airborne at all times and are equipped with an array of weapons to neutralize any threat instantly. “This isn’t freedom,” Cap says indignantly. “This is fear.” Later, concerned that he can’t decrypt the data Black Widow found, Fury becomes suspicious and asks senior SHIELD agent Alexander Pierce (the great Robert Redford) to delay Project: Insight.

Shortly thereafter, Fury is ambushed while driving, after a brief scene where he confronts police officers in a funny, smart way, by a group of assassins disguised as cops and SWAT officers led by the mysterious, robot-armed Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a seemingly unstoppable killing machine. He’s severely injured and dies on the operating table, leading an angry Cap and Widow to team up with Wilson, who actually has a flying jetpack from his days as the USAF’s Falcon, to figure out what’s going on in a conspiracy that will lead them right to the heart of SHIELD itself.

Right off the bat, the film does not miss a beat. We’ve been inundated with a cavalcade of taut government thrillers and beat-em-up secret agent stuff since The Bourne Identity, but here, it actually manages to blend both things together seamlessly while still keeping a superhero sheen to the proceedings.

A huge part of the modern Captain America, particularly the 2000s era of Ed Brubaker (who created the Winter Soldier and makes a small cameo in the film) revolves around superspy, political shenanigans and this film demonstrates why this works for the character. Not only is Rogers literally the strongest guy in the room, he’s also sometimes the smartest, and meshing up his idealism with political skullduggery is always masterfully entertaining. The script by returning writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely knows this and uses it to its advantage, taking full scope of the many, many years of this stuff while crafting an exciting, original story that takes aim at drone warfare, the NSA and other such topics but not in such a way that one ever feels lectured at or preached to. It also perfectly splices its ample and complex plot (not as complex as some of the films that inspired this, grant you, but still) with perfect action sequences. Unlike the first film, this movie doesn’t sound like its script was given a once-over by Joss Whedon, but that’s fine. Dude can’t be everywhere at once.

That’s the biggest surprise for this film: I don’t think anyone knew just how much great action filmmaking the brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, best known for TV work on sitcoms like Arrested Development and Community, had in them. Sure, they directed the stellar paintball two-parter that closes out the second season of Community, but stuff like the elevator fight sequence you’ve all seen in the trailers and all the hand-to-hand combat stuff? Unexpected and unbelievable. Considering that Fast & Furious head director Justin Lin has helmed a couple of episodes of Community, the brothers must’ve been taking notes.

The cast sells it. Evans is the heart and soul of the film and even if he’s tired of acting, this is a hell of a part to go out on. Johansson with her perfect rapport and unabashed appeal proves more than ever that we need that Black Widow movie that’s supposedly in development. Redford is great in his first mainstream role in quite some time and Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan, both returning from the first film, find new notes to hit with their characters, particularly Atwell. But the true standouts are Jackson and Mackie.

Much has been made of the fact that because Sam Jackson is so often playing an expository part with Fury, this is his concession that he’s too old for action scenes anymore. He refutes that here, going all out when confronting the Winter Soldier and showing an unbelievable amount of panache and skill throughout. He’s earned his place as an actor, no doubt. And Mackie, who has long waited in the wings (pardon the pun), for his chance at megastardom, totally earns it. The way he breathes life into the compassionate Wilson is astonishing and he better become a big name off of this.

Bottom line: if you like superheroes, you’re gonna love this. If you like Captain America, you’re gonna love this. If you like action, you’ll love this. If you like political thrillers with commentary, you’ll love this. This is a great, great film and I look forward to rewatching it on Blu-Ray for years and years to come.

P.S. I stayed through the end credits and was gratified to see that the Russos credited not just Cap creators Joe Simon & Jack Kirby and Brubaker, but also people who had a significant run on Cap, like Gene Colan and Steve Englehart. If you care about old comics like I do, it’s immensely gratifying.