Guess who saw an early screening of Winter Soldier and had his mind completely blown away. This guy.

I grew up a Marvel kid. I was mostly into Spider-Man and the X-Men universe. For some reason, the more straight-laced heroes like Iron-Man and Captain America were too boring and goody-goody for my super edgy 10-year-old tastes. I eventually got more into Image Comics and random other indie stuff, but I’d always go back to Marvel just to see what was up.

Then Iron-Man came out in theaters. It took a character I’d previously thought of as boring and turned him into a lovable, cocky, smart-ass version of Bruce Wayne. Then Captain America: The First Avenger was announced. Was it possible that Cap on screen could be more interesting than the corny whitebread Cap I remember from the 90’s?

Sort of.

Captain America was an alright movie (aside from the distractingly weird Skinny Steve Rogers), but it felt too montage-y — like they were trying to pack in too much. I’ve seen it about 5 times and still don’t remember most of what happens in the third act. That’s where my brain just switches off and I just stop caring.

But then Avengers (a.k.a. the greatest superhero movie of all time. Fight me.) came out followed by the trailers for Winter Soldier making it look all intense and epic, like Marvel’s version of Dark Knight Rises. And that’s basically what it is, but better.

The first bit of the film is just one giant awesome espionage scene on a ship that plays out like a stealth action game. Then some serious shit goes down, peeps can’t be trusted, and Cap and friends set out to right wrongs by punching faces and blowing things up.

Without spoiling anything, I can say that the choreography of not just the hand-to-hand combat, but the action sequences as a whole, are easily the best of any Marvel movie to date. The camera zooms and spins between Falcon dodging bullets in the sky, cars exploding into the air, Cap taking on swarms of dudes on the ground, and then there’s Nick Fury and Black Widow espionage stuff. It’s SO. DAMN. GOOD!

I feel like Chris Evans plays a way better Steve Rogers this time around. He has more of the character to work with. He misses his past, he feels betrayed by the government that he strove so hard to fight for in the first film, and he’s at a point where there’s really no one he can trust.

Anthony Mackie does as much as he can with the role. His character, Falcon, is introduced as a stand-up guy that Steve views as a trustworthyfellow soldier. He eventually becomes the only person he can turn to and is reduced to little more than a really cool device for action scenes and spouting the occasional campy one-liner while a majority of the real talking is left to the grown-ups. To be fair, he plays the role with all the enthusiasm and charm necessary to make the character likeable and it would have been tough to cram in some ridiculous backstory with all the other craziness going on.

Scarlett Johansson definitely takes the Black Widow character to a new level compared to previous films. She’s sort of a hit-or-miss actress for me, but she nailed it this time around. She displays a bad-ass tough chick confidence, but does a terrific job at adding a layer of sadness and vulnerability behind it all.

As for the Winter Soldier, Sebastian Stan freaking KILLS it. He’s menacing as shit and commands each scene he’s in with a vicious and lethal presence. The dude wears a mask covering his mouth for most of the film and has to do most of the acting with his eyes which is way harder than it sounds. I’ve already seen a crazy amount of fangirl swooning on Tumblr about his “OMG poor brainwashed sad guy I want to save” performance, so expect more once the film actually releases. A weird part of me kind of wants to see who gets fangirl’d on harder: Tom Hiddleston as Loki or Sebastian Stan as Winter Soldier. Chicks love tragic-ass bad boys.

What i love is how the whole scope of the film escalates from small-team-of-agents-on-a-boat to holy-shit-everyone-is-bad-everyone-will-die-this-is-epic-as-shit by the end of the second act; the repercussions of which will definitely be felt by the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a crazy degree. It will definitely be interesting to see how Captain America: The Winter Soldier will impact the next few films as well as the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series.

All in all, Captain America: The Winter Soldier brings a well-balanced mix of action, intrigue, rich character moments, and is complete with all the fanboy inside winks and nods you’d expect from a Marvel film (and a pitch-perfect Pulp Fiction reference for Samuel L. Jackson fans). This film is leaps and bounds greater than the first Captain America and is on the same level as Avengers. If anything, this will definitely get you pumped for Phase 2.