Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The Phase 2 Marvel films have been an odd bunch, haven't they?
The decision to create Guardians of the Galaxy over a film about Black Widow, Nick Fury, or even someone like Doctor Strange or Captain Marvel, remains one of the oddest decisions Marvel has ever made. Iron Man 3 was, while perfectly enjoyable, also a very poorly put together film riddled with plot holes, ending with a plot twist that made perfect sense for the character of Tony Stark, but does rather put Marvel in a pickle for Avengers 2: Avenge Harder. Thor: The Dark World, while a perfectly solid action film with a lot going for it and, again, a plot twist that changes the entire MCU world, also failed to wow me.
I wasn't entirely sure what I was expecting from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I mostly went to see it so that I could write this review, otherwise I'd have cheerfully left it be until it came out on DVD.
It's not that I didn't like Captain America: The First Avenger – it was a solid, technically very well made film that combines the WW2 war film genre (with all the exaggeration of the US' role in the war that implies – although, to be completely fair to The First Avenger, not nearly to the same extent as some examples) with the comic book action film genre in a very skilled way. It's not even that I don't like the character of Steve Rogers, who I quite like, even if he isn't my favourite Avenger. I just wasn't filled with anticipation for The Winter Soldier.
Having said all that, I'm very glad I went to see it.
If The First Avenger was a WW2 war film, then The Winter Soldier is a 1960s spy thriller, and quite an excellently done one. All the spy film tropes are here: Fury has a gadget-laden car with guns and flight capabilities; people are betraying each other left, right and centre, with the words 'trust nobody' being thrown around with cheerfully careless abandon; there are dark, secretive plots from the past, and more double agents than you can shake a stick at, and brainwashed assassins. It's a grand homage to the entire spy film genre, and it's not afraid to indulge in the silliness that that genre often partook of, usually with a completely straight face.
If I'm being honest, there aren't any gaping flaws I could find with this film. It's paced well, it has an interesting plot, it has good comedy beats while still knowing when to be serious, the action scenes are really quite superb, being frenetic, stylish and varied – not to mention usually accompanied by everything nearby exploding, regardless of whether it should be or not.
Steve isn't the most interesting character to build a film around – I mean, he's fine, but he's no Tony Stark – but the film supports him with an ensemble cast of engaging characters that interact with him well. While it's his name in the title, the film really has four main characters: Steve, Natasha, Fury and Sam Wilson/Falcon – who in comics was the first African-American superhero (not the first black one, that's Black Panther), so I'm glad he's getting his slice of the MCU pie. All of them get their moments to shine without it seeming forced, all of them get to play off each other, with Steve usually serving as the beleaguered straight man to Natasha's whimsical humour and cheerfully deceptive nature, Fury's grumpy sarcasm; and Sam's deadpan.
(It's still quite bizarre that none of those three are getting films before the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, of all people.)
Like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, this film also has a plot twist that could be described as a game-changer for the MCU – and it's a big one, as SHIELD is revealed to have been infiltrated by HYDRA, the Nazi science division of the first Captain America film, since practically its formation, and is summarily destroyed, with all its secrets leaked onto the internet and Fury going into hiding. We've seen how Agents of SHIELD coped with the events of the film already: It'll be interesting to see how they deal with the aftermath.
All in all, I'd call this the best Phase 2 Marvel film so far. If you're a Captain America fan, which I am not, you'll probably enjoy it even more than I did. But who knows, maybe Guardians of the Galaxy will be better?