2. Captain America: The First Avenger
It seems as if Captain America: The First Avenger only gets better with age. The World War II-set film that introduces us to Steve Rogers in many ways feels separate from the larger MCU, not only in its time period but in its storytelling and visual style. The First Avenger was the fifth MCU film, before the studio had established what is sometimes derisively described as their "house style." Veteran director Joe Johnston evokes a warm, nostalgic tone, similar to his underrated classic The Rocketeer. A rock solid script from Christopher Markus and Steve McFeely - with an uncredited polish by Joss Whedon - firmly and effortlessly establishes what kind of man Steve Rogers is before he's ever shot up with super-soldier serum.
The First Avenger featured an absolute murderer's row of a supporting cast, headlined by Hugo Weaving's theatrical turn as the Red Skull, the head of Hydra and a Nazi operative who had his own ideas about world domination. Tommy Lee Jones gives a fantastic performance Colonel Chester Phillips, a cranky cynic who is eventually won over by Cap, and Toby Jones shines as Arnim Zola, a slippery Nazi scientist who would eventually go on to threaten Cap in the 21st century. But the heart of the The First Avenger is the relationship between Steve and Peggy Carter, the latter played with effortless charm by Hayley Atwell, who would go on to headline her own short lived TV spinoff on ABC. Their chaste, doomed romance looms large over the entirety of Steve's MCU story, mostly because it's so affecting in The First Avenger.
Perhaps appropriately for a film set in the 1940s, Captain America: The First Avenger feels like a film from a different era, before the wry attitude and inescapable interconnectedness of the MCU took root. It's far from the MCU's biggest hit, but it's unquestionably the movie where audiences first fell in love with this version of Captain America and all he stands for.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Anything as popular and ubiquitous as the MCU is going to come in for criticism. We're eleven years into the MCU, and the stock complaints about what have become the most popular films in the world are pretty well defined at this point - the tone is too snarky and self-deprecating, the villains are unimpressive, they're unimaginatively shot, and none of them can stand on their own as self-contained films. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is essentially a rebuttal to all of that. While the MCU films had always paid lip service to rebelling against authority - think Tony Stark's attitude toward poor Phil Coulson in the first two Iron Man movies - The Winter Soldier was the first MCU film that truly muddied the waters between who was good and evil in this world, revealing a massive Hydra conspiracy at the highest levels of the ostensibly altruistic S.H.I.E.L.D.
Anthony and Joe Russo - largely known for their work on innovative TV comedies like Arrested Development and Community - seemingly came out of nowhere to make the most visually appealing and dynamic MCU film up to that point, while simultaneously leaning into some political thriller tropes that the MCU hadn't really touched before. And this time, the true villain wasn't the cyborg man with the amazing abilities - it was the seemingly amiable S.H.I.E.L.D. administrator Alexander Pierce, played with quiet menace by the legendary Robert Redford. Redford is the big name here, but the film also features great turns from Sebastian Stan as the titular antagonist, and arguably Samuel L. Jackson's best, most nuanced performance as Nick Fury. Large chunks of it also serve as a sort of buddy cop movie with Cap and Black Widow, with Scarlett Johansson proving once again that Natasha Romanov was long overdue for her own film.
The Winter Soldier is also the point where it was made plain that Steve Rogers is more than a loyal soldier, that his own sense of right and wrong superseded powerful institutions and direct orders. It was the point when Captain America became a true patriot by not just simply following orders, but taking on the system when he realized it was operating in bad faith. Captain America: The Winter Soldier not only solidified Steve Rogers as the MCU's arbiter of justice, it also proved that the MCU was capable of being more than just an assembly line of blockbuster films, and it could tell timely, important stories about big ideas. It's the key to why Captain America is the most important person in the MCU; he can dazzle audiences by smacking aliens in the face with that shield, but that only works when it's balanced with the empathetic, morally righteous worldview he fights for.
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019