Captain America:

The Winter Soldier (12A, 136 mins)

Directors: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo

4 stars

Ever onward the Marvel superhero wagon trundles, showing no signs of slowing and no signs of dwindling audience interest.

This sequel to 2011's Captain America is the third movie we've seen in the space of a year set in the Avengers world, and we've still got one more to come this summer, leading up to Avengers 2 next year.

Captain America was born during WWII when puny recruit Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was injected with a miracle serum that turned him into a super soldier.

Since the events of Avengers Assemble, he's now fully integrated into the modern world, which really only means you get plenty of mentions and references to the Avengers, but just don't expect to see any more of those characters.

The exception to that is Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), joining Rogers at SHIELD (the spy agency they all work for) as his colleague on missions, the first of which is to rescue hostages from a hijacked ship.

This leads to Rogers discovering that SHIELD has hugely ambitious plans for high-tech weaponry, which he believes is a step too far in their world of surveillance and counter-measures.

There's the introduction of Robert Redford's SHIELD boss and it's all part of a complex big picture that gets even more shaken up with the entrance of the Winter Soldier, a mysterious figure who is as fast and strong as Rogers.

What Marvel are doing here is to be admired, giving each of their properties a unique identity, from the high camp fantasy of Thor to the near-comedy glibness of Iron Man.

This Captain America takes place in a world of espionage and paranoia, and it's certainly the most grounded in the real world of all the Marvel entries to date. In execution it's as much a spy thriller as it is a superhero adventure, a steady and deliberate piece of puzzle building.

As a consequence it could be argued that the pace is a little too unhurried in places.

It slightly bites off more than it is ultimately able to swallow with the notion of invasive national security, but in terms of the central thematic idea of Rogers being a man out of his time, and re-visiting ghosts from his past, there's plenty mileage in the tank.

With a bigger and juicier role for Johansson than she had in Avengers, this is very much the Cap and Black Widow show, and you'll need to have seen what's come before to know who they are.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gets some solid action time too, and the trio share a strong dynamic.

The first film had a nice period flavour, but both the character and the actor were a bit dull. Evans has grown in stature and confidence (he was already a new man in The Avengers) and he guides us around the twisting plot with an assured presence.

Cap bursts through doors like a battering ram, demolishing everything in sight, and there are no end of thumping fights that can sometimes be a bit over-edited.

It's all very slick with the leaping and shield throwing, Cap using his iconic shield as a sort of boomeranging discus to knock heads together.

It's mostly a movie of very practical action, filled with car chases and shoot-outs, and in places it's far closer to Michael Mann than Michael Bay.

It's the most plot-driven of the stuff we've seen in this universe, at least until the all-action final third that brings everything together in a coherent and satisfying manner.

Go in expecting a feast of light-hearted, non-stop comic book action and you're likely to be disappointed. Accept what you're in store for is a serious-minded spy thriller with the added gloss of a bunch of great fights, and you might find The Winter Soldier is among the best Marvel movies to date.

See it if you liked: Captain America, Avengers Assemble, Iron Man 3

Muppets Most Wanted (U, 113 mins)

Director: James Bobin

3 stars

The big screen comeback of the Muppets a couple of years ago was a welcome return for the much-loved puppets.

This lesser but still enjoyable second film covers itself by starting with a self-aware song about how sequels aren't as good.

Also not as good are Bret McKenzie's songs, which seem a significant step down from the quality he brought to the first film.

There's more of a plot though, concerning Constantine, the world's most dangerous frog (who also happens to be Kermit's double) who escapes from a Russian prison, with Kermit stitched up and sent to the gulag (run by Tina Fey) and the other Muppets not noticing his replacement now has a Russian accent.

Meanwhile Ricky Gervais (playing a character named Dominic Badguy) takes the Muppets on a world tour as a cover for the robberies that he and Constantine are planning.

His sly machinations and up-front villainy are quite funny, although having him sing and dance wasn't such a good decision.

Though it lacks the charm Jason Segel brought to the first film, it's in fairly safe hands with Gervais, Fey and Ty Burrell (who seems to be auditioning for Inspector Clouseau with his French Interpol agent) as the human leads.

It also gets an A+ for cameos, though many appear random and pointless. Most will pass kids by, and seem to be more for parents.

There's nothing particularly memorable here, more a film of incidental pleasures than a convincing whole, but it's done with an energy and sense of silliness. It's still the Muppets, and it's still fun.

And when you've got Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo as hardened criminals doing backing vocals for Tina Fey, it's hard to go too wrong.

See it if you liked: The Muppets, The Muppet Christmas Carol

20 Feet From Stardom (12A, 91 mins)

Director: Morgan Neville

4 stars

This fascinating story of the unheralded background singers who took pop and rock to another level from the 1960s onwards won the Oscar for best feature documentary ahead of some stiff competition.

It's a thoroughly entertaining journey alongside such great personalities and phenomenal singers as Merry Clayton and Darlene Love, and there isn't a major star who they haven't sung with.

We hear from many of them, including Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger, about the depth and energy they brought to the songs, as well as looking at the low points of having their voices dubbed onto performers, and the difficulty most of them found in making that move from the back of the stage to the spotlight, even though many of them have as much talent as the stars.

Above all it's about the power of song, and 20 Feet From Stardom is a real gift for music fans.