The Marvel Cinematic Universe (more often referred to as the MCU) has undertaken an ambitious, borderline absurd task: to build a rich, colorful universe of interconnected movies with larger-than-life characters and ideas that hook new fans and appease old ones. Before John Favreau's Iron Man hit theaters back in May 2008, few expected it to be as fun and memorable as it was. It was around this same time that Marvel big-wig Kevin Feige started to become a bit more candid regarding his plans for Marvel Studios. Despite Iron Man's impressive reception with both viewers and critics, people scoffed at the idea of a shared movie universe that would span years and cost millions upon millions of dollars. Some may have even demanded that Feige be thrown into the loony bin for being so confident in his supposed insanity. But that was then, and this is now.
Since that fateful May, Marvel Studios has pumped out ten movies that connect, intersect, and interact with one another. Of those movies, a few have ranged from mediocre to good, fewer have been great, and only one has been phenomenal. Those expecting me to say The Avengers or [Guardians of the Galaxy](movie:424073) will find themselves disappointed. Don't misunderstand me. Despite the odds being stacked high against it and legions of worried fans ready to walk away from the MCU if it fell even just a bit short of expectations, The Avengers opened to glowing reviews from critics and fans the world over and shattered box office predictions in record time. Guardians of the Galaxy emulated its beefed-up elder sibling and became one of Marvel's most successful outings to date. As it turns out, when I say only one MCU film has been phenomenal, I'm referring to Anthony and Joe Russo's [Captain America: The Winter Soldier](movie:254973). From this deadbeat's perspective, this incredible sequel is Marvel's real winner.
More than anything else, Captain America: The Winter Soldier stands firm as proof of how far Marvel has come as a movie studio. Aesthetically pleasing, structurally sound, and superbly shot, this supercharged sequel excels at pulling viewers into a shadowy world full of intrigue, betrayal, and heartbreak like few movies can. Early in the film's production, Feige came forth and called the film a “'70's political thriller masquerading as a big superhero movie.” He couldn't have been more correct. Rather than just moving from place to place, fight to fight, or character to character, the story flows effortlessly and seamlessly.
The Russo brothers load an already packed script with pleasing pay-offs, witty dialogue, and a suffocating sense of urgency that adds more “umpf” to the film's tense events. It's a much more satisfying, well-rounded film than The Avengers, which astounds me because Whedon's banter between his heroes was already worth the price of admission.
I've spent a lot of time pondering why I feel this way, and after hours of arguing angrily with myself, I think I've found the answer. While The Avengers contains its tender moments (Coulson's death, Banner's inner anguish), it focuses more on rewarding viewers who had watched five connected movies before it to fully enjoy what was happening. The Winter Soldier, on the other hand, takes itself a bit more seriously, emphasizing a tonal shift that hadn't really been done in the MCU before then. Cap's second solo outing is the closest Marvel has strayed to making a dark, brooding movie for its continuity. Neither approach is wrong, but in my opinion (not that it matters much), The Winter Soldier utilizes its approach just a tiny more tactfully and skillfully.
While Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, and the rest of the cast do well in playing their respective roles, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Anthony Mackie's character, Sam Wilson (The Falcon), who makes a much better sidekick than Stark's Rhodey (sorry Don Cheadle, it did pain me to say that.) When Mackie signed on for the role of one of Cap's greatest and most reliable allies, he knew the task that lay before him was a daunting one. Not only did he have to portray a pivotal player in Cap's mythos, but he had to really earn his place among franchise staples and find a way to stand out without shoving himself in our faces screaming, “Love me!” Fortunately, he does both.
The comics consist of hundreds, if not thousands, of super-powered stories richly populated with characters and themes of all kinds, all of which are raring and ready to hop off the page and onto the screen. If every character and storyline in the Marvel Universe were chopped up, chucked into one pot, and served as the featured item at your local eatery, heads would fucking explode because there would be a million different flavors and intensities curb-stomping your taste buds. Luckily, the creative chefs over at Marvel know their stuff and opt to gradually introduce us to each new flavor, each time at a different intensity with a different objective. So, if Mackie (or any of the other cast members, for that matter) underperformed or left on bad terms with the palette, they could either replace him or the entire role with a different character we haven't seen yet. Not only does Mackie exceed expectations, he redefines them. I've written many an article that praises Mackie as one of the standouts in The Winter Soldier, a tradition I'm blatantly refusing to discontinue with this sentence.
In addition to telling the story of a friendship that is tested by time (and those slippery bastards at Hydra), The Winter Soldier functions as a profound exploration of Captain America as a person and as a hero. At several points during the film, his purpose comes into question and he finds himself caught in that suffocating chasm that exists between duty and trust. The film plays with themes and ideas that dig deeper than the sillier, less grounded entries in the Marvel canon, keeping it watchable for all ages but expanding on its characters in more mature ways.
On top of all the aforementioned qualities, Cap's latest solo adventure boasts some truly incredible choreography, dazzling special effects, and a brisk pace that will keep your pulse racing and your adrenaline pumping.
I know some consider mindless comparisons childish and unnecessary, but I remain steadfast in my belief that Captain America: The Winter Soldier reigns supreme as Marvel's most well-rounded and emotionally satisfying offering to date.