Captain America had an unusual introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in that he got a movie more or less to himself; sure, we got Dad Stark and a proto-SHIELD intelligence agency, but Captain America (wisely) spent the vast majority of its energy on Steve himself, separating the cookie-cutter heroism of many a movie soldier and bypassing the gimme of Nazis as the enemy by giving him an internal conflict that both sustained and impeded him: What does it mean to be Good?

It’s everywhere in the first movie, in every shot of an empty barracks or bombed-up pub where Steve’s mulling things over, in every pause before slinging the shield across his back. It’s there when he agrees to the serum in the first place, not because it will make him stronger but because someone he trusts has asked him; when he agrees to set his dream of being a soldier aside to become a public figure to inspire the home front; when he stops pursuit of a criminal to make sure a kid’s okay. It makes sense that he’d have a backup team of soldiers—he knows the importance of giving someone a chance to prove themselves. But when he goes into a fight alone, it’s not because he considers himself the best man for the job, but because he considers himself expendable. (He threw himself on a grenade for some strangers, a long time ago.) A lot of this is thanks to Chris Evans, whose deft portrayal of an iconic piece of wartime propaganda was a sea change; he made Steve’s goodness the cornerstone of his character while still giving him moments of smartass humor, moments of frustration, moments of recrimination that made him more human than divine.

Steve Rogers translated from his own era so well that it surprised the Marvel Universe a little how popular he became. (He got so popular that he rated several minutes of footage in The Avengers of him being lost in the modern era simply to round out his character; most of them didn’t make it to the theatrical release, but it was a lot of trouble to go to for an ensemble character whose presence in the movie is largely supporting.) And besides leading the team when the aliens actually showed, his most natural narrative function was to question SHIELD’s ethics; he’s a good soldier, but his first loyalty is to what’s right, not what’s policy. (And that this ethical imperative was always going to put him in the crosshairs, sooner or later, is where Captain America 2 really started.)

However, The Avengers was not about Captain America. The Avengers was not particularly about anyone; The Avengers was a testing ground for the load-bearing capability of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is spidering out faster and faster, looping in more cameo and offhand references and sidelong plot points than any independent narrative could sustain.

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier comes out in the States this weekend. It’s a very solid Marvel movie. For that reason, it is a questionable Captain America movie, and its primary antagonist is actually how hard the movie it wanted to be is straining to get out.

The movie it wants to be begins with something remarkable in a franchise this lumbering: a sleek spycraft thriller in which Steve Rogers realizes that in the absence of any internal ethics strong enough to stop it, SHIELD has employed omniscient surveillance and drone warfare (on domestic soil, of course, Iron Man handles the international policy in this franchise), and Steve is complicit in a system that’s about to enact war crimes on home soil. It’s a shattering realization for him. He’s hemmed in, an enemy among friends, and having to force his way out long enough to get to the bottom of things. In the Captain America movie this wants to be, he would be fighting against the impossible odds of bureaucratic inertia, trapped by a government whose aims are more baldly imperialist than the last time Steve dealt with them; in a Captain America movie he’d have to sacrifice himself (again).

But as returning writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely have discussed, Marvel got to the story, and the story changed from a movie that clearly wanted to get knee-deep in moral quagmires, and instead became a Marvel Movie in earnest in a way its standalone predecessor avoided. This is probably most immediately obvious in the huge uptick of action sequences; the action that felt like tacked-on contract fulfillment in the first Captain America has now expanded and crowded out almost anything else in a hail of bullets, wire work, and snap-cut editing. Some of them, like the elevator fight, are tensely set-up and obviously superbly choreographed. I’d be more enthusiastic about it all, except that the parts that work best – like the much-gif’d glimpse of The Winter Soldier’s beautifully ruthless fighting style and Cap’s inherently defensive battle tactics – are hard to parse amid the rapid-fire action sludge.

More than that, though, the movie brings up any number of hard-hitting anti-establishment concepts—and then coasts over most of them. (My other review for Philadelphia Weekly this week was the Donald Rumsfeld interview-bio, and watching the two in quick succession highlighted some of the things about Captain America 2 that Marvel resolved more neatly than its setup suggested, if only to give Captain America some known quantities: Steve Rogers’ known unknowns.)

Because in a movie that purports to examine the dark side of government surveillance, Marvel has its own agenda; so Captain America 2 quickly makes sure those who are good establish their goodness, those who are bad reveal their evilness, and those who were drawn in make swift amends. Nick Fury, arguably the most compromised morally, has some of the drama drained from his atonement, given that he gets to die for his sins AND come back to amend them via the good agents of SHIELD, because Marvel wasn’t going to drop such a unifying character, and because Agents of SHIELD is still airing. Even Cap’s climactic reveal of HYDRA’s infiltration over SHIELD loudspeakers—prompting immediate, inspired action along party lines as the good soldiers stand up to the bad ones—glosses over that they’ve already developed, built, and reached launch point on the drones without protest from anyone, and SHIELD’s desire to be in uncontested control is, at heart, ideologically inseparable from HYDRA. It’s a huge, franchise-shaking implication; the film handles it by having all HYDRA agents pull guns and start shooting, so you know who the bad guy is.

But setting such simplification aside, the movie’s a good action flick (wanting it to be more itself doesn’t ruin what it is). SHIELD’s violent APB on Steve keeps the clock ticking, and the movie doesn’t hesitate to lay some historically-accurate sideye at the American government for hiring Nazi scientists postwar because governmental ethics are much more flexible than Steve the Good could have imagined. And when he gets to breathe a little, Chris Evans turns in a great portrait of a man betrayed but determined to do what’s right, damn the circumstances. Anthony Mackie makes a low-key but slyly heroic Falcon, who gets drawn into the fray and is happy to stand up for a friend who’s asked, even if the friend is new and the stakes are bafflingly high. And Robert Redford’s slimy politico is a fitting supervillain for a story about internal politics (if he had a bad-guy moniker, it would literally be The Man), even if his subtle maneuverings eventually become him monologuing to booby-trapped diplomats, which seems like something of a tell.

He’s also the mastermind behind The Winter Soldier, the movie’s most conflicted character, who awakes from mind control and begins to question his orders. His arc is suitably poignant: imprisoned by an uncaring system, a soldier used for someone else’s personal-vendetta warfare, increasingly desperate to escape, and having to search for an identity of which hes’ been robbed, he’s the personification of the collateral damage of SHIELD’s agenda. (Well, him and a few dozen commuters.) His skirmishes with Steve suggest a battle of ideology against reality that goes above and beyond the personal sucker-punches their antagonism—and eventually, their shared backstory—brings out in each of them. Given a little more weight and time, this could have made a really fantastic arc that formed the emotional backbone of a film about changing identity within a punishingly underhanded iteration of a system that was meant to protect you. It still gives us some great beats.

Jason Bourne has taught us that it’s possible for a character study to be a tight thriller, and for a hero to fight against a system for purely personal stakes while the system destroys itself from the inside. Captain America 2 feels, at heart, like it wanted to twist that formula with a man who has always put personal stakes aside in favor of the greater good, against a system that didn’t realize how decayed it had become, and a few supporting characters within the system push back against the bad ones – or, worse, lose. But Marvel won’t let them lose, because it still needs them all. So what we get is a series of firefights, a cadre of familiar faces, deaths from among the cameo squad, and just enough devastation to push the franchise a step forward while giving its hero a happy ending.

That ending: the information about Redford’s drone-surveillance plans is released, and the movie treats it as a given that the tide of public opinion will inevitably rise up in righteous indignation and wipe SHIELD’s institutional power off the map. It’s maybe the biggest fantasy element in the movie; we live in a world where releasing that kind of information only makes fugitives of the whistleblowers and doesn’t raise much revolution after all. It’s superhuman optimism—it’s an ending predicated on the hope that this time will be different, in a movie that itself seems to know better. And maybe, franchise aside, that’s the legacy of Captain America; that it’s never too late for people to be soldiers for Good.

Notably, the first Captain America had some of that optimism, too: that when the chips were down, people would do the right thing. That kid he checked on squawked that he could swim and waved Cap on; my second-favorite performance in The Winter Soldier is a bit-part techie who quietly stands his ground. And certainly it wouldn’t be a very fun superhero-franchise flick if the hero ended up defeated and alone with no narrative momentum. That’s where Sam and Natasha come in, that’s why SHIELD agents leap to the defense of the American way, and it’s why Captain America, the good soldier, has to triumph. Whether it’s one that holds true to his character and the premise of his problems hardly matters; it’s one that’s good for the Universe.