As far as the standalone Marvel Cinematic Universe movies go, my favorite has always been "Captain America: The First Avenger". I wouldn't necessarily say it was the "best" of the standalone films, that's a judgement that's far more difficult to pass and also a far less interesting discussion (at least for me). But it was always my favorite. It felt like one part "Raiders of the Lost Arc", one part "The Dirty Dozen", and it never once tried to approach its material with irony or self-awareness. On top of that, the cast was great and diverse, the story blended seamlessly into the ever-expanding MCU with references to "Thor" and "Iron Man 2" all over the place, and it was just plain fun. It was unique, it was interesting, it was entertaining, it was bold. I loved it.
Still, I always had to give it the qualifier that it was my favorite standalone MCU movie. Obviously, "Avengers" was always my favorite in the MCU canon. How could it not be? It was smart, it was impressive, and it was indulgent in all the best ways.
So when I say that "Captain America: The Winter Solider" is my favorite MCU movie as well as the best MCU movie to date, I want it acknowledged that I say this without qualifiers. Not only do I enjoy it more than any other MCU movie to date (including "Avengers"), I would argue that it is objectively better than any other MCU movie to date (including "Avengers").
If you care at all about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you need to see this movie. That is without question. You need to. Plain and simple. Heck, even if you don't care about the MCU, you should probably still see this movie.
That said, I don't think this movie is for everyone. For example, this movie probably wouldn't pass the Pat's Mother Test, that is to say, if my mother would fall asleep while watching it, it fails the test. A good chunk of this movie is action and intrigue and that sort of thing just bores certain people. I don't personally understand why, but some people also dislike chocolate and pizza and some people love Moxie.
If I were to try and describe this movie, I'd probably say it's like a Bourne movie if Jason Bourne fought like Tony Jaa on PCP, carried a shield, was a really good guy, and was friends with superheroes.
The fight scenes are incredible (note: I underlined that shit), the car chase scenes are some of the best I've seen since "Blues Brothers" (coincidentally, one also happens to feature a whole mess of police cars chasing the good guy), the plot is well-crafted and makes internal sense, the dialogue is never pointless and always interesting (and often funny without breaking the tone), and the movie understands the MCU continuity better than any other standalone movie since... well, since "Captain America: The First Avenger".
That's all I'm really willing to say before going into spoiler territory. If the above doesn't interest you, you might not like the movie. If you're looking for a big romance subplot or a straightforward good vs. evil story or a story where problems are solved neatly and without a lot of violence... This isn't your movie. Sorry! That said, if you tend to enjoy action films or spy films or superhero films, you need to see this movie. So go do that and join me for some SPOILERS...
OK, so this isn't just a movie about Captain America adjusting to our crazy modern world. That is definitely a big part of it, but I'd say most of it gets rounded out in the first act of the film. It's good, but it's not the central point of the film. Nor is the titular Winter Soldier, who anyone who's picked up a Cap comic in the past decade would know is actually a brainwashed and weaponized Bucky Barnes.
No, probably the biggest plot point of this film (and probably one of its biggest spoilers) is that it's pretty much about the total destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. at the hands of Captain America and his pals. Why? Because S.H.I.E.L.D. had become covertly taken over by HYDRA, the rogue Nazi group Cap fought in the first movie.
This is a pretty big deal, especially since this is the last Earth-based Marvel movie we're getting before "Avengers: Age of Ultron". S.H.I.E.L.D. has been omnipresent since "Iron Man", though they were less present in "Iron Man 3" and "Thor: The Dark World". They were the glue that held the MCU together, and now they've been dissolved. The Avengers will go into their next movie without having any kind of authority to back them up or guide them along. Nick Fury won't be around to settle their disputes with some bloody trading cards this time. And God only knows how this will affect the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." show. Will Coulson and his team operate independently? Will they try to rebuild S.H.I.E.L.D.? It's anybody's guess and it's not really the point of this review.
My point is, this is the first time Marvel has been willing to shake up the foundation of its universe this completely. They've put so much work into building this connected universe that being willing to rip out the spine of the universe in order to see if it can still stand is a pretty impressive move.
Although now that S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone, it seems less like a spine and more like an umbilical cord. It was instrumental during the development process, but now that the Avengers have left the womb, all it could really do is possibly trip up or strangle someone. So away it goes. At least for now.
This movie has a lot of twists and turns, but for me, the biggest shocker was the reveal that Agent Jasper Sitwell, one of the few characters who shares a name with a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent from the comics and who was present in the Marvel One-Shots "The Consultant" and "Item 47" as well as "Thor" and a number of episodes of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." was working for HYDRA all along. And then he also dies somewhat hilariously.
Maybe this is just me, but I always liked Sitwell. He was cool in the same way Coulson was cool. He appeared to be a dull bureaucrat on the surface, but beneath that surface dwelled a ruthless and experienced killing machine. Plus I thought he was funny. I, for one, will miss him.
The movie also handles the "surprise" of Bucky being the Winter Soldier very well. They knew that half the audience would know going in and the other half would probably figure it out pretty quickly, so they opted to reveal it towards the middle of the movie, where everything is going to hell all at once.
And that brings me to this movie's greatest strength.
It's very easy for a movie like this to try and do too many things or to bank everything on one major secret or reveal. With a spy thriller, the secrets can become nebulous and the surprises can start to feel inane and convoluted. However, if you go in the opposite direction and have all of the weird things all tie into just one or two major plot points, there's a good chance your audience will figure things out before the characters and start getting bored.
What "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" does incredibly well is that it introduces a lot of individual threads of plot and character, but it keeps them all simple enough that they manage to create complexity through its simplicity.
Let me try and explain.
There's a lot going on in this movie. You have Cap, you have Winter Soldier, you have Black Widow, you have Falcon, you have Peggy Carter, you have Nick Fury, you have Maria Hill, you have Agent 13, you have Alexander Pierce, you have Brock Rumlow, you have Agent Sitwell, you have (gasp!) Arnim Zola, you have the World Security Council, you have that one senator guy from "Iron Man 2"... And then for plots, you have Cap adjusting to modern times, S.H.I.E.L.D. developing a program to counter global threats preemptively, S.H.I.E.L.D. being corrupted from within, Alexander Pierce trying to complete HYDRA's plan without tipping off the good guys or the World Security Council, the identity of the Winter Soldier and how he's still alive and why he's a bad guy now...
That's a lot of plates to spin, but the great thing about it all is that most of those pieces are, on their own, very simple, but there are so many moving parts that a lot of the films biggest surprises are hiding in plain sight.
Let me give one of my favorite examples of this.
Black Widow is a very prominent presence in this movie. She's around most of the time. She has about as much screen time as Cap. Yet when we jump into the third act action set-piece, she's nowhere to be found. And because there's just so much going on in this movie, I didn't even realize she was missing until it was revealed that she was disguised as one of the members of the World Security Council so that she could take down Alexander Pierce. So the movie managed to surprise me with a fairly simple ruse, not through a convoluted plot or a fakeout, but through very simple misdirection. And it's this kind of surprise-building that really separates this movie from the other MCU movies. I loved "Avengers", but I hoped that there would be more twists and turns than we got. It was surprisingly straight-forward and difficult to spoil. Most of the surprises came from gags or little character moments, not from plot. This was the first MCU movie that kept me guessing all the way through, and that's what really sets it apart for me.
And also, because each of these pieces are simple on their own, the movie never really feels overstuffed. Nothing feels undercooked or included for the sake of including something. Everything has a reason for being there and everything is given enough time to add to the overall momentum of the film.
I think that's a good word to describe this movie: Momentous. Not just that it carries through the momentum from the movies that came before it, hitting the ground running from the very beginning (no, seriously, the movie begins with Cap running), but it continues to build on that with each subsequent scene. This isn't a movie that's content with staying in one place.
While I knew that Markus and McFeely would be good writers for this, I wasn't sure how the Russo Brothers would turn out as directors. They did good work on "Community", and while "A Fistful of Paintballs" proved that Joe Russo had some chops when it came to directing action, I never really expected them to direct a political superhero spy thriller. But bringing them on to direct this was a very good call. Also the Danny Pudi cameo was very much welcome (I actually would love it if they referenced this cameo in "Community" much in the same way they acknowledged Danny Pudi's cameo in "Cougartown").
All in all, there's really no dead weight here. No bad actors, no useless characters, no stupid plot contrivances, no cop-outs, no cheap effects. And for a movie of its length and scope, that's quite an achievement.
It also manages to get "dark" without getting "gritty", and that's mostly thanks to the presence of Cap. Cap is the idealist and he really balances out all of the paranoia, fear, and back-stabbing going on throughout the movie. This is also easily one of the most brutally violent film in the MCU. I'm actually surprised they got away with a PG-13 on this in some places. People get shot, stabbed, crushed, burned, combusted, chopped up by turbines, electrocuted, and punched. I mean, we don't really see any gore or anything, but the camera rarely shies away from the action, and the result is probably the most violent PG-13 movie I've seen in a long time. Not that I'm complaining, I just don't think parents who have a problem with that sort of thing should take that rating lightly.
I also like that there's no contrived romance going on. There's a little bit of flirting and some foreshadowing regarding Agent 13 (who the movies have yet to openly acknowledge is Sharon Carter, but she probably is) and we get to find out what happened to Peggy in a very sad and touching scene, but the women aren't here to revolve around the male characters. While the movie probably fails the Bechdel Test, it definitely passes the Mako Mori Test with flying colors.
Oh, and I only touched on this briefly but HOLY FUCK ARNIM ZOLA SHIT SHIT SHIT. I definitely did not expect him to show up this quickly, nor did I expect him to be the mastermind behind the whole HYDRA resurgence. I nearly flew out of my chair in excitement and surprise.
And I think that's what really separates this movie from the other MCU movies for me. I was completely absorbed the whole way through and it kept on surprising me. And each surprise felt natural and reasonable. It made sense that S.H.I.E.L.D. would recruit Zola. After all, his intelligence is what allowed them to take down HYDRA, and it's a known historical fact that the U.S. recruited a lot of Nazi scientists for various projects for the military and NASA. And it makes sense that Zola, who always seemed uneasy regarding Red Skull's zeal and lack of subtlety, would be inclined to rebuild HYDRA slowly, carefully, and secretly. And it makes sense that S.H.I.E.L.D., an organization that (as we've seen in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.") is very big on compartmentalizing and keeping secrets between different levels of agents, would have something like Zola's HYDRA festering inside it without anyone knowing.
This also brings one of the most interesting things about the movie to the forefront. Zola's plan is basically to use all of the massive amounts of information gathered about everyone in the world (by S.H.I.E.L.D.) to kill all the undesirables with incredible precision. A Death Star with the accuracy of a laser pointer. So the bad guy's plan is to abuse an overabundance of intelligence and information in the modern world. But the reason he can get away with it is because S.H.I.E.L.D. is way too wrapped up in keeping secrets and stopping leaks. The message seems contradictory, but it's not. To me, the message is that an organization without any accountability or transparency (even from within itself) probably shouldn't be in charge of all of the world's secrets. This has obvious parallels to the NSA, but it seems to say less that "what the NSA did was bad" and more that "what the NSA did is super-dangerous if they have no oversight, transparency, or accountability".
This movie is excellent. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you excited, it makes you think, and it has superheroes in it. What more could you want out of a Cap movie?