Peggy Carter.Hayley Atwell’s performance as British intelligence agent Peggy Carter in the first Captain America movie apparently impressed Marvel so much they gave her a one-shot deal and a miniseries. Their faith was well-placed, as Agent Carter may be the most interesting female we've seen in Marvel films thus far. She’s different from other prominent Marvel women (Natasha Romanov, Gamora, Lady Sif, for example) because she’s not trying to be a badass. Her strength is in her intelligence. And like Steve Rogers, Peggy has a strong moral compass, a sense of empathy, and a certain level of vulnerability. Steve’s bedside visit to the aged and apparently senile Peggy in The Winter Soldier is probably one of the most touching moments in a film where grief, lost history and recovered friends are important themes.
Positive male relationships. If someone asked you to name Tony Stark's best male friend, what would you answer? James Rhodes? Nah, he’s more of a work associate. Happy Hogan? Nope, he’s an employee? How about Thor’s best buddy? Or Bruce Banner’s? We know who their male adversariesare — but do these guys have any friends? Well, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) certainly does in the person of James “Bucky” Buchanan (Sebastian Stan), who’s revealed to be the Soviet-designed assassin known as the Winter Soldier. This twist gives Steve and Bucky's relationship a new dimension, especially since they were childhood friends, brother’s in arms and Steve witnessed Bucky’s apparent death in 1944. Some film critics used the word “bromance” to describe Steve relationships with both Bucky and Stan Wilson (Anthony Mackie), but that's the wrong term. These relationships aren’t about guys getting together in someone’s man-cave while watching the game and tossing back brewskis. These are affectionate brotherly relationships, something not often seen in movies of this genre.
Great supporting performances. Not only was The Winter Soldier the best use of Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johannson) so far (she kicked ass and cried at Nick Fury’s bedside!), but the film was chock full of interesting characters portrayed by first-rate actors. Anthony Mackie made keeping up with the Captain look effortless, even when quipping, “I do what he does, just slower.” Sebastian Stan didn’t say much in the film, yet conveyed more confusion and moral conflict through a facial expression than he probably could with words anyway. Even the smaller roles of Jasper Sitwell, Brock Rumlow and Maria Hill had some surprises for us. But by far the best was Robert Redford as the Hydra puppet-master Alexander Pierce. If Dick Cheney was more charming, he’d give Pierce a run for his money as “best duplicitous asshole who looks like someone’s kindly granddaddy!”
Steve Roger shifts the paradigm. Remember that great scene in The Avengers when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner debate S.H.I.E.L.D.’s true intentions with an indignant Steve Rogers? Steve hates to be on the wrong side of anything and when he later finds Hydra-type weapons in a S.H.I.E.L.D. storage locker, it gets him thinking. Early in The Winter Soldier, Steve calls out Nick Fury again about the heavily-armed hover-carriers with that great line, “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.” What an appropriate sentiment for our post 9-11 age… and so very apropos when delivered by the most morally conscious superhero in the Marvel pantheon. When Steve finally uncovers Hydra’s deep infiltration of his beloved S.H.I.E.L.D. his path becomes clear — destroy and rebuild. This paradigm shift ripples across the Marvel film universe and will certainly color every film incarnation from this point forward.
Action with substance. Last year was packed with action films which were loud, frenetic and empty. Whether it was the latest Transformers catastrophe or the horrendous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlesflick, some filmmakers were okay to just give the public spastic crap with no substance. Looking at the other things I liked about Captain America: The Winter Soldier as listed above, it all culminates with the simple fact that this film was exciting, touching, well-crafted and even thought-provoking. No wonder many film critics (CinemaBlend, The Nerdist, The AV Club etc., etc.) called it the best Marvel movie to date.