Over the weekend, I had myself a sort of mini-marathon of Marvel movies in anticipation of the upcoming Captain America: Civil War. I confess myself to be a big Marvel fan, who has generally liked all the movies on initial view, no matter how unmemorable the movie has turned out to be in the long run. I vividly remember walking out of Iron Man 3 saying “Boy, that was a good movie – Shane Black really *gets* this character”. Of course, this memory is probably more vivid than any single individual memory of the movie itself.

This is all a long way of saying that, all told the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a series of movies that are more often than not, very bland, a series of interconnected action setpieces. Iron Man felt fresh and funny and came at just around the same time as The Dark Knight, well-timed to feel like a strong counterpoint to Nolan’s dark, tortured superhero; however, there’s no question that we’re approaching Marvel fatigue today.

As the Marvel movies get more and more interconnected, and built around the Cinematic Universe rather than being stand-alone adventures, they also face increased challenges of bloat and authorial interference, two reasons why Ant-Man, which could have been an Edgar Wright stunner, was instead a (mostly) bland box-checker.

Captain America: The First Avenger brought an interesting era twist to the proceedings, but it’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier where we really see the strength of Marvel’s approach to character-building. The First Avenger set up the Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) that we all know and love, an idealistic soldier who practically worships Uncle Sam and all that he stands for. The Winter Soldier tears that all down. Cap is called on to question his beliefs, to question the way the world operates, and to question what world he belongs to. Can the idealistic Captain America exist in a world where soldiers are being replaced by drones, where governments work nefariously in the background? Maybe it’s always been that way, and 1940’s Cap was just too naive to realize it. But Cap is forced by his experience to grow and become something new. He’s an idealist operating in a world of pragmatists. As much as critics made a fuss about this films timeliness relative to the various Wikileaks/Snowden leaks, comparing it to a ’70s spy thriller, the real reason it’s relevant is the reason why a movie like this will always be relevant. It’s a movie about reconciling idealism with the realities of the world – it’s just an evergreen topic.

The film is thrillingly staged throughout. There are a handful of scenes from the film as memorable as anything I can recall in recent history – a raid and fight scene on a boat, a car chase in urban Washington D.C. that raises the question of how bad-ass Samuel L. Jackson might have been had he been an actor and action star at a young age, and a terrific sequence in which Steve Rogers is faced off against an elevator full of baddies. There’s the usual Hollywood effects and spectacle, but they intermix practical effects and visuals in such a way that there’s real weight to most of the action.

The exception to this is actually the final fight scene, an epic battle staged across three different flying helicarriers, which ends up feeling harder to follow and less coherent as a result of the level of staging and reliance on effects involved. It feels hollow and unearned, a level of spectacle not really fitting for a movie that is ultimately a smaller character study. This isn’t the Lord of the Rings, and it’s hard to care about these epic fight scenes as anything more than just visual spectacle. An earlier fight scene on a boat, a small one-on-one, hand combat fight pitting Steve Rogers against the French baddie Batroc the Leaper, feels far more thrilling, far more intimate and relevant, a battle of fighting styles and cultures, a battle where the award at stake is national pride. In all honesty, I felt far more invested in this one little fight than in the giant visual spectacle of the three helicarriers at the end.

It’s a genius stroke that the Russo brothers choose to pair Cap with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), a character who grew up in the world of spies and agents and manipulators, whose whole life is predicated on living in the shadows. She balances Cap out perfectly, helping him to avoid capture, questioning his idealistic views, the perfect yin to his yang.

Of course, it helps when you have a charming and charismatic actress like Scarlett Johannson, who sells every scene she’s in. The character is such a flirt, but her performance as an actress is so thorough that you never forget that she’s a badass underneath that flirtiness. You can never quite tell – is she actually being vulnerable, or is she just feigning vulnerability for sympathy? It’s a fantastic blend of actor, role, and performance.

The Winter Soldier is easily the best movie in the MCU so far (though I’m hearing that Civil War may top it). It’s one of the few Marvel movies that truly stands alone on its own merits, rather than relying on broader affection for the franchise and genre. It brings a real attitude and cinematic style to the proceedings and feels inspired and of a uniform mind. If Civil War is at all in the same league as this one, then I really look forward to it.

Steve Rogers: Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?

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