Released: 4 April 2014
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $170 to 177 million
Stars: Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Redford
Having helped to save the world from an alien invasion, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans) now works alongside Nick Fury (Jackson), director of Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson). Steve’s efforts to acclimatise to the modern world are fraught with doubt concerning a potential conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D. and only further exacerbated when he continually runs afoul of a mysterious assassin codenamed the “Winter Soldier”.
Honestly, of all of the Phase One films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I was the least excited for Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011). However, while a little run of the mill in some ways, the film proved to be a massive box office success; like many critics, I was impressed with the film, especially in hindsight without the anticipation of Marvel’s first team-up movie clouding my judgement, and Marvel entered Phase Two with the intention of not only refining everything that worked so well in Phase One but also shaking things up considerably for the MCU and laying the groundwork for bigger stories going forward. In many ways, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was central to this edict; ostensibly inspired by Ed Brubaker’s seminal comic book story, the filmmakers chose to ground the story in the then-present day and craft a spy thriller very much in the style of a 1970s political thriller that would have wide-reaching ramifications across the MCU. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a massive hit; it made nearly $715 million at the box office and was the fifth-highest-grossing film of 2014. Reviews were unanimously positive, with critics praising the character development and suspense and geo-political relevance, and the film is held in high regard as one of the best (if not the best) films of the entire MCU.
Two years have passed since Avengers Assemble (Whedon, 2012) and, despite being thrown in the deep end at the end of The First Avenger and during the chaotic events of that film, Steve has largely adjusted to modern life. This is primarily because he has been focusing on S.H.I.E.L.D. missions alongside their counter-terrorism team, Special Tactical Reserve for International Key Emergencies (S.T.R.I.K.E.), led by Brock Rumlow (Grillo), a fact Romanoff chastises him about. Although Steve has been researching the events he missed out on while under ice and has compiled a handy-dandy list of pop culture to catch up on, he maintains that he is “too busy” to think about dating or anything other than the next mission, and yet is growing increasingly perturbed by Fury’s secrecy and the questionable nature of many of his missions.
Carrying a great deal of loss, survivor’s guilt, and sorrow for the years, friends, and loved ones he has lost, Steve strives to maintain his composure; he is compelled to continue following orders and serving his country out of a sense of duty and to trust S.H.I.E.L.D. since his former flame, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), helped found the organisation. Steve struggles a bit to form new friendships and relationships, though he does take the advice of his colleagues to heart and tries, somewhat awkwardly, to ask out his neighbour, Sharon Carter (VanCamp). His difficulties in this aspect are only exacerbated by Fury’s cagey demeanour and when Sharon turns out to be S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13; struck by a series of devastating revelations that turn friend into foe and unable who to trust, The Winter Soldier is as much a film about Steve coming to terms with the grimy and chaotic nature of the modern world as it is about shaking the world of the MCU to its very core.
Steve’s more old-school sensibilities and dislike for secrecy causes some friction between him and Fury; Fury, however, remains the consummate spy’s spy and is fully prepared to compartmentalise information from even super soldiers like Steve. Thanks to Fury’s extended screen time, we learn much more about his character, backstory, and motivation than in his previous bit-parts and cameos; Fury’s plan to launch a series of Helicarriers to monitor and eliminate potential threats as part of “Project: Insight” insults and angers Cap, who sees it as oppression rather than freedom. Cap’s discomfort with secrecy, Fury’s motives, and recent events are shown to have some basis when, unable to decrypt the data S.T.R.I.K.E. retrieved from Batroc, Fury requests that Secretary of Internal Security Alexander Pierce (Redford) delays the project until a proper investigation can be undertaken.
The data is suddenly and violently stolen by a mysterious and aggressive assassin known as the Winter Soldier, who attacks Fury while in transit and then appears to kill the S.H.I.E.L.D. director. When Cap refuses to share the encrypted file with Pierce, he is branded a fugitive and hounded by the very people he once fought alongside and considered allies. With Romanoff’s help, Steve decrypts the data and is led to a S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker where the electronically preserved consciousness of his old foe Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) reveals, to Steve’s horror, that Hydra are not only alive and well but have infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and much of the world’s government, including members of the World Security Council and Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), and that Pierce is planning to use Project: Insight to eliminate potential threats to their power before they can become a problem.
Much like previous casting in the MCU, Robert Redford was quite the coup for Marvel Studios and his enigmatic presence lends an authority and credibility to the film that is in stark contrast to the idea that superhero films are just big, dumb action flicks. Pierce’s primary agent is the titular Winter Soldier, a menacing and almost robotic assassin who attacks with precision, efficiency, and has a cybernetic left arm. Superhumanly fast and incredibly strong, the Winter Soldier is easily able to catch and fling back Steve’s shield and unbelievably adept with guns and, especially, knives. Romanoff is familiar with the assassin, having heard of him as something of a bogeyman during her time as a Russian agent, but Steve is absolutely stunned to discover that the assassin is his old friend, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Stan), who survived his seemingly fatal plunge in The First Avenger. Recovered by Hydra agents and subjected to a version of the same super soldier serum that augmented Cap, Bucky was routinely brainwashed into becoming a ruthless assassin; kept in cryogenic stasis and unleashed whenever Hydra required a target to be eliminated, Bucky’s sense of identity is all but lost thanks to decades of mindwipes and manipulation. For the first time since he became the Winter Soldier, Bucky begins to question himself and his mission; intrigued by Steve’s knowledge of him, he is curious to find out more but no less dangerous as his conditioning dictates that the mission must always come first at the expense of all other distractions.
While Steve’s oldest friend may have been turned into a merciless enemy, Cap gains a new ally in United States Air Force pararescueman Sam Wilson (Mackie); though fully trained in advanced aerial combat and utilising a specialised rocket-and-wing pack as the Falcon, Sam is primarily focused on helping veterans to reacclimatise to society after serving overseas. As a result, he forms an immediate friendship with Steve based on their mutual military experience and losses; with few friends and confidantes to talk to, Steve finds a kindred spirit in Sam and he helps Cap to focus on moving on with his life as best as he possibly can. When Pierce brands Cap a traitor and orders all agents (both those loyal to S.H.IE.LD. and those oblivious to Hydra’s infiltration) to hunt him down, Sam is one of the few who stands by Steve and suits up as the Falcon to join him in his desperate assault against the Helicarriers in the film’s finale. Black Widow also gets a great deal more time to shine here than in her previous appearances; ostensibly placed as Cap’s partner in S.T.R.I.K.E. missions, she is a pragmatic, straightforward, and very modern character in contrast to Cap’s more dated sensibilities. Indeed, while he struggles to adjust to the morally grey nature of the modern world, Romanoff has lived in a morally grey area for her entire life and sees (and approaches) situations very differently to Steve. Her secretive nature conflicts with Steve’s more honest ways just as much as Fury’s but, when push comes to shove, she prioritises her friendship and partnership with Steve over all other concerns. Still a kick-ass, impossibly alluring character, Romanoff actively tries to encourage Steve to socialise more and explore his potential in the modern world, seems legitimately heartbroken when Fury is killed, and works alongside Cap to uncover the mystery of the Winter Soldier and the depth to Hydra’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an impressively intriguing and complex political thriller masquerading as an action-packed superhero film; for those who say all the MCU films look and feel the same, I would recommend taking another look at The Winter Soldier, which is far more gritty and serious than the average superhero film, to say nothing of its MCU cousins. Filled with as much intrigue as it is action, the film challenges our perception of the MCU by turning friends into foes and making us question the motives of everyone we’ve grown accustomed to by this point. Accordingly, the primary goal of The Winter Soldier is to take everything that has been established about he MCU and tear it down; S.H.I.E.L.D., especially, once this seemingly benevolent governmental arm that provided the Avengers with every resource they could ask for, is shattered into fragments by the reveal that Hydra has infiltrated it since the end of the Second World War.
At the time (and, if I’m being honest, even now), I somewhat disagreed with stripping S.H.I.E.L.D. away from the Avengers as it felt like we hadn’t really had a chance to really explore what it was all about or see them operate at the peak of their power but it definitely put the MCU on the path towards the fracturing of its premier super-team and the extremely effective unification of every costumed hero against a cosmic threat. Zola reveals that, over the years, Hydra has been destroying individuals and governments (primarily using the Winter Solder) to weaken society and the will of humankind. The culmination of this is an algorithm, developed by Zola, which is capable of identifying those who could become threats to Hydra’s power and eliminating them; this list includes names such as Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Doctor Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and the yet-to-be-introduced Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).
As much as I enjoyed The First Avenger, its action scenes weren’t really too much to shout about; the film gave a general overview of Cap’s superhuman abilities but he didn’t have too many chances to really show what he was capable of. The Winter Soldier changes all of that; Cap freely dives out of aircraft without a parachute, is fully capable of taking on entire groups or armed (and unarmed) men in both large and confined spaces, and he uses his indestructible Vibranium shield to fantastically brutal effect as an offensive weapon. Cap’s almost single-handed takedown of Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre) and his terrorists is only the top of the iceberg when it comes to how hard-hitting and impressive the film’s action and fight scenes are, with Cap’s extraordinary scuffle with Rumlow and other undercover Hydra agents in the lift and his multiple fist-fights with the titular Winter Soldier being a notable highlight.
The Winter Soldier culminates in a two-pronged attack against Hydra, which is positioning S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own technology to rain fire upon major American cities. When Fury reveals that he faked his death, he is able to get Black Widow close enough to Pierce to take him out of play and broadcast all of Hydra (and S.HI.E.L.D.’s) secrets to the world to effectively neuter whatever secrets and leverage the organisation may have. At the same time, the Falcon and Cap attack the Helicarriers; while Falcon fights with Rumlow, Cap switches the control chips so that the Helicarriers attack each other rather than their intended targets and, in the process, is forced into a final, brutal fist-fight with the Winter Soldier. As the Helicarrier collapses around them Steve refuses to fight his former best friend and tries to reach him; although he takes a savage beating, his words apparently strike enough of a chord in Bucky for him to rescue Steve from drowning and he disappears, alone and free for the first time in over seventy years. While Easter Eggs and references to the larger and ever-growing MCU are actually far less prominent in The Winter Soldier than in its Phase One counterparts, the film ends with Steve and Sam starting a new mission to track Bucky down, Fury adopting a pretty half-assed new look in a new-S.H.I.E.L.D.-less world, and a tantalising tease for the next big Avengers crossover.
For me, and for many, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is kind of where the MCU “got serious”; the films before it had always dealt with some pretty serious issues but generally approached them or balanced them out with some spectacular action or moments of entertaining levity. Here, though, the focus is definitively on being more of a political spy thriller full of intrigue, mystery, and suspense as much as action. That’s not to say that it’s dull, boring, or too serious for its own good; in fact, The Winter Soldier perfectly balances its action with its gritter aspects in a way that other superhero films can only dream of. The result is easily one of the best MCU, and superhero, films ever made and a vast improvement over the first film…and that’s keeping in mind that I am a big fan of The First Avenger! But The Winter Soldier fully sold me on Cap as a character, fleshing out his morals and motivations and challenging his perception of the world and his allies by turning them all upside down. Better yet, the film introduces one of my favourite MCU characters, the Winter Soldier, who is played to perfection by Sebastian Stan and is a wonderfully realised tortured reflection of the morally just Captain America. The decision to tear S.H.I.E.L.D. down and reveal that Hydra had secretly been operating behind the scenes for decades was a bold one and one that was definitely part of a well-crafted long game for the MCU and it all stated here with this exceptionally well-crafted thriller of a film.
What are your thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier? What did you think about the way the film, and the MCU, handled Cap’s return to the world after being frozen in time? Did you truly believe that Fury had died in the film? What did you think to Bucky’s reintroduction as the Winter Soldier and the debut of the Falcon? Were you a fan of the changes the film made to the MCU and the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Where does this film rank against the other Captain America movies and the larger MCU? How are you celebrating Captain America this month? Whatever your thoughts, drop a comment below and be sure to pop back for more Captain America content throughout July.