This is my spoiler-free review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If you’ve seen the movie, you know why I picked that title. (The packed theater erupted into cheers at that particular Moment of Awesome.)

Captain America 2 sets out to raise the stakes for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a tall order, and easily screwed up. The movie doesn’t screw it up. It succeeds, and it does so beautifully.

The movie deals with the fallout from both Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, as Cap has to adjust to a new world. Rather than playing with the obvious fish-out-of-water elements, though, the movie quickly establishes that Steve Rogers hasn’t had any trouble with technological advances. (Apparently he spends a lot of time on the Internet. And he still has hope for humanity. Now that’s an optimist, ladies and gentlemen!) They also never touch possible negative elements of mid-20th century America, including racism and sexism, despite ample opportunities (though Cap’s sensibilities about romance are still evident).

What he has trouble with is compromising his philosophy. At one point, talking to Nick Fury, he admits that he and his fellow World War II veterans had to compromise a lot. Cap might be a Boy Scout at heart, but his hands aren’t 100% clean. But everything they did, he insists, they did so other people could be free. “This,” he declares, pointing at SHIELD’s latest project, “isn’t freedom. It’s fear.”

Whether the writers and Marvel Studios wanted the movie to reflect current events is a moot point, because there’s no way this plot can avoid being a commentary on today’s headlines. It’s about the surveillance state, interventionism, and elitism — the idea that there are secret elites who know better than the common people, not because they know more, but because those with power are inherently better.

The really surprising thing to me is that the movie manages to do all this without once feeling preachy, and without ever stepping outside Marvel techniques. This is a superhero film, and while it’s still physics-defying (particularly Cap’s magic shield, which has always bugged me but it really sticks out in this film), the characters act naturally in the superhero context. As I said, it would have been really easy to screw that up.

And then they top it. Not only do they do a great job with suspension of disbelief and dealing with realistic character actions, they also manage to raise the stakes. The action is fast-paced, moving from status quo to resolution in just a few days. Once the action starts, there’s a clear reason why Rogers can’t put in a call to Iron Man or Hawkeye or anyone else for assistance — to the point that once it happened, I forgot all about the option. (It had been something going through my mind prior to the start of the movie.) And then we go further, and find that this movie has huge consequences for all later films.

(In fact, I was feeling a distinct urge to sing “Where Do We Go From Here?” from Buffy as I exited the theater.)

Heck, I don’t even know how they’re going to deal with this on Agents of SHIELD. I can tell you, however, that if you’re an Agents fan, you’ll want to watch Captain America 2 before you continue with the series. There’s no way they can avoid spoilers.

From a writing perspective, the movie does an excellent job of avoiding the pitfalls of infodumping, the subject of a recent article of mine. In particular, there’s a beautiful moment that fills you in on Captain America’s backstory that stays away from the “recap” form of infodumping. You see Rogers visiting the Smithsonian to see an exhibit about him (though, interestingly, they show the National Air & Space Museum, not American History). Audience members who never saw the first Captain America movie get some details filled in, and everyone gets to see Rogers’ own reaction to hearing his story. He never says a word, but he doesn’t have to. His face tells us everything. It also does an excellent job of both foreshadowing and setting up his decisions later on. We see the superhero at his most human moment, and everything he does is in that context.

The other actors do wonderfully as well. I’ve never been a Robert Redford fan, but I’ve never been against him; I think he does an excellent job here. Sam Jackson continues to play Sam Jackson, but this time around I felt like I was actually watching Fury come to life. Scarlett Johansson continues to impress me in this role, as she’s previously been an actress that seems to be picked more for looks than ability; mind you, I’ve never gone hunting for her movies so it’s possible I’ve just seen the bad ones, but it’s clear from her role as Black Widow that she has actual acting chops and just needs a good outlet. Anthony Mackie does a top-notch job as Falcon, taking a Marvel character I never paid much attention to and actually making me care for him as a real person.

I’m also looking forward to the possible TV spinoff about Carter; several moments in this film, while 100% plot-relevant, still came across as setting up another story; this time, a prequel story about the founding of SHIELD. Despite my ongoing disappointment with Agents, I’m very eager for a period Cold War drama with Carter, Howard Stark, the Howling Commandos, and other early Marvel elements.

Captain America 2 doesn’t top The Avengers for cinematic greatness or even as a superhero film. I’d say it’s the second-best movie of the franchise, though, topping Iron Man 1 and Thor 1, and the second-best movie of the year so far (behind The LEGO Movie).

In other words, it’s an absolutely excellent film and you should go see it.