This movie is full of iconic shots. The more understated ones are the best.

Captain America (which I will refuse to refer to by its unnecessary long-form title) is the best Marvel movie since Iron Man and it’s not even a close race. Whether or not you’ll think it’s the best of them all is really going to come down on your specific taste in tone, character, and what you think makes for a good hero in our cynical, post-modern times. To be honest, I probably prefer a character like Tony Stark to a character like Steve Rogers though it helps that Chris Evans (who is amazing, the end) does his best work yet in the role bringing authenticity to even the gee whiz brand of altruism that Cap has always personified. There’s also that Captain America is just such a good fucking movie.

It’s funny because I was very kind to Thor and it took seeing this entry into Marvel’s shared universe experiment (it’s an experiment until The Avengers hits, after that I might have to call it something else) to force me to reassess that kindness. Thor is a movie that is full of situations, plot points, characterization, etc that could have been better. Watching it, you know that, but you give it a pass because hey they made a fucking Thor movie. There’s Anthony Hopkins. Chris Hemsworth is the real deal! Idris Elba! And so on. But you don’t need to give Captain America a pass. You don’t need to be kind to it. It is confident even brazen at times and it earns that sure-footedness that every other Marvel movie has lacked (to varying degrees) every step of the way.

One of the really on-point comparisons to the weaker Thor is in this movie’s romance which is really the Marvel Movieverse’s best realized yet.

Part of the quality of this movie is definitely owing to its cast. This is one of the best casts assembled for a comic book movie to date and even actors you might assume are just here for a paycheck, Tommy Lee Jones for example, bring everything up a notch with full characters and a delightful balance of sincerity, wit, and badassness where required. Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones are at their best playing off each other and it’s really great to see both men, venerable and pedigreed actors both, having fun with a project like this. Other supporting roles are filled by the likes of Sebastian Stan (I liked him in the short-lived series Kings) who totally owns the reimagined Bucky Barnes as well as Derek Luke and Neal McDonough as the unnamed Howling Commandos who back Captain America on his missions. These are great supporting bits with enough screen time to make an impression but not so much as to distract from the principle relationships in the movie.

That said, I have to add that the somewhat glossed-over inclusion of the Howling Commandos, who are never named as such or as individual characters, is a major flaw and probably Captain America‘s only serious misstep (not that there aren’t a lot of things you can nitpick or cast as minor flaws, cuz there definitely are). These guys get a lot of screentime and are given broad strokes of individuality that establish a shallow degree of character. Given a couple more scenes, maybe 10 extra minutes, to better introduce them and Captain America would have no serious problems and be the first Marvel movie, let alone one of the only comic book superhero movies, to be able to say that.

The reason this is a big deal is that the first half is so vital with the presence of Peggy Carter, Col. Philips, Dr. Erskine, and Howard Stark and the relationships each of their characters have to Steve Rogers. In the second act, they aren’t around as much and are largely replaced by Bucky (who does get his due) and the Howling Commandos. Without the same level of depth, the movie loses something that it eventually gets back again but it does take away some of the punch the second act would have had otherwise, especially in the fucking awesome montage of Cap and the Commandos dealing with Hydra bases all over Europe. For example, the montage ends with the defeat of a tank the size of an office building. Yes, that is a thing that happens.

But then again, if they do wind up making more Captain America movies with flashbacks to WWII events, there will be room to tell more stories with these guys. It won’t fix the second act problems in this movie, but it might be time to try and see the Marvel Movieverse in terms of its broader context, a context which is pretty well unprecedented anyway.

An example of how well shot this movie is. It has tons of action and manages to handle it better than any of the other Marvel movies.

Hayley Atwell may be the best Marvel girl yet. Her Agent Peggy Carter is a total badass, smokin’ hot (seriously, Hayley Atwell is too attractive), and Atwell’s performance is nuanced enough that we can chart the progress of her attraction to Steve Rogers develop almost from their first scene together. Her back and forth with Tommy Lee Jones’ Col. Philips is also a highlight and I think I could’ve watched a movie that stuck much closer to the interesting trio they make with Cap himself and called it good. Of course, Joe Johnston and his writers saw fit to fill the movie with likable characters and a fun-having cast to play them. So I can call it great.

Tobey Jones brings pathos to what could have been a standard Igor role, infusing his weapon designer character with facial tics and hesitation that reveal his uncertainty about the Red Skull’s megalomania. His counterpart in many ways is Howard Stark, played by Dominic Cooper, who gets a much bigger role than I imagined. Though the movie could’ve easily used him more and even become preoccupied with his somewhat adversarial relationship with Cap, they wisely turned what could have been a movie-stopping cliche love-triangle into a deftly handled friendship that pops in an unexpected and moving scene toward the end of the film (it’s Stark’s last scene too). The little things like this brought a level of depth to the movie that is difficult to achieve. An awful lot is done with what had to be a little (on the page) here and it is a subtle but resounding strength for the film.

Hugo Weaving brings us another iconic villain, though if I were in a nitpicky mood I’d say that Red Skull should be in the film more, that Thor‘s major (maybe only) superior point is that it ties the antagonist to the protagonist so very well. Loki is a great villain because he’s a three-dimensional character. Red Skull is a monster with no redeeming qualities but he is also the broad, uncompromising villain a hero like Cap needs. So while Johann Schmidt could have been a more sophisticated character and the movie probably still would have worked, there is an operating logic behind the not-quite-cartoonish villainy of Red Skull that works just as well and probably better. Besides, we’ve seen that sophisticated approach to comic book villains before. Not every villain needs a bunch of justification for why they go bad, some bad guys are just motherfuckers and Schmidt is one such. Because Steve Rogers is so very good, a thematic link is established between he and Schmidt that never takes over the movie (which would have been a bad thing here, where it is one of the things that worked very well in Thor).

The Red Skull’s design is, like everything else associated with him, a finely tuned balance between cheese and menace. The only thing that didn’t work was the silly-ass “Heil Hydra!” salute. But oh well.

I just realized I’ve written 1000 words already and not touched on the story of the film. Basically, Steve Rogers is a skinny and sickly kid from Brooklyn who wants to join the army. He makes an impression on an expatriate German scientist (Tucci) who hooks him up with a research unit led by Col. Philips (Tommy Lee Jones) and a British liaison (Hayley Atwell). Of all the candidates, he is the least impressive physically. By far. It’s no secret by now that they went for a Benjamin Button style effect for Skinny Steve and it works so well that it’s fucking unnerving. Dr. Erskine totally believes in Steve and then gives him the chance he wants to test drive the super soldier serum he has refined after Schmidt (Weaving) used an earlier version which, and this is hokey to the point of silliness, amplified his innate bad character to the point of disfigurement. As the first super soldier (and the last thanks to Schmidt’s cult-like minions, Hydra) Steve is too valuable to send to the front lines but he doesn’t want to be a lab rat either so they have him doing publicity. Captain America takes place over about a year, probably more, and takes its time getting Steve into the right position to step up and turn his stage persona into a real example, a real hero. Eventually he comes up against Red Skull directly, foiling his private operations and making it his personal mission to bring the guy down if only because he’s such a fucking bastard. Well, he has other reasons but I won’t spoil them.

I will, however, tell you that the ending of this movie is fucking, fucking, fucking great. Some critics have not liked it. They are stupid and wrong and will be punished. The last line and snap cut to black is perfect. You will see.

When they don’t think he can make a difference on the battlefield, Cap proves that he can by saving 400 soldiers single-handedly.

It is suggested and then reinforced and then acknowledged that Steve is a guy who can’t suffer bullies, having his share of experience with them. He isn’t looking for glory or violence or even revenge. He just wants to do his part and ego has little to do with it. Even when he is growing comfortable with his Captain America persona in its first incarnation as a stage character selling war bonds, there is never a moment where Steve Rogers is internalizing fame and generating an ego. This is incredibly refreshing and deftly handled.

The movie does not beat you over the head with who Steve is, it shows you in some of the most effective character-building scenes ever produced in a superhero movie, a genre which needs to pull this off more than most. You have to believe Steve is a guy who would jump on a grenade to save people and you know without the movie obnoxiously telling you that this is the kind of thing that makes him both a great hero and a natural leader. His arc is believable and somehow complete even though it lacks some of the usual components. Steve doesn’t have a deep flaw to overcome and his personality doesn’t change, in fact, one of the themes of the movie is that Steve is good enough of a man to not let power or fame change him whereas Schmidt definitely is not, but even he started out power-hungry and insane.

The flaw Steve has to overcome is a matter of physical limitations. I was worried this was going to be a jock movie in the sense that being a hero, being useful, would come down to physical prowess. That it’s more about strength of character and intelligence (Steve is a smart fucking guy, it turns out) is the best possible thing the movie could have done for itself with regard to the veneer of physical power fantasy.

All of that hinges on Chris Evans who is a great actor with incredible comic timing and, of course, the body of a goddamn superhuman anyway. He is more of a know quantity than Chris Hemsworth but still manages to be as surprising by restraining his comedic sensibilities and delivering a Steve Rogers who is not some boring old fashioned white knight but a character with dimension, intelligence, integrity, and wit. Like I said, it’s his best work if only because he isn’t relying on his innate charm as much as he has in other roles. If you like this version of Evans, I suggest Sunshine and Street Kings for examples of other more dramatic work he’s done and done well. Having a guy like him in the Marvel verse is a total fucking coup, in other words.

I maintain that Chris Evans is what truly sells the inherently silly aspects of Cap’s outfit and shield-fu. Speaking of shield-fu, his physicality and fighting style are just awesome in this movie.

A lot of blather gets tossed around about the impending death of superhero as a viable genre. This is based on a trend of, it is said, diminishing returns. It took less than 10 years for at least two major properties to recycle into reboots or pseudo reboots and there are more coming. We’ve seen weird dips in quality in sequels mishandled by studios and their legions of assholes. We’ve seen deconstructionist comics like Watchmen adapt to tackling superhero movies where the graphic novel tackled superhero books. The culture was deemed ready for these measures in fairly short order compared to the longer comic book timeline. Even guys like Matthew Vaughan who may be the only filmmaker to direct both a straight-faced superhero movie and a farcical one (X-Men: First Class and Kick-Ass respectively) have declared this shit doomed, only a matter of time.

But we’ve also seen Marvel sort of force-fuck its way into the best stab at classic superhero movie legitimization that has ever been. Do our hopes rest on them to actually deliver on that promise, at least some of the time? Captain America is the second wave of hope after Iron Man (and to a lesser extent The Incredible Hulk) took the first steps toward a declaration that no, superhero movies based on these vaunted comic books would not go quietly into the night, a failed experiment with only a few banner-wavers like Chris Nolan to remind us that there was the potential for more.

If Green Lantern and (for some) Thor made people think that comic books movies are losing some of their viability, I think Captain America is an answer that totally trumps that shit. I would have been hesitant to hang that on X-Men: First Class because that movie has some serious problems in spite of how good it often is,  but I have no such reservations about Captain America.

As far as I’m concerned, they saved the best for last this summer.

Oh, and stay after the credits for the first teaser for The Avengers. You can thank me after you see it, I’m not sure it’s the buzz-generating marketing grenade they wanted it to be. You’ll see what I mean.