After Marvel’s The Avengers proved to be a huge success, I was left wondering how the Phase Two movies would be handled in light of that. Would the solo films play it too safe and be crippled by the same sort of limitations that had been holding back Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in some ways, namely the fear of stepping on the toes of higher-priority projects like The Avengers: Age of Ultron? Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World included elements that reduced those concerns, but it wasn’t until Captain America: The Winter Soldier that they were completely eradicated. The events of this film impact the larger story in a greater way than I could have anticipated. Its repercussions will be felt throughout the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fabric, both in terms of the events of the future as well as the way we look at the movies of the past. It’s incredible that Marvel Studios is 9 movies in and still going stronger than ever.
I have to start by admitting that I never thought of myself as that much of a Captain America fan. In fact, Captain America: The First Avenger was the only one of Marvel’s Phase One films that I didn’t watch at the cinema, opting instead to wait for its home video release. And while Joe Johnston’s period/World War II/superhero hybrid movie itself proved to be a pleasant surprise, I still wasn’t as sold on the character of Steve Rogers as I was on the character of Tony Stark or even Thor. In fact, one could say that with all the cynicism in today’s world, most modern-day audiences don’t react to idealized heroic characters like Captain America the way the used to. The term ‘boy scout’ gets applied derisively to heroes like Cap or Superman, and anti-heroes, or at least more troubled characters like Tony Stark, are more easily accepted and glorified by fans.
DC Comics’ solution to this has been to attempt to ‘modernize’ Superman and add shades of grey to his otherwise sparkling white persona, as seen in Man of Steel, or to use alternate-universe scenarios to turn him completely dark, as in the Injustice: Gods Among Us video game. Unlike a chunk of DC’s fanbase who prefer his more traditional incarnations, I actually enjoy these fresh takes on Superman; whatever issues I had with Man of Steel as a movie were unrelated to his depiction as a character, which I have found is rare among the film’s detractors. Marvel, on the other hand, not only left Captain America largely intact in that regard, but also found a way to make it work to their advantage. I’m sure many fans who are disappointed with the more recent, darker Superman will point to The Winter Soldier as a shining example of how to successfully adapt a morally unambiguous hero without sacrificing his integrity. Personal preferences aside, I can’t say that I blame them, because Marvel did indeed show that there is still room for an unwaveringly upright character even in today’s world—especially in today’s world, in fact.
To be fair, though, Marvel did have a few elements to its advantage. Chief of those is the fact that Steve Rogers is a literal man out of time, a World War II soldier transplanted into today’s society. Thus, within the context of the story, it makes perfect sense for him to maintain the idealisms of yesteryear, even in a movie set and released in 2014. Surprisingly enough, the film did not feature him adapting to today’s society practically as much as it did ideologically. Yes, a few jokes were thrown here and there about him discovering the Internet and whatnot, but most of the issues centered around the clash between World War II-era idealism and the modern-day approach to national security at the expense of freedom—issues that Rogers is forced to deal with, now that he’s an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
This is one of the many things I enjoyed about having Cap work for S.H.I.E.L.D. Not only does it makes perfect sense for his character, but it also places him at the very heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captain America seems to be the Marvel lead most suited for ensemble films, and rather than it being a weakness in this latest solo outing, Winter Solider uses that opportunity to develop some of the MCU’s secondary characters, including S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, and have Rogers interact—and occasionally butt heads—with them.
Chief of these characters was Natasha Romanoff. The Winter Soldier continues The Avengers‘s tradition of giving Black Widow a more active role and chipping away at her cool exterior, revealing more and more depth. In this movie, it would be more accurate to refer to her as the female lead rather than a supporting character. Not only do we get to see some of her most entertaining stunts yet, but we also get to know her in her most human and candid state so far (we’d never even seen her in something as casual as a hoodie and jeans before). Maybe this is Marvel’s way of trying to avoid having to give Black Widow her own movie at some point, but in my opinion this only served to convince me that they absolutely must. She and Cap also had an unexpected but utterly delightful ‘buddy-buddy’ dynamic, a role usually reserved for male characters, and a refreshing change from the typical romantic interest role most female leads get shoehorned in. This makes the few moments they shared in The Avengers (joking about Coulson’s trading cards, the “there’s only one God, ma’am” scene, and them teaming up during the battle of New York with her springboarding off his shield onto a flying alien motorbike thing) even better in retrospect, now that we can see them as the beginnings of a memorable friendship. It’s always nice to see a thread like that get carried through from one film into another.
Another such thread that continued from The Avengers was Cap’s relationship with Nick Fury. In that film, Steve progressed from an unquestioning patriot to someone whose blind faith was shaken, thanks to seeds of doubt planted by Tony Stark. By the time of The Winter Soldier, this doubt grows into a total loss of faith in the system, and it takes a heavy toll on him while also causing some interesting friction between him and Fury. This situation also gave Captain America modern-day relevance, something I never thought possible, and did something most Marvel movies haven’t done much of so far: it raised real-world questions and concerns. People have been critical of the government’s more extreme measures for a while now, but juxtaposing a 40s-era idealistic patriot with today’s cynical and paranoid world really drives home the question: When did we trade in freedom for security? When did we accept preemptive strikes and invasion of privacy in the name of protection? Fury’s response, shared by many I’m sure, is that it’s justified, because the world has become increasingly dangerous. In the movie, there’s actually a reason behind that, but I’ll get to it in the spoiler section.
That aside, Nick Fury has plenty of great scenes in this film, including a spectacular car chase culminating in the appearance of the titular villain. The deadly assassin known as the Winter Solider is Marvel’s best non-Loki villain to date. With his black attire, shoulder-length hair, and robotic arm, as well as his insane fighting skills and cool demeanour as he casually strolls through danger, he is—and there’s no other way of putting this—a pure badass. Marvel has always struggled with having memorable villains in their films for some reason, but thankfully, the Winter Solider is nothing if not memorable. And my oh my, his one-on-one fight scenes with Captain America are some of the best hand-to-hand combat sequences I’ve ever seen.
There were quite a few new characters in this film, including Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, Emily VanCamp’s Agent 13, and Alexander Pierce, played by the brilliant Robert Redford, who shone even in a genre where one would not have expected to see him. The Falcon, being Cap’s new sidekick, was surprisingly well-developed, considering he did not get as much screentime as Black Widow did. And seeing him glide around on his winged jetpack was nothing short of exhilarating. There were several returning characters as well, from Cobie Smulders’s Maria Hill even all the way to a minor character like Jasper Sitwell, an agent who had minor appearances in Thor and The Avengers but a more prominent role in the One-Shot The Consultant and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show.
The Winter Solider took an opportunity to give us the best cinematic look at S.H.I.E.L.D. we’d ever gotten, and mixed the superhero genre with a political thriller while tossing in intense action to deliver one of the very best Marvel movies to date.
Rating: 4.5/5 (Excellent)
I have to admit, I never saw it coming. When I watched Captain America: The First Avenger, I assumed Hydra died with the Red Skull, even knowing that the organization in the comics was the historical enemy of S.H.I.E.L.D. I never thought I’d see it return, except perhaps in a smaller fashion on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series. But I was wrong: not only is Hydra back, but it never went away to begin with. In fact, it can never go away; after all, if you cut off one head, two more shall take its place.
When Arnim Zola appeared on that monitor (a more accurate adaptation of his comic book self, by the way), and declared that Hydra was behind so much more than we ever could have imagined, I was taken by total surprise, but I had a huge smile on my face. Who knew that the man I assumed was a henchman scientist at best turned out to be the mastermind behind a decades-long plot to infiltrate and destroy S.H.I.E.L.D. from within? And it’s not just about that, either. Zola’s plan was to create global chaos over the course of several decades in order to drive humanity into a state where they would unknowingly surrender their freedom for the sake of security. Privacy was invaded so much that the government had access to all sorts of personal data. Paranoia escalated to a point where three S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarriers were specifically created to preemptively eliminate threats. And since Hydra (secretly the very cause of this paranoia) had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., it had access to both the information and the weaponry, enabling it to use Zola’s algorithm to destroy the millions of people perceived as threats to Hydra itself, and effectively take over the world.
Taking over the world may be a cliché, but politically astute as it may be, this is still a Captain America movie. Larger-than-life allegories are always at the heart of superhero stories. By combining our real-world history with Marvel’s, Captain America: The Winter Soldier used a fictional Hydra world domination master plot to shed light on the very real topic of how terrible the world has gotten that we’re willing to sacrifice so much for our safety, and raises the question of who exactly are these people in whose hands we’re placing so much trust. It’s far more than any other Marvel movie, or indeed most other superhero movies, has ever done, and I applaud it for that.
Of course, Captain America did manage to stop that particular plot, but the damage had already been done. S.H.I.E.L.D. itself was decades ago infested with Hydra sleeper agents ready to reveal their true allegiances at any moment, and when they did, S.H.I.E.L.D. broke apart. Nothing will be the same from now on, and we’re already feeling the impact of these events on the MCU thanks to the massively game-changing latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which I won’t discuss here except to say, wow). Not only do these events affect the future, but they also cast a brand new light on the events of the past, because even the S.H.I.E.L.D. we met in Iron Man and The Avengers wasn’t what we thought it was. Sitwell was a double-agent. Even Senator Stern, the pain-in-the-butt senator plaguing Tony Stark in Iron Man 2, was allied to Hydra, which completely changes our perception of his actions in that movie, released 4 years ago!
With S.H.I.E.L.D. completely dismantled and the events of both the past and the future drastically altered, Captain America: The Winter Solider might be an even bigger game-changer than The Avengers. We’ve entered a fresh new era for the MCU, and I can’t wait to see what it brings.
- The end credits scene featured Baron von Strucker, Loki’s staff, and the Maximoff twins. Is it safe to assume that they were being experimented on, and that the staff is the source of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s powers in the MCU? This would be reminiscent of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., in which what I assume is Hydra’s project Centipede was experimenting on Mike Peterson. Or, to draw another parallel to the TV series, is their power innate, like that of the pyrokinetic from the fifth episode, Girl in the Flower Dress? Either way, it was a great treat to see the twins and this fresh take on their powers before Age of Ultron.
- Stephen Strange namedrop!
- Nick Fury’s eye!
- Old Peggy! Such a sad scene, but I’m happy he got to see her anyway.
- I dedicated the entirety of the spoiler section to the Hydra reveal, but I don’t want to end the review without mentioning Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Solider. I like how the reveal was handled, how his survival and subsequent brainwashing was effortlessly explained, and especially how Cap reacted to it, but with everything that was going on, I imagine the bulk of the Bucky drama is reserved for the sequel. The post-credits scene seems to confirm that.
- I have to reiterate that the action sequences were seriously good, and much more intense than we’ve come to expect in these movies. The Cap vs. Winter Soldier fistfights had me on the edge of my seat, Black Widow kicked some serious butt, and Cap had some great moments to shine, including very creative uses of his shield and that “holy crap” moment when he took out an entire jet singlehandedly.
- And of course, Hail Hydra!