It’s rarely easy to build riveting fiction around a character rooted in righteousness, and certainly less so in a comic-book movie that has superhero powers to show off, cars to flip and buildings into which to fly ships the size of five football fields.

But Marvel made it happen in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, as scrawny Steve Rogers got his rah-rah wish to serve in World War II. He got an indestructible shield, and a top-secret serum augmented his speed and strength to make him Captain America. But the adventures it afforded him could only amplify his inevitable wartime grief and confusion. Lost and frozen for 70 years before being thawed for day-saving in The Avengers, Rogers underwent an exponentially super-sized loss — the people, promise and potential for which he fought lost to a blink of time.

Of the Avengers, Rogers lacks Tony Stark’s self-destructive bluster, Thor’s blinding pomposity or Bruce Banner’s implacable rage. But he’s not without demons. His can-do, chipper optimism runs counterpoint to his counterparts, but it’s also his own cross to bear — an increasingly futile attempt to assert old-fashioned moral rectitude in a world wearier and worse for wear than the one he knew.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier exceeds the already estimable work of its predecessor by pushing Rogers’s idealistic ideology to its absolute breaking point, with an aggression more akin to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films than the smiley pop spectacle of The Avengers. Consider it Marvel acknowledging, and attempting, the one thing DC did right while otherwise doddering around with awful Jonah Hex and Green Lantern experiments or itchy, ill-fitting Superman films.

The Winter Soldier is Marvel’s The Dark Knight, or as close as Marvel dares to get. As anticlimactic and dopey as DC’s onscreen demises can be, at least they’re not afraid to really kill people. In Marvel’s future, everyone will die for 15 minutes, then come back in time for a third act or second movie. Cry spoiler, but Marvel has pulled this nonsense in its last half-dozen films and/or TV series to pad out six-picture deals to which it signs its actors (the widely touted announcements of which are spoilers in and of themselves). Call me if someone doesn’t wake from a dirt nap.

However timid Winter Soldier is about shaking up its roster, it’s a minor nit to pick for a movie that rattles the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe in an exhilarating, exciting way. To say how is the real spoiler, but the questions of how great a good S.H.I.E.L.D. really does, hinted at in The Avengers and the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., are definitively answered in ways that affect everything going forward. At the very least, it will make this cinematic world more apprehensive about the Avengers in 2015.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo consciously foment this mistrust and doubt with their directorial choices. They frame some dialogue exchanges with edges of foreground objects fuzzing the screen, as if casting suspicion that a seemingly innocuous clock might be an invasive bug. Wide scene-setting shots linger long enough to feel like surveillance. Close-ups tighten with the conspiratorial web as true allies become harder to find. And the very presence of Robert Redford in a small but pivotal role purposefully hearkens back to his parts as a pursuer of the truth in All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor.

The Russos evoke paranoiac post-Watergate thrillers of the 1970s as strongly as Joe Johnston’s first film did patriotic pictures of the 1940s. And although their action résumé amounts to whatever stupid pratfalls Owen Wilson had in You, Me and Dupree, they direct the requisite setpieces with a confident hand (even if Cleveland is now Marvel’s all-purpose stand-in for any city on the Eastern Seaboard).

With Trent Opalach’s crisp cinematography and second-unit / stunt coordination by Spiro Razatos, The Winter Soldier mixes up gritty gunfights that would do Michael Mann proud, close-quarters brawls cut with clarity and speed, and a standard-issue ’splody climax that’s both undeniably cool and unnecessarily drawn out. While we know exactly which characters will crawl out from under the villain’s oppressive thumbs, the filmmaking feels lethal, brutal and dangerous in a way we haven’t yet seen from Marvel. And that most of the action unfolds in broad daylight — right under our noses, as it were — only makes the plot more impressively insidious.

Like many shadowy D.C. thrillers, this one opens along the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. But the pace at which Rogers rockets down a running path suggests the fleetness with which this 136-minute film zips by. Running is one of few ways Rogers keeps his mind from racing over all he missed. All he knows of what happened to his friends and cohorts is memorialized at a Smithsonian exhibit about their exploits. (A scene where he visits incognito is both clever exposition and a poetic, haunting connotation — memorial-like treatment for a man the world knows is still very much alive.)

Rogers also fills his time with missions for S.H.I.E.L.D., America’s best defense against enemies foreign, domestic and intergalactic. But he’s increasingly skeptical that he’s merely just cleaning dirty laundry for S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and the new initiative Fury touts does little to ease his mind. Project Insight is a plan to hoist three next-generation Helicarriers (like that seen in The Avengers) in perpetuity — perma-drones hooked into satellites and capable of wiping out thousands of hostiles with the flick of a switch.

After Fury is outed for orchestrating a high-seas heist Rogers and partner Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) were assigned to foil, Fury warns Rogers to trust no one … perhaps not even him. Eventually, Rogers is himself suspected of misdeeds and is forced to go rogue, with only Black Widow and brand-new friend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to help him uncover the reasons behind Fury’s actions.

Complicating everyone’s survival is the Winter Soldier — a ghoulish figure allegedly spotted at two dozen assassinations in the last half-century who boasts a metal arm, a strength to rival Rogers and a relentless one-track mind for ending his targets. He’s played by … a familiar face from at least one previous Marvel movie. Although a formidable and fearless foil, he doesn’t achieve Joker-level menace — no matter how much Henry Jackman’s score cribs The Dark Knight when he shows up — and the remorseful sting that eventually surfaces in him isn’t as powerful as it could be.

Although he’s the (co-) title character, there’s simply much more interesting stuff at play: Evans and Johansson’s charged camaraderie; thorny dialogue that makes the film’s freedom-versus-fear debate much more than lip service and introduces a “tree of liberty” quality to the blood shed by tyrants and patriots; unexpected surprises that tie back to the first film; the unswerving confidence in the film’s metaphorical decision to cure a cancer by cutting off a limb.

Amid all of this, a few simple words uttered nearly a century ago to Rogers by the creator of his superpowers hang in the air: “You must promise me one thing: That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” His increasingly difficult struggle to uphold this vow while wading through so much villainy gives him great resonance, and his movies — in two vastly different, but tremendously entertaining ways — are just as interested in his mettle as his metal.