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Why Captain America: The Winter Soldier Is The Best Of The Captain America Trilogy

It can hardly be argued that, at least so far, the Captain America series represents the greatest trilogy fielded by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's easy to forget that before the release of 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, it was in no way clear whether the character of Steve Rogers, the star-spangled super soldier, could even be made to translate well to the screen. To be sure, he was (and is) a bit of an anachronism; conceived in the 1940's in the thick of World War II, most casual Marvel fans still regarded Captain America simply as a steadfastly patriotic, one-dimensional beacon of moral rectitude, much too thin of a character to anchor a modern superhero film, let alone a franchise.

Fans of the non-casual variety, however, knew that Rogers had been fleshed out mightily over the course of the decades prior in the pages of Marvel comics. In a time when following orders isn't always the patriotic thing to do and a strong moral center can place a soldier into direct conflict with the powers that be (and make no mistake, Steve Rogers is first and foremost a soldier), it turned out that Cap was actually the perfect character to help anchor the nascent MCU. Still, Rogers' first proper big-screen iteration might have fallen flat if his casting had been off. Fortunately, Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige had the good sense to doggedly pursue and eventually cast Chris Evans, who embodied his character (and continues to) in a way that few actors ever have.

In attempting to single out the best of the Captain America trilogy, a case could easily be made for any of the three films. For our money, the middle entry — 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier — takes the title. But we feel we'd be remiss not to take a quick dive into the merits of the other two flicks in the trilogy, so let's do that.

Each movie in the Captain America trilogy has a distinct feel

More than any other franchise in the MCU, the three Captain America flicks can each be said to belong to a distinctly different subgenre. The First Avenger is a rollicking wartime action-adventure, Winter Soldier is a political thriller, and Captain America: Civil War is, at its heart, a straight-up drama, concerned with how families can be ripped apart from forces both external and internal. All three are sterling examples of their respective subgenres, and First Avenger basically pulls triple-duty by serving as one of the best origin stories ever put to film.

Even before his super soldier transformation, Evans (assisted by a startlingly effective visual effect) gives the skin-and-bones "Skinny Steve" a soulfulness and moral authority that allows us to immediately envision this scrawny twerp as a bona fide hero. Pitch-perfect supporting performances by Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips, Hayley Atwell as Strategic Scientific Reserve agent Peggy Carter, Sebastian Stan as Steve's pal Bucky Barnes, Hugo Weaving as Johann "Red Skull" Schmidt, and the great Stanley Tucci as super soldier serum creator Abraham Erskine all help elevate the film — but it's Evans' show, and he immediately silenced any fans questioning whether Cap could work on the big screen.

Arriving a year after 2015's Avengers: Age of UltronCivil War saw Rogers come into conflict with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) over the Sokovia Accords, which would regulate the activities of superpowered individuals. Sure, the flick told a compelling story, but it also gave us the first MCU appearances of Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (the late, great Chadwick Boseman), not to mention a 20-minute blast of pure joy in the form of the second-act-anchoring airport brawl in which virtually every MCU hero (minus Thor and the Hulk) threw down, a sequence which literally played like a comic book come to life.

The many merits of Captain America: The Winter Soldier

So, what places Winter Soldier above these two extraordinary superhero pictures? It's not just one thing, but for starters, the movie — the first MCU effort from directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who would go on to give us Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and the world-beating Avengers: Endgame — simply features some of the best pure action sequences of its decade. From the opening sequence involving Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) infiltrating a pirate-held S.H.I.E.L.D. ship, to the iconic elevator brawl between Cap and a dozen or so woefully outmatched opponents, to the brutal third act fight between Cap and his old brainwashed pal Bucky, the action in Winter Soldier is never anything short of breathtaking.

The film also has a ton of thematic resonance, arriving at a time when American society in particular was grappling with the consequences of government overreach, and the likelihood that some of our elected officials just might not always be acting in our best interest. The massive buildup of easily-deployed, highly destructive weaponry by S.H.I.E.L.D. (which looked to Cap more like "fear" than freedom) and the infiltration of the spy organization by its mortal enemy HYDRA were plot points that played on real-world concerns just as expertly as the best pure political thrillers, and to accomplish this within the framework of a superhero film was an astonishing feat.

Finally, Winter Soldier laid a blueprint for future MCU filmmakers to take chances and similarly operate within different subgenres. The heist antics of 2015's Ant-Man, the trippy weirdness of 2016's Doctor Strange, and the gonzo sci-fi insanity of 2017's Thor: Ragnarok were all enabled by Winter Soldier, which proved definitively that superhero movies don't have to be bound by tired formulas — that they can, in fact, be transcendent. It also contains, in our opinion, Evans' single best performance as Cap. Oh yeah, and it just kicks your rear end from here to the Moon, which you've gotta love.