You know, of all the Marvel characters to get their own movies, I don’t think there’s any hero I’ve been less excited about than Captain America. He’s easily my least favorite of the Avengers, and yes, that is including Hawkeye. I just find him way too vanilla a character. He’s Superman with even more of an annoying Boy Scout outlook on life. His powers aren’t flashy, his costume is goofy, and he’s severely uncomplicated. And yet, here I am, telling you that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the greatest Marvel films to date. What the hell?

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This oughta be good.

Well, to begin, this plot is fantastic, both as a sequel to The First Avenger and as the next logical step in Steve’s life following the events of Avengers. Steve Rogers is in a different world. The government he so proudly served in his previous solo adventure has changed in his absence. No longer are the enemies so clearly defined. The First Avenger featured villains that had accents and uniforms and flags, Avengers had Cap punching aliens and gods, while The Winter Soldier features villains that hit a little closer to home.

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Also, this film managed to make Batroc the Leaper kind of badass. Wow.

This brings me to one of the more ballsy aspects of the film. Despite the gratuitous number of explosions, bullets, and CGI destruction, it would be difficult to accuse TWS of being mindless action. There’s a battle of ideals in this film, with Cap representing the old-fashioned attitude of handling bad guys by simply beating down a threat whenever one identifies itself, while Nick Fury believes the most important thing is keeping the world safe, even if that means resorting to somewhat paranoid measures that sacrifice personal freedoms. The film never really picks a victor in this battle, either. Cap learns that his viewpoint is a bit antiquated in the face of the intelligent evil forces he must defeat, and all of SHIELD’s paranoia turns out to be in vain, as these threats not only arise in spite of their precautions, but manage to use that attitude to direct their attention away from the true threats. It’s a deep and interesting look at America’s current struggle with terrorism, yet it never feels preachy or out of place.

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Nothing lightens up political commentary like punching and explosions.

The characters also bring a lot to this film, with everyone being given something important to do. The third act is a nearly flawless juggling act using every major character in a giant race against time. Black Widow is no longer here to kick a few asses and pose in her tight bodysuit, she’s a full-fledged hero who in some ways is actually more capable of handling trouble than Cap, despite her lack of superpowers. Marvel has been teasing the possibility of a solo Black Widow film, and this plot leaves her story in a place that begs to be explored further. Falcon is also introduced, and while I wish he got a little more action, he is handled extremely well. There are a few more recognizable Marvel characters introduced as well, but I’m treading deep into spoiler territory so I won’t go there. I can safely say, though, that Doctor Strange is name-dropped casually at one point, so at the very least Marvel wants us to know that his moment to shine is on the horizon.

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Meet our white Marvel hero’s morally flexible black sidekick, War Mach- I mean Falcon.

My only main gripe is that the titular Winter Soldier is barely in this film. He’s less of the film’s main threat and more a symptom of it. It’s hard to get too upset about that, though, considering the way the film ends indicates that this is far from the last we’ll see of him.

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Pictured: Foreshadowing. Not pictured: Subtlety.

All in all, this film has everything you could possibly want. The Marvel universe is progressed and changed in a massive way, secrets are revealed that not only change where everything goes from here on out, but alter the context of some of the events of previous films. In many ways, it feels like everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building up to this, making it practically unskippable if you plan to watch any future Marvel films. It doesn’t have the giant crossover appeal of Avengers, but it makes up for it by being far deeper and more massive. If Marvel keeps making films like this, it may not be long before Avengers is no longer viewed as the climax of comic book movies, but the moment Hollywood learned to truly embrace the superhero genre.