In this installment, we're giving ourselves an impossible task: trying to figure out which film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the best. In one corner, you have The Avengers (2012). In the other, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).
THE CASE FOR CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Because the MCU is so tightly connected — with one movie's plot informing the next — any individual film can feel a bit anticlimactic, more interested in serving a larger story than telling a great tale in its own right. This is not the case with The Winter Soldier, which is a fabulous action flick that works just as wonderfully as a standalone movie.
Inspired by 1970s conspiracy thrillers, the film pits Cap against a formidable adversary, who just so happens to share a past with our hero. One of the consistent knocks against the Marvel films is that the bad guys tend to be kinda dull. The Winter Soldier doesn't have that problem: Played by Sebastian Stan, Bucky Barnes is a terrifying force who's also deeply troubled, making him just sympathetic enough that we understand why Steve Rogers can't just kill him. Their brotherly bond complicates this battle between good and evil, and it inspires Chris Evans' best performance in the series.
In The First Avenger, Captain America was a bit of a lovable, straight-arrow dork, but in The Winter Soldier he has to contend with the loss of everyone he knew and the reemergence of a friend who is now a foe. Plus, Scarlett Johansson makes for a great sidekick as Black Widow. (Yes, we agree that she totally should have gotten her own MCU film by now.) Add to that the fact that The Winter Soldier has some kickass action sequences and some great twists — we absolutely thought Nick Fury was dead — and you've got one hell of a superhero film.
THE CASE FOR THE AVENGERS
Man, The Avengers could have been a disaster. The film had to take some of the most beloved characters in American pop culture, somehow weave a narrative where they all get their moments to shine, introduce new characters, figure out how to do Hulk right (which no one ever had on film), set up future movies, and justify the whole Extended Cinematic Universe concept that Marvel had risked its future on. Oh, and the guy in charge of it all was a TV guy who had directed only one movie (which was merely a spinoff of his canceled TV show).
That The Avengers is so relentlessly fun — that it seems to understand its characters, and its audience, on such a granular level — and also works as such grand spectacle feels like a miracle, and one that, ironically enough, could only have worked as a personal project: You have to love this world to make it this lovable and fresh. Sure, it served as a template for a now-familiar, sort of exhausting type of comic book film … but that's just because it was so inspiring and smart in the first place. The movie still works like gangbusters … Target Angry! Target Angry!
THE CASE AGAINST CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
First off, a shout-out to some other great Marvel films that didn't get to be a part of this debate. Everybody has their favorites, but we'll give the most love to the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, the first and third Iron Man movies, and the new Spider-Man movie.
The issue with The Winter Soldier is, well, the Winter Soldier: Bucky has always worked a lot better as a foil (and friend) to Captain America than he has as a character himself. The Winter Soldier has been in multiple movies now, and we still don't care about him other than how he relates to Cap. Surely he should have made more of an impression by now. Plus, for all the talk of the ‘70s paranoid thriller vibe, it gets dropped pretty fast: The Marvel movies quickly reverted to form after this one. It feels like an anomaly, and one that fizzled out faster than it should have.
THE CASE AGAINST THE AVENGERS
This movie is ground zero for everything that audiences complain about when they have to go to a modern superhero movie. After The Avengers, it wasn't good enough to just have one character who goes on one journey across the length of one film—you now had to have at least a couple protagonists, and then you had to reference other characters from earlier films or introduce new characters who would show up in later films.
Joss Whedon does a good job of juggling all this, but the fact that The Avengers necessitated such logistical nightmares is, in itself, somewhat depressing. It's fun to see Iron Man and Hulk and Captain America and Thor [takes a breath] and Black Widow and Nick Fury and whatever that boring guy that Jeremy Renner plays all together in the same movie. But wouldn't it be more fun to see any of them in their own movie? Yes, it would.
The Winter Soldier does have its self-contained fun, and as a standalone film, it still works. But since when are any of these standalone movies? The Avengers might have launched us into this endless Extended Cinematic Universe land and all the plotlines and characters it has to juggle … but that's only because it did it so well.
The reason we live in the world we do right now is because people saw how great The Avengers was and said, "That's what we're trying to do. Let's all do that." It's not the movie's fault no one else could do it as well. It's The Avengers' world now. We're just living in it.