Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I have never quite got the superhero hype, however. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.
Release Date: 26th March 2014
MCU Phase: Two
Director: Joe & Anthony Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan
May contain spoilers.
Oh yes. That’s more like it. Phase Two has been a mixed bag so far, with Iron Man 3 excellent and Thor: The Dark World poor. With Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we have both a return to form for the MCU, and a return to the more serious, more complex approach that made Iron Man 3 so strong.
This film also breaks new ground in being, for my money, the first MCU movie that does not really have ‘superhero’ as its primary genre. I have been led to believe that Guardians of the Galaxy (up next) takes us into full-on sci-fi space opera, and that Thor: Ragnarok is Marvel’s first out-and-out comedy. With The Winter Soldier we have the MCU’s first real thriller. It’s an espionage and deception-filled ride into the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D. that treats the organisation like on of its heroes in seeing the need to evolve and deepen it. Throughout Phase One S.H.I.E.L.D. existed as an omnipresent agency whose primary role within the MCU was to unite our heroes in time for The Avengers. With that done, it needed to change, and this film takes S.H.I.E.L.D. and its identity as the basis for the entire plot.
To be clear, I think that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an excellent film. It is one of the few MCU entries that has seriously impressed me, along with Iron Man 3 and The Avengers. It is the first outing for director duo Joe and Anthony Russo, teaming up with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. That this team will go on to make Captain America: Civil War and Avengers behemoths Infinity War and Endgame excites me enormously, because on the evidence of this they really know what they’re doing.
If you have been reading My Marvel Diary so far then you will know that two things are really important to me in a superhero film: character, and the villain. If these aspects are approached without nuance or individuality, then that is when you end up with a generic, and ultimately far less entertaining, film like The Incredible Hulk.
The Winter Soldier nails both of these things. For a start, it gets around Marvel’s recurring villain problem by not really having a villain. Instead it offers us something much deeper and more frightening. In the discovery that Hydra, the Nazi-offshoot force that Captain America defeated in The First Avenger was actually nestled within S.H.I.E.L.D. and slowly growing, like a parasite, for decades, the film has a whole network of villainy and complicity. At the top of this is Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce, who I guess becomes the film’s de facto head bad guy. But even he was not the seed that started Hydra’s plot to bring ‘order’ to the world. He seems to be a genuine believer in its mission, and the principle that killing 20 million people to ‘peacefully rule’ seven billion is a truly good thing.
Normally a villainous type like Pierce would have an unstoppable henchman to do the dirty work, who usually says very little, but is the basis for the film’s biggest action scenes. Here, that formula is followed but modified, as it is dramatically revealed that the ‘Winter Soldier’ Hydra has been deploying for decades is in fact a damaged version of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve Rogers’ presumed-dead best friend from the Second World War. Cap’s disbelief at what he is seeing, and the emotional turmoil of trying to fight but also save Bucky makes for great viewing. It peppers the action with real emotional stakes.
That brings us to character. Up until now Captain America has been a soldier who follows orders to defeat evil. He has in that sense been leading a simple life. Now, in the modern day and with S.H.I.E.L.D. seemingly the enemy, Cap no longer knows who to be fighting against, the ‘right answer’ is unclear, and he is taking his own orders. Being alone and fighting immediately only for himself puts Steve Rogers in an unusual position, and is a good way of exploring the effect the modern-day has on his character. I’m also a big fan of the sexual tension between him and Black Widow, and the continuing trend of her smart-talking, arse-kicking confidence masking a world of pain and guilt. She’s still a supporting player (until her solo film finally arrives post-coronavirus), but she’s an interesting and well-acted one.
The inter-character relationships that drove The Avengers to success are grown in The Winter Soldier, too. Cap and Black Widow’s friendship is now cemented, a level of trust and understanding is grown between Steve and Nick Fury, and we begin to sense the importance of Nick Fury to Natasha Romanoff and everyone around him. He is not just the man who brings the team together this time; he is someone who tried to make the world a better place, and is heartbroken to see S.H.I.E.L.D. fall. Samuel L. Jackson is superb in a big moment when Fury must admit that his organisation is broken, and must crumble.
So that’s what makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier tick my usual boxes, and avoid the MCU pitfalls that continually get on my nerves. What kicks into the top-tier, though, is how damn exciting it is. This was hands-down the most gripped I have been watching an MCU move so far. The plot has new levels of intrigue, continuing the Phase Two trend of less predictable storylines and a few good twists. The action, too, is my favourite so far, proving the Russo brothers’ credentials for taking this franchise forward.
The action set-pieces in this, including a magnificent climax, are a wonderful amalgamation of small and large-scale. I wrote in an earlier article that I like action where every movement, punch, and explosion feels necessary and worthwhile. That’s what you get in The Winter Soldier. Take the sequence when Cap beats up 10 guys in a lift, then jumps through a glass window and roof, and ultimately destroys a whole bloody plane with just his shield and his muscles. We see his thought processes, and the exact action that goes into his escape. Because the focus is just on Captain America and how the hell he’s going to escape, we are enthralled by every movement. This continues even as the film grows in spectacle, with well-choreographed hand-to-hand combat at the centre of everything. It doesn’t look like the biggest action film the MCU has made, but to my mind its the most gripping.
Where this film leaves us I am also a big fan of. Phase One had a clear mission leading up to The Avengers: to introduce each individual hero and give them a rough ‘origin story’ for us to latch on to. Phase Two, it seems, has the aim of deepening our connection to the heroes, and leaving them as broken, changed individuals going into Avengers: Age of Ultron. What is so exciting about this Phase is that the stories that can be told within this framework are limitless, so we’ve had three very different films so far. They messed up The Dark World, admittedly, but it still gave us an intriguing end, with Thor refusing the throne. Iron Man 3 left us with Tony Stark suitless and without his arc-reactor heart. Now, with The Winter Soldier, we have S.H.I.E.L.D. destroyed, Nick Fury on the run, and Cap out on his own mission this time, off to track down Bucky. We are leaving our heroes in very exciting places to lead into Age of Ultron with.
I do have a couple of minor reservations. They are more warnings for the future than criticisms of this film however. With Bucky Barnes alive and not-so-well, and Nicky Fury also coming back from the dead during this film, The Winter Soldier signals a potential upcoming issue with the MCU – nobody can just stay bloody dead. This is following on from the ridiculous reveal that Loki was still alive at the end of Thor: The Dark World, remember, so returns from the grave are already becoming familiar. As it happens, in this film, I thought the decisions to resurrect both Fury and Bucky worked well, but I also found Fury’s original death scene quite moving. If the MCU don’t let people stay dead, then they will start to lose my trust, and no death will have any emotional impact, because I’ll just be waiting for them to make a comeback. Secondly, after Loki’s contention that humans need rulers because we’re too stupid to rule ourselves in The Avengers, and now the Hydra motto that people need order foisted upon them for their own good, I see a pattern emerging. Patterns are okay, and so are recurring themes, but dull repetition is not. It’s something to watch out for.
There’s quite a lot going on here. We see the big dangerous stick Loki had in The Avengers; we know some Hydra agents are alive; and we get a first glimpse of some new characters in the form of Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen). With Anthony Mackie involved as Falcon this time, too, we now have an expanding collection of figures ready for Age of Ultron. There’s also a second sting post rather than mid-credits, which shows the Winter Soldier observing a shrine to his former self in a museum, perhaps prompting a return to the Bucky Barnes he once was.
Where it Ranks
The Winter Soldier does exciting new things with the MCU, and is also a hugely entertaining self-contained thriller. Up until now The Avengers has been the gold standard – and many people might argue with my decision – but based on how much I enthralled I was by it, and the excellent filmmaking choices made, The Winter Soldier is my new top dog.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Iron Man
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Iron Man 2
- Thor: The Dark World
- The Incredible Hulk