Every day between now and Christmas morning, we’ll share the twenty-five stories that engaged, enchanted, amused and amazed us the most in 2014. If you missed them, now’s your chance to catch up; if you’re looking for a gift for the wonk in your life, then these are our most enthusiastic recommendations!

Today, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Since 2008’s Iron Man, the Marvel cinematic universe has been unstoppable — like some kind of Juggernaut, you might say — but it wasn’t until 2014 that it began to demonstrate some range and flexibility. There are three Marvel properties on our list of the best stories of 2014, but we begin with Cap.

From the opening moments, this film establishes a tone and an aesthetic distinct from, but still consistent with, the other Marvel movies. This has the grit, the sheen and the pacing of a 1970s espionage thriller. We are concerned here not with a titanic external threat, but with loyalty, paranoia and patriotism. This allows us to engage with what is by far the most interesting facet of Steve Rogers’ character; he is a man who sees a half-century of technological and social change more clearly than we do, because he experienced it as a sharp discontinuity rather than a slow evolution. An idealist — an anachronism — like Cap wouldn’t feel convincing if he emerged from the sleek, hard-edged world of the Triskelion and S.H.I.E.L.D., but by treating a character that is always at least potentially ridiculous with respect and consideration, the writers open up a narrative space that is both grounded and fascinating. Better yet, they follow through on the promise of the plot, delivering real, weighty consequences for these characters, and for the Marvel universe as a whole.

It’s not a perfect movie, of course — there’s still too little for Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff to do, the CGI-heavy third act is thunderous and heavy-handed, and we don’t get a satisfying resolution to the arc of the Winter Soldier himself — but it shows that Marvel can adapt and innovate in this space, and tell engaging stories in unexpected ways.

Buy it now: Captain America: The Winter Soldier