Image via Marvel Studios

MCU Rewind: The Winter Soldier Introduces A Different Captain America And Tackles A Real-World Issue For The First Time

When the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are ranked from best to worst, Captain America: The Winter Soldier always ranks very highly. The first Marvel Studios directorial outing of Joe and Anthony Russo, they genre-hopped from old-timey-war-movie homage to spy thriller. However, more so than that, the filmmakers crafted a story that adequately deals with a serious, real-world issue: creeping authoritarianism. Comic book stories have long been places where metaphorical parables unfold about real moral and political issues. However, sometimes, when these films take these issues head-on the allegory falls flat. In this movie, Captain America’s dedication to the liberty he fought for in World War II is tested when S.H.I.E.L.D., who he now serves, threatens that freedom. This is also the first Phase 2 film to take full advantage of the larger MCU. Using elements of a beloved series from the Cap comics, the Russos, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely crafted a wholly original story that is one of the best in the whole canon.

Two nerds watching Civil War

The Winter Soldier is one of my all-time favorite movies, for reasons beyond how well-done it is. I have a nostalgic affection for the Ed Brubaker run in the comics that originated the idea that Bucky Barnes lived to become an assassin. While in Iraq, a comic book shop sent us a bunch of free comics each month, and I read them as they were published. (Though I had to buy the last two issues of the “Winter Soldier” arc on my own, as we left before the story finished.) I saw this movie at a 10 a.m. showing on a Wednesday, and I was the only person in the theater for the whole film. Some time later, I’d had a tough day with my teenage daughter. As she sat near the television ignoring me, I found a channel playing this movie. She didn’t mention anything to me at the time, but the film captivated her. After she was supposed to be asleep, she fired up her laptop and risked computer viruses to illegally stream the other Cap films and the first Iron Man movie. I found her asleep next to her computer the following morning. Even though we don’t support stealing art in this house, I was never more proud of her. Since then, we’ve bonded over the entire superhero genre, but Cap and Bucky will forever have a special place in our hearts.

The opening sequence of the film is different than the others in Phase 2, with both Iron Man’s and Thor’s sequels starting with flashbacks. (This film could have started with one, too, but they decided against it.) Instead, we get a pre-dawn morning in D.C. where two men are jogging around the reflecting pool overlooked by the Lincoln Memorial. One is Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson and the other is Christoper Evans’s Steve Rogers, barreling past him faster and faster with the warning “on your left.” (Fun Army fact: this is what you are supposed to say when passing fellow soldiers during P.T.) It’s a quiet, almost normal opening to the film, and perhaps one of the last such moments we’ll get. After the two characters bond over how their beds are “too soft” since returning from their respective wars, Steve is picked up by Natasha Romanov, played once again by Scarlett Johansson. Her deadpan delivery of her dig at Steve, calling him a “fossil,” sets up their friendly-yet-combative relationship. She liked Cap, but as the movie goes on we see that Cap doesn’t trust her. Their journey to something between platonic friendship and romance is one of the more enjoyable arcs the Black Widow character gets from her seven appearances in the MCU.

Yet, before Natasha and Steve can become war-bonded, they have to butt heads on the first mission in this movie. A S.H.I.E.L.D. ship has been overtaken by pirates, and it’s up to Cap, Nat, and their strike team to free it. The team is led by Brock Rumlow, as played by Frank Grillo, a name that comic book fans would immediately recognize as the civilian handle of the villain Crossbones. The sequence on the ship is what sets this movie apart from its predecessors. Cap moves through the decks with speed and precision, quite unlike any of his capers in the first movie. In First Avenger he was something of a battering ram, in Winter Soldier he’s a laser-guided missile. There are two moments in the battle that make this evidently clear. The first comes a few seconds after Cap first engages with the pirates. He kicks a man hard, sending him careening over the railing. The second comes when Cap flings a knife into the hand of a pirate reaching for an alarm, pinning him to the wall. The brutality in those moments reveals that the Captain America who works for S.H.I.E.L.D. has gotten more precise and deadly than we’ve seen before.

Yet, our first clue that Cap’s new job grates against his sense of honor comes during what seems to be a pointless fight. Another familiar comic villain is on the ship, in the form of Georges St. Pierre’s Batroc. In a nod to the character’s persistent troubling of Cap in the comic books, Batroc is able to hold his own in a fistfight with the living legend. While pursuing the leader of the pirates, Cap allows Batroc to bait him into securing his shield and having an old-fashioned punch-out. Batroc, I think, simply believes he can take the old man. Cap, however, is setting up for the kind of “fair” fight that was important to men in the 1940s. Thinking about this practically, there is no reason for Cap to indulge Batroc, especially since the Black Widow is technically missing. He should have just flung his shield or otherwise brutally dispatched the villain. But he does not. And has the gall to accuse Natasha of jeopardizing the mission, when ironically the act of scolding her is what gave Batroc his window to escape. This is not a “plot hole,” but rather the way the Russos show us that Cap is out of element in his current role. He has the respect of his fellows, but he doesn’t think like a spy or a black-ops trooper.

There are a lot of things working in this movie, but the action is singularly well-done. During the press tour, the Russos revealed that they originally found Captain America’s power set visually limiting. Essentially, he just punched people and flings a shield. Yet, proving that limitations are actually the doors to greatness, the action pieces in this film are riveting. From the iconic elevator fight scene to the first time Steve faces down the Winter Soldier, it’s fight choreography as high-speed ballet. Unlike Iron Man or even Thor, Cap and his fights are not heavy on visual effects. Rubble and explosions are about as high-tech as we get here. Every so often since the release, a video of Christopher Evans and Sebastian Stan filming their street fight goes viral. The speed at which the action unfolds on screen is breathtaking. How they fight also reveals a lot about the characters. They are professionals, taking down their enemies quickly and efficiently. The only one who does any screwing around or bantering while they fight is Natasha, and she is the last to get into position on the boat. Until now, she was our picture of the quintessential S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, colorful and quippy. The Winter Soldier shows us she is the exception to the rule.

Even though Steve was technically the reason that the mission went awry at the end, setting up his journey to trusting and befriending Natasha is one of the best emotional arcs of the film. The movie toys with the idea that there is sexual tension between the two of them (and why wouldn’t there be?), but the filmmakers subvert that expectation. Cap and Natasha’s relationship ends up somewhere between romantic and platonic here, but their bond is more intimate than simply hooking up would be. The scenes they share in the truck on the way to break open the conspiracy and then immediately following that in Sam Wilson’s guest room are obvious examples. But the scene in which she describes her first encounter with the Winter Soldier showcases her skill in this role. She delivers her line with the signature deep almost-monotone of the character. Yet in that somewhat limiting affect, she shows a range of emotion, including fear. She also comes clean with Cap, at least a little. When she says, “I only pretend to know everything, Rogers,” it seems like Cap only then gets the true measure of the woman. Whereas Agent Carter was straightforward, tough, and determined to be seen, Natasha is what an “Agent” is in this brave new world. In fact, Natasha’s damaged view of herself is part of a larger story that pays off in the next Avengers film (and not without some controversy).

The big twist of the movie, that Hydra embedded itself in S.H.I.E.L.D., is a perfect plot for a comic book film. At first, it doesn’t quite make sense. Ferreting out double agents has to be one of the first things a spy agency has to figure out how to do, right? It also seems strange that at the first mention of this decades-old conspiracy — by a wanted fugitive, no less — the Hydra agents just start shooting people. The film does do its best to justify all this, which we can dive into momentarily. Yet, even if they hadn’t, it wouldn’t matter. Because the purpose of this storyline is not unlike the purpose of the Star Wars prequels. It’s a warning against how fear and blind obedience can take a system meant to protect liberty and turn it into a mechanism for fascism. It’s the kind of real-world message best delivered through metaphor, and that’s what S.H.I.E.L.D. is in this story.

For practical purposes, the organization — both in theory and in terms of the individuals who filled its ranks — is not entirely corrupt. However, rather than getting in the weeds on the minutiae of S.H.I.E.L.D., they let the television series handle that part of the story. In fact, this change took Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from a lackluster sci-fi procedural to a relevant and necessary part of the MCU. Through the resurrected Phil Coulson (and, boy, what a weird storyline that is), all that’s good about the agency lives on through him and his team. They handle the strange threats, dodge other government agencies, and continue to tie in to the movies, if only tangentially. They also bring to life other parts of the Marvel universe that are fun, like Ghost Rider, the Kree, and Deathlok. S.H.I.E.L.D. in the MCU is, ultimately, a force for good. But that’s a story for another time.

In the story this movie tells, the agency is a symbol of how sometimes corruption can be so thorough that the entire system must be destroyed. In The Winter Soldier, the answer to the problem at-hand is to tear S.H.I.E.L.D. down to its foundation, a cautionary tale for the real-world perhaps. As I mentioned in my review of First Avenger, Steve Rogers was flawless in that film. Yes, Chris Evans turned in a good performance, but I mean the character himself was a person without flaws. The greatest gift the writers gave to Steve Rogers in this film is his absolute certainty that he’s correct. At the start of the third act, Steve is adamant that S.H.I.E.L.D. has to be brought down to stamp out the Hydra threat. He does this for two reasons. First, because he believes that the Avengers can step into the hole vacated by S.H.I.E.L.D., and helping Tony Stark make good on his claim from Iron Man 2 that he “privatized world peace.”

Second, he wants to destroy S.H.I.E.L.D. because he never liked it much to begin with. He probably believes that it did good work when Peggy was at the helm (played in this film by a heavily made-up Hayley Atwell), but throughout the movie we’ve seen nothing but Cap’s disgust at how S.H.I.E.L.D. does business. As the subsequent films show, not having S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t really make the world safer, and even the Avengers can make costly mistakes. This isn’t precisely a character flaw — especially because the stories themselves seem to side with Cap — but he’s no longer, as my daughter referred to him, “a cinnamon roll.” A perfect character would be able to see all sides of the problem and willing to compromise on a solution. That’s not Captain America, not anymore.

The film gives us that sort of character, at least for an act-and-a-half, in Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce. Introduced as Nick Fury’s avuncular other half on the “World Security Council,” whose soft-spoken demeanor belies a man who considers all sides of an issue in order to not just make the difficult decisions but the right ones. Nowhere does this work better than when he and Cap talk after Fury is presumed dead. Pierce says all of the things we as the audience want to hear. Cap takes Fury’s warning to not trust anyone to heart, but in that moment the viewer wants Cap to bring this man into his confidence. Even when he doesn’t, we get the sense that Pierce and Cap will be at odds but working towards the same goal. Naturally, this notion is immediately dispelled when Pierce entertains the Winter Soldier for a nightcap of milk and killing domestic employees who forget their phones. If Pierce had suddenly turned cold and murderous, this magic trick wouldn’t have worked. Instead, Redford delivers the line about wishing his housekeeper would have knocked with what sounds like genuine regret. In his mind, he is not the bad guy.

The villains in the MCU solo films are, almost always, a dark reflection of the hero. In this movie, the Winter Soldier is clearly supposed to be that for Captain America. However, Pierce is a dark reflection as well, both for Cap and Nick Fury alike. Like Cap, Pierce has precisely zero doubt that his and Hydra’s plans are exactly what humanity needs to survive in peace and to prosper in the future. There is no argument to the contrary he’d even consider. Like Fury, Pierce is willing to lie to and manipulate people in order to get what he wants. Before we know he’s a villain, the scene in which he seemingly fights to delay Hydra’s secret plan seems genuine, but in reality he’s encouraging the “World Council” to do the opposite of what he asks. Like both Fury and Cap, Pierce is a tactician and willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish the mission.

For example, the brazen assassination attempt on Nick Fury’s life in public, in Washington, D.C., is not exactly subtle domestic black ops strategy. Still, it is an incredible action sequence where Samuel L. Jackson makes sitting in car look badass. In fairness to critics of the film, the whole Nick Fury death fake-out plan is a bit over-the-top. The scene that really makes it confusing is how, after his “death,” Natasha and Steve are given time with his body to say goodbye. That part of the “plan” just seems cruel. There is no reason to go to those lengths to trick the two people you most want to have on your side. Still, it’s a classic spy caper move, and they even try to justify it by saying Fury was given a drug that slows the heart to one beat per minute (which definitely wouldn’t work). Also, despite the laceration to his spine, Fury is walking around just fine 36 hours later. Still, a slightly convoluted Machiavellian plot is better than losing Nick Fury for future films.

With the exception of Avengers, a lot of the early MCU films have struggled with their third acts. Either they try to do too much like Thor, or the final battles are somewhat underwhelming, like in Iron Man 2. This film breaks that tradition, because the third act is solid all the way through. The plan to defeat the bad guys is straightforward: disable the helicarriers and expose Hydra’s influence in S.H.I.E.L.D. The action that follows is exhilarating and makes narrative sense. After a rousing speech to the entire Triskelion, the Hydra agents and the good agents start fighting. Cap and the Falcon infiltrate the ships in order to install the component that would destroy them. Meanwhile Black Widow and Fury confront Pierce, and end up releasing all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secret files to the world. Yet, while Cap is installing the final component he comes face to face with his old friend Bucky Barnes. Cap’s new BFF, Sam Wilson, tells him that the Winter Soldier isn’t the “kind [of guy] you save” but rather “the kind you stop.” Cap refuses to do this. He fights Bucky in order to make sure that he’s able to complete the mission. But what’s truly subversive about this film is that, in the end, Cap surrenders to the villain. Perhaps it’s because he checked Star Wars off of his “list” of cultural things to catch up on. Luke Skywalker’s moment of heroism came not when he beat the villain but rather tossed away his weapon and refused to fight. By submitting to Bucky, Cap saved his friend by being the only person the Winter Soldier met that didn’t want to hurt him.

The relationship between Steve and Bucky is the defining one in this version of the Captain America story. In the first film, Bucky is Steve’s protector. Yes, he kicked bullies in the pants whenever he caught them messing with his pal. However, even after Steve’s transformation, Bucky is the one who leads the cheer for Captain America, legitimizing him in the eyes of his fellow soldiers. Still, despite all the ways that Bucky protected him, Steve was unable to protect him when it counted. In First Avenger Steve blames himself for Bucky’s death, but Peggy talks him out of it. The Winter Soldier reveals that Bucky was lost, and that if Steve and the gang had gone to look for him, he might have been rescued. What happened to him is not really Steve’s responsibility, but in the final scenes of this movie, Cap becomes Bucky’s protector. There is a good reason that fans my daughter’s age love to “ship” Steve and Bucky as a romantic couple. Yet, like with Black Widow earlier in the film, the “love” they have for one another is deeper than that. They are war-bonded. They’ve put their lives in each others’ hands, and because of that they are all now responsible for one another. Without this sort of connection, the conflict in Civil War would never work.

Captain America is a tragic hero in this film. Yes, he and his mini-Avengers squad stopped Hydra from having a weapon of mass destruction at their disposal. However, he failed to save his friend, which begets an even greater failure. As a result of the events of this film, Steve Rogers learns to start keeping secrets. He does not tell his compatriots in the Avengers that he’s searching for his best pal who happens to be a brainwashed super-assassin. Instead he keeps that mission between him and Sam. In this movie and Avengers Steve Rogers preached the gospel of the danger of keeping secrets. Yet, faced with the guilt of abandoning his best friend to a life of hell, he does exactly what he chastised his friends for doing. These secrets and Steve’s commitment to saving Bucky are what drives the conflict in the next Captain America film, often listed high on the list of “best” MCU movies.

After a heavy movie like this one, especially one that doesn’t feature an Infinty Stone, Marvel fans needed a palate cleanser. Even the most passionate Marvel faithful raised a confused eyebrow when it was revealed that the next entry would be a film based on the little-known comic group the Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet again, however, Marvel would prove that it knows what fans want better than they do. Fueled by stellar (pun intended) performances and a great 1970s soundtrack, Guardians of the Galaxy showed the world that the MCU had potential far beyond just their marquee characters like Cap, Iron Man, Spidey, and others. With the right talent, they could have a dance-off to save the universe, and it would work just as well as a two powerhouses having a slugfest in the final act of a movie.

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