MCU Retrospective: Captain America The Winter Soldier
Greetings Marvelites! Welcome to the latest retrospective on one of our favorite films from the MCU and this recapper’s personal favorite – Captain America: The Winter Soldier. We’re counting down to the November 4th release of the Sorcerer Supreme – a new chapter within the MCU continuity. Now onto The Winter Soldier!
Let’s start at the beginning. I first picked up on the impact of The Winter Soldier from die-hard Captain America fans. After The First Avenger I knew that we’d be seeing Bucky Barnes back, but it wasn’t until San Diego Comic Con and the excitement from die-hard fans within the MCU that I saw the absolute lengths that Marvel was prepared to go. We made plans, we cancelled plans, but we eventually all saw the movie. Overall, there is so much to dissect from The Winter Soldier and so much that has impacted the movie-going and the television Marvelite audiences that it’s beyond impressive.
The Winter Soldier proved that Marvel offered more than just “superhero smash-up films.” At the core of every Marvel story is a basic story – a story of frendship, a romantic comedy, or in this case a savvy political thriller along the lines of The Manchurian Candidate – with superheroes. The Winter Soldier proves the House of Ideas is more than just colorful pages and continuity – not to mention more than just cat suits and superpowers. There are artists at work here and it shows nowhere more than with The Winter Soldier.
Let’s start with the basics. Steve Rogers, after 70 years in ice, losing the love of his life (#SaveAgentCarter) and facing the most traumatic experience of a changed Time’s Square in New York City is settling into life in Washington DC. Trouble brews when a mysterious assassin appears with a metal arm and a penchant for playing frisbee with his shield. Said assassin is after Samuel L. Jackson (the first mistake the enemy makes. Mr. Jackson cannot be killed by mortal means known to human beings – and that goes double for Nick Fury.) It is revealed through Natasha that this is the “Winter Soldier” who has subtly been shaping history to the whims of his dark masters for decades. Steve, after confronting him, realizes that – surprise surprise – it’s BUCKY BARNES. Marvel gave us the titular line “who the hell is Bucky?” and a thousand and one voices cried out in agony and were suddenly silenced.
From there things get weirder. It’s not enough that SHIELD is the CIA; picture the CIA infiltrated by a Nazi-oriented organization that has subtly been growing within the organization. Everybody’s a suspect, everybody’s a traitor, and, much like the current political climate, nobody in Washington DC likes anybody else and everybody is trying to kill each other. HYDRA, however, is trying harder than everyone else by making a list of potential “special” people using an algorithm that can predict who is going to be special (You guys could have won so many Fantasy Football tournaments, HYDRA. If only you had used this power for good instead of evil!) Pay attention because HYDRA drops a very familiar name – Stephen Strange. Then HYDRA gets dropped by one of the first new heroes introduced into the MCU and a new Avenger-to-be – Sam Wilson, AKA the Falcon.
Sam gets some of the best lines as heroes are born and made (Anthony Mackie’s deadpan performance versus Rumlow had all the air and sophistication of Harrison Ford versus the guy with the sword in the first Indiana Jones movie. It’s not wrong to say that Mackie would make a great Indy, right? Absolutely not.) HYDRA retreats into the shadows (or at least Agents of SHIELD where Grant Ward does his best to make up enough evil for an entire organization) along with SHIELD – where Steve Rogers delivers his damning line: “SHIELD goes, all of it.” Comics wise, Steve trusts SHIELD only so far, so I can gather how he’d be more than a little annoyed. (Someone should have told him his biggest fan Phil Coulson was alive. That might have helped.)
Bucky ends up saving Steve’s life after HYDRA’s plot goes awry and the world government’s chock up another tally mark against the Avengers. Going off to find himself and begin the most epic bromance since Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins, Steve Rogers is recooperating in the hospital and has a new mission – a personal one. The guy who was do-or-die for his country is questioning his personal stance and growing as a character. Can he give everything for his government? Should he? Plot threads that will continue to ravel and unravel until the third movie in the Captain America trilogy – Captain America: Civil War – are set in place.
Character wise, The Winter Soldier gives actors a chance to do more than entertain – it gives them a chance to act. Chris Evans’s performance breaks out of the gate and doesn’t stop with the emotions. Steve Rogers’s conflicts are written in the set of his shoulders, the quiet judgement of Nick Fury (the war was supposed to be over, Nick), and the horror at what SHIELD, what Peggy Carter’s organization, has become. He has to be on his game because the stand-out performance of the film is Sebastian Stan’s – who somehow manages to convey more emotion with his eyes than most actors manage to do with their entire body. Bucky Barnes doesn’t earn redemption with his actions; he earns it with Sebastian Stan’s performance of a man broken through impossible means. If acting was a football, The Russo brothers passed it to Sebastian Stan and he ran it through the end zone and into the next county before tossing it back several thousand yards.
If you’re sitting here and wondering why Natasha Romanoff feels sidelined a little bit, join the club. Comics fans might recall Natasha as a major figure from the Winter Soldier’s past, and if there’s one small lacking flaw in the performances it’s simply that Natasha – a major figure -feels more like an accessory to Steve’s struggles over Bucky, not an actual player. The hashtag #ItsAllConnected wavers, the digital feed begins to cut – where is the reaction and why would Marvel chose to avoid such a major relationship, or at the very least have something more then just hints and veiled backstory? Is there a script lurking deep in the bowels of Marvel’s corporate offices that would have given the Avengers heroine a chance to showcase her backstory? Only time will tell. Mackie more than makes up for it, however, with his sense of fun. Out of everyone here, he’s the happiest to exist. Sam is the grounding network that the audience is trying to tilt the rest of the characters back to where things don’t hurt as much (Poor Sam.)
The Winter Soldier is a game changer film for a number of reasons. It introduces us to Anthony and Joe Russo, a pair of directors known for horror films who would go on to headline the House of Ideas and direct, however incidentally, phases 3 and 4 of the MCU after Joss Whedon stepped down from his Ultron-Throne. This herculean task is something else entirely. Let’s take a moment, True Believers, to appreciate the level of contact that directors, writers, and Marvel staffers need to have at all times in order to maintain the #ItsAllConnected hashtag. Let’s take a moment to appreciate that Hollywood is a world that lives and dies on what you produce and your personal merit. If you don’t produce you’re – well – FIRED. The Russo brothers have given us incredible ensemble films and proven themselves to be worthy heirs to Joss Whedon’s legacy against unbelievable odds. We here at The Marvel Report tip our hat to the unbelievable Joe and Anthony Russo.
Secondly, The Winter Soldier is a game-changer from a storytelling perspective; it takes us out of the realms of the possible and begins to push us to the realms of the extraordinary. No matter what the circumstances, SHIELD is basically the CIA – it’s an organization that people can relate to – and it’s one that should probably have stepped in when it comes to vigilantes. Removing it from the MCU temporarily gives the world a chance to re-evaluate how things might work, and depending on its further involvement it will be interesting to see how it returns (since it just returned to Agents of SHIELD last week!) Since the Avengers have become active, more people are stepping up with powers and vendettas of their own. It’s causality at its most basic. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Let me make it simple for you. If you’ve ever read Marvel: Zombies (a great but gory and horrific series) the Avengers are all infected with a zombie virus. The Avengers, in fact all superheroes, are the walking dead. Within a week they have killed every single human being. A week, guys! The Avengers could turn the world into a Utopia – the question is, is it a Utopia that we would want? Is that kind of power the kind of thing you’d want to have? Or inflict on anyone? This powered escalation is essential and making it about the heroes and not the world they live in – taking it out of the realm of reality and into the realm of a bit more fantasy is a smart move and one that will be completed November 4th with Stephen Strange and the further introduction of the mystical.
The final point – tying in the film’s villainy, its connections, and why this recapper has mentally fought to write this particular recap – is the technical expertise and the political statements the Russos subtly made with this particular film. The core storytelling impact comes from HYDRA being involved in SHIELD and shaping their policies. Before Coulson, before Fury – HYDRA was shaping the policies that trained them thanks to brainwashing their first agents and then passing down those particular rules. It’s an attitude that’s led to a lot of black hats being created (John Garrett and Grant Ward on Agents of SHIELD being prime examples), and having Steve Rogers comment on that is a subtle commentary on what actually happened in history – part of my personal appreciation for Marvel’s brilliance.
Operation Paperclip was real. The introduction of Nazi scientists into America and into American scientific communities led to us winning the space race – at the expense of horrific experiments on human beings. Having someone who – metaphorically speaking – was present during those atrocities comment on the nature of people doing terrible things to keep people safe is poignant, and relevant particularly in today’s political climate. The Russos ask people if you’d rather be a Steve Rogers or a Nick Fury, and pokes very gentle fingers at our common notions of what a hero looks like. Even the inclusion of Robert Redford as the brilliantly calculating Alexander Pierce is a subtle nod at irony, since 20 years ago Steve Rogers is a role that Redford could have easily portrayed. There’s a message here: make the right decisions or see how far you can fall – illustrated nowhere more perfectly than with Steve and Bucky. Steve Rogers could be Bucky Barnes very easily. One could even argue that Bucky Barnes is what America ended up becoming – an angry, embittered and broken individual trying to find a sense of who they were once upon a time. HYDRA’s inclusion in the shaping of SHIELD, Steve’s moral feelings about SHIELD and Nick Fury in particular, offer a poignant question to the audience. The Russos step right up to us in our theater seats and ask us how far are we willing to go and where is it going to take us – and when we don’t answer (we’re too busy crying into our popcorn) they wait and pause and hem and haw before going for the throat.
Overall, the core story is one about growing up and growing out of antiquated ideals. SHIELD and HYDRA are in their own way twisted parents to Steve Rogers and the core cast of characters, facing up to what they’ve done and making their own decisions as they take their first steps into a larger world. While Star Wars is a legacy teaching core values, Marvel and the House of Ideas have made their own niche in events that celebrate individuality. Nowhere is that more true than with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, from the storytelling to that telling end credits scene that sees the introduction of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Join us next time for the next film in our MCU retrospective series, The Guardians of the Galaxy!