I'll be the first to admit it: Cap was my least favourite of the Avengers (except maybe Hawkeye, but he didn't have his own movie, so I'm not going to count him). The First Avenger was an interesting movie, and a worthy entry into the Marvel cinematic universe, but it suffered from the vast amount of exposition needed to contextualise everything, rendering it the weakest movie of Phase One by a long way. The Winter Soldier is an entirely different breed; it's fast paced, political and in my humble opinion, a vast improvement on its predecessor! What I love about the Marvel universe is that it doesn't just give you a cookie-cutter superhero movie. The Winter Soldier is unequivocally a superhero movie, but it's also an espionage movie, it's a political movie, it's a simultaneously very funny and very touching movie. The CGI is still very much a part of the experience, but it's rested in favour of quietly simmering character development and political intrigue (at least, until the last half hour).
Numerous relationships, both past and present, are explored here. In 2014, Cap's transition into the modern world is assisted by our trusty friends at SHIELD. Natasha Romanoff is featured prominently - her will-they-won't-they chemistry with Rogers propelling a great deal of the film - and explored in a little more depth. The frequent discussions of her shady past contrast nicely with Cap's whiter-than-white moral perfection, and results in their interactions crackling with the wit of a 1940s screwball comedy. Mismatched though they are, you can't help but root for them to get together! It was also great for Nick Fury to finally get a bit of character development; he, like Romanoff, is given ample screen time here instead of the snatched of the previous movies. His surly, hard-edged persona and constant manipulations of other characters are examined here, adding a depth to a character that was previously rather cartoonish. But the most interesting dynamic for me was the relationship between Cap and The Winter Soldier. It's tricky to discuss without reveal spoilers, so I'll just say that he and Cap have a bit of history, which makes their interactions - and the ending of the movie - unpredictable; lets just say that he finds this particular villain rather tricky to vanquish!
On a completely nerdy level, we're granted a few throwaway references to the other Avengers, which is always satisfying for a fan, and the Stan Lee cameo may be my favourite yet! As I mentioned in my Thor review, the hardcore fans can always be spotted in the cinema; when the credits roll, they don't budge. Instead they perch perilously close to the edge of their seats to enjoy the short post-credits scenes we've come to expect. Here, there are two - an Avengers: Age of Ultron tease that had me squealing with excitement, and a short scene that compliments the ending.
While I marginally preferred Thor: The Dark World's slightly campy energy, I have a whole new love for Cap as a character as a result of TWS. Gone is the ever-so-slightly sanctimonious fish out of water we knew, and in his place is a man who is finally learning who he is: still the most moral of the Marvel core characters, but also confident, witty and most importantly, capable of carrying a film alone. Who knew?!