Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Previously: I was dreading Marvel’s 2014 films, especially after the lackluster 2013 entries in the series. You might be asking yourself what I was dreading, seeing as I loved the first Captain America movie so much. The answer is simple: I hated the concept of the Winter Soldier.

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There used to be an unwritten rule in Marvel Comics that in a world where people coming back from the dead was a common occurrence, that only two characters should always remain deceased: Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, and Captain America’s sidekick Bucky. Bucky Barnes and Cap jumped on board a booby-trapped flying bomb and Cap jumped off, but Bucky didn’t…

…and the bomb blew up in Bucky’s face over the ocean. Captain America would get frozen, and Bucky was blown to pieces. The end. That is, until Ed Brubaker came along and delivered his Winter Soldier story. I won’t deny it was popular; Brubaker had a successful run on Captain America with a massively convoluted retcon which also included the Winter Soldier being the Black Widow’s lover. The very existence of the Winter Soldier irked me like nothing else, and I think that these days my misgivings are validated. Ever since Ed left Captain America, other writers have used the Winter Soldier, but he just seems, well, uninteresting. Even his using the code name he employed as a Soviet assassin makes no sense if he’s supposed to be a hero. Hell, he still has the Soviet Red Star on his shoulder.

The Winter Soldier of the comics has zero longevity; it feels like Marvel is just using him to maintain a copyright. So it was with these misgivings in mind that I went to go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier, convinced I was going to hate the movie. Nobody was more surprised than me to find that it edged out Iron Man as my favorite Marvel film.

The Plot: Steve Rogers has worked for years as an agent of SHIELD, tackling difficult assignments. Only now, he’s grown steadily more cynical in regards to Nick Fury’s methods. Meanwhile, Fury has begun to realize that there’s a conspiracy afoot, and that it might involve the use of the three new super helicarriers designed to protect the Earth from imminent threats. He asks his superior, Alexander Pierce…

…to hold off on deploying the helicarriers until he can discover the nature of the conspiracy, but the result is that Fury gets attacked by the Winter Solder.

Can Captain America, the Black Widow, and Nick Fury discover the secret of the conspiracy as SHIELD rises up against them on one side while the Winter Soldier attacks them on the other?

This movie works on every single level. The action set-pieces are among the best in the entirety of the Marvel franchise, from Cap and Natasha’s assault on the mercenaries who captured the SHIELD spy ship…

…to the attempt on Nick Fury’s life…

…to Cap’s battle in the elevator…

…to the street fight with the Winter Soldier…

…to the final showdown in the air with the helicarriers.

Out of so many action set-pieces, it’s hard for me to pick my favorite. The scene where Cap clears the deck early on in the movie might be my favorite, but I have a soft spot in my heart for when Rogers goes toe-to-toe with Batroc.

Batroc was used perfectly in this film. I don’t expect “ze leaper!” to be a major Marvel villain, because I don’t think he was ever portrayed as a serious threat. Batroc has always been (to use a wrestling term) a “jobber” to Cap, providing an entertaining fight but almost always assuredly losing because he just isn’t in the same league. His modern update in this movie was effective, with just a bit of an homage to his roots with a purple and orange shirt. I only wish the use of C-list villains like Batroc had been more of a common occurrence in earlier films.

The choreography and camera work are top notch. Captain America feels like a legitimate running engine of destruction, with each attack being a masterpiece of violence, and the confrontation with Batroc provides a satisfying finale. Natasha Romanov also comes across as being about as dangerous as an unaugmented human being can be in these movies.

But I don’t want to give the impression this film is just a series of action scenes strung together. It was directed by the Russo brothers, who also deliver a taut political thriller that to my mind was reminiscent of 1970s films like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, which were both released at a point in time when there was arguably even less faith in the government  than there is now. Back then in the comics, Captain America was up against the Secret Empire, which turned out to be run by President Nixon himself.

So The Winter Soldier‘s plot, featuring corruption in institutions that are supposed to serve and protect us, has roots going back to early Captain America stories. I think that’s pretty darn cool.

The heroes get a makeover, and while I’m not really a fan of Captain America’s outfit here, I’m sure it was a deliberate decision on the part of the Russo brothers. The uniform is reminiscent of Rogers’ look from the era of the comics where Cap was no longer Cap and Bucky was running around with the shield.

It’s an improvement over the costume seen in The Avengers, which was a little too bright for my tastes. But I’m positive that was the point, seeing how a fanboy like Coulson helped design it. Still, I’m not a fan of his Winter Soldier look, as there’s no red. But that was probably intentional, because what we’re seeing is a uniform that doesn’t reflect Captain America: it’s incomplete, which is how he feels for much of the movie. It’s not until we see him back in the WWII-era uniform that we get the old Cap back, with his uniform a visual reaffirmation of his ideals and morals.

The Black Widow’s hair changes yet again, and I actually prefer the style seen here to what we saw in earlier films. She also has her “stingers” now, but never uses them, though it makes sense because normal men can be taken down by bullets and one always uses the best tool at hand. In fact, I don’t think the stingers actually get used until Civil War, although we do see Natasha employing electric shocks in this film, which is a nice foreshadowing of her weaponry upgrade in later films.

The evolution of Captain America’s character continues here, as his old world values are challenged by the harsh and muddled realities of the modern world. What we see between Nick Fury and Steve Rogers are two opposing outlooks on life. In Fury’s case, we see harsh pragmatism, and the practical approach to solving problems devoid of sentiment. Steve, on the other hand, is an idealist who sees the good in people and believes in a better way. Steve is by no means naïve, but does his approach really work? In taking down HYDRA, which has corrupted SHIELD from within, he effectively destroys the world’s preeminent police force. How much damage does this do in the long run? It’s all well and good to say, “No more secrets,” but the man served in a war and knows the value of secrecy.

On the other hand, Fury is one manipulative prick, and his compartmentalization and inclination to keep everybody in the dark naturally makes him a man not to be trusted. As Stark said in The Avengers, “He is the spy,” and he’s a man who can’t be forthright and honest with his subordinates.

When you think about it, HYDRA’s solution, which is to murder every single potential threat, is pragmatism in its purest form taken to its logical conclusion. And I think that Fury comes to realize that, especially when he sees he’s been manipulated in the same way he used so many others. Doesn’t feel good, does it, Nick? Pragmatism is a useful tool, but without hope, and without some small measure of faith in one’s fellow human being to temper it, it’s a horrific thing. There’s another movie we’ll see later in the series that addresses this same issue in a different way. But I’m happy to see that while on the surface these films are entertaining action movies, the best ones give us a little more.

Robert Redford gives a pretty good performance here as Alexander Pierce. He doesn’t rant or chew scenery like Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull. His performance is understated, and his arguments are almost reasonable as he explains to Fury how their goals are very much alike. This isn’t the old HYDRA, he claims. It’s a new HYDRA that’s looking out for the world’s best interests. It’s nice how we see Fury confronting what amounts to a dark reflection of himself, and a man who’s taken the very same arguments he himself used against Captain America earlier in the film and has simply carried them to the next level.

Redford’s casting is brilliant here. He was the star of the aforementioned Three Days of the Condor, where he played a young idealist trying to uncover a government conspiracy. You can almost imagine Alexander Pierce as being Redford’s character from Condor, only having grown more cynical over the decades. Remember that line from Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight: “Die a hero, or live long enough to become the villain”? I hope whoever had the idea of casting Redford in this film got a raise.

Chris Evans and Samuel L. Jackson both deliver top notch performances, as does Scarlett Johansson. Seeing Johansson in this film again makes me wonder why there still hasn’t been a Black Widow movie. Natasha dealing with the aftermath of SHIELD’s dissolution would have made for a fascinating film, as she’s forced to use spycraft on a mission without being able to rely upon the vast network and resources that the agency provided before. Remember that scene in Avengers where Coulson called her captor and threatened to blow up a city block with an F-22? Black Widow no longer has that safety net, and dealing with this new reality would have made for a potentially great film. But in Winter Soldier, she’s used to great effect; we see her tough and capable in a fight, but also sneaky as hell.

Anthony Mackie is a welcome addition to the Marvel family. His Sam Wilson/Falcon is a great character, and a modern-day war veteran who can empathize with Steve in a way others can’t. I’m not saying Natasha doesn’t have her own demons, but we’ve seen she’s not someone who opens up easily. Sam, on the other hand, is a man who’s trying to do good; he’s a healer first, and a soldier second, although he does pretty well in the latter role when called upon.

In the comics, Sam Wilson was a social worker who later becomes disillusioned and works as a racketeer for the mob (An origin recently retconned into being fake memories implanted by the Red Skull. Because you know, comics.). In the Ultimate Universe, Sam was an inventor who created the wings. I’m not sure which origin I like better. I’m no fan of one of Marvel’s first black heroes starting off as a petty thug, so the idea that he invented the wings is more appealing. But I suppose that for the purposes of this movie it’s just easier to just say the military created them. And it makes a kind of sense, seeing as the film takes place in a world where SHIELD has helicarriers and Tony Stark produces sci-fi munitions that are used to fight the Hulk. All the same, it makes the Falcon less unique when we know there were groups of medics flying around using the same rig. I wasn’t crazy about the Ultimate Universe, but I think they went the correct route in re-envisioning Sam the way they did, and while I was grateful that when it came to these movies that any contribution from the Ultimate line of comics was mostly cosmetic, I think in Sam’s case they should have gone with that version. I could easily see Sam as a war veteran who had come home and gone to MIT with the idea of creating a flight rig to aid combat medics, only to end up employing the prototype to aid Cap. It’s a minor nit in the long run, and it didn’t stop me from loving this movie.

As for Anthony Mackie’s performance, he’s terrific. His Sam Wilson is heroic and likeable and he has some wonderful moments with Steve as a man who can sympathize with his plight of being a war veteran having difficulty acclimating to normal life after all he’s seen and done. When Sam speaks to Steve and tries offering him advice and help, I believe his sincerity.

Speaking of relationships, I love the chemistry between Steve and Natasha. I don’t get a whiff of anything like romantic feelings or sexual tension between the pair, but I do feel they share a bond. When Natasha tries to hook Steve up with different women, I really do get the feeling she’s trying to force him out of his comfort zone (I also like how she suggests his neighbor as a possible date; I can’t see her suggesting him dating his handler, which strongly implies Fury didn’t tell Natasha about Sharon Carter’s true nature. Nice to see Fury treats everybody the same when it comes to compartmentalization). Natasha is as important to Steve as Sam is; where one offers sympathy, the other keeps him on his toes. Of course, part of this is also her nature to never get close to anyone, so I think perhaps she doesn’t want him to ever think of her sexually, and finds it useful to keep him a little angry and mistrustful of her.

In the end, their relationship changes and evolves, and Steve becomes part of Natasha’s tiny circle of friends. Thank God they didn’t wind up falling in love.

As for the titular character, Sebastian Stan does a good job. He’s a walking force of nature; with years of experience as HYDRA’s premier hitman, he’s a believable threat to the heroes, taking them all apart at one time or another.

His is a damn tragic tale, and it illustrates just how monstrous HYDRA is. For all of Pierce’s talk of bringing peace to the world and his “greater good” bullshit, we see the price is the death of his housekeeper just for seeing the Winter Soldier in his kitchen. Later on, we see him frying the man’s brain just to remove the trace of a conscience.

It was nice of the Russo brothers to remind everyone of the relationship between Steve and Bucky, and of what the stakes are with a brief flashback. This is a movie about friendships, old and new, and the flashback illustrates just how far Barnes had fallen.

Cobie Smulders is good as Maria Hill, and once more makes me wish she was written more intelligently in the comics. Emily VanCamp doesn’t get to do a lot as Agent 13/Sharon, and is here mostly to set up her character for later films, but she does a decent job with what she has. Frank Grillo’s Brock Rumlow is a total bastard, and it’s nice to put a face to HYDRA’s thuggery.

Finally, we get a brilliant cameo from Toby Jones, reprising his role as Arnim Zola. His expository scene is one of the best parts of the movie.

Henry Jackman’s score is very much unlike Allen Silvestri’s from the first Captain America, although I do appreciate how you hear just a touch of Cap’s theme in the film’s opening. But Jackman goes his own way and it’s a very good considering the tone of this film. He mentored under Hans Zimmer, and if the master really does decide to stick to his guns and stop composing music for superhero films, I think Jackman would be an excellent successor.

As far as the comics at the time, Captain America had been turned into an old man when the super soldier serum in his body was neutralized. Sam Wilson took over as Cap and the two didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things.

I never really warmed up to Sam in the role, and felt that Bucky should have taken over when Steve got old; it just felt like Sam was a round peg they were trying to pound into a square hole. Also, Sam had his own identity, meaning he didn’t need to assume Captain America’s identity, whereas Bucky was a character at loose ends. We would deal with Sam as Captain America for a few years though, and as for what happens to Steve, well, it’s a tragedy most comic fans wish they could forget.

Next time: We take a look at a film involving Marvel characters who were about as unlikely to appear on the big screen as Howard the Duck.

Tag: Countdown to Infinity War

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  • David Klopotoski

    Taut political thriller that concluded with flying aircraft carriers.

    Isn’t the falcon guy just Iron Man without any sort of protective armor? Shouldn’t he at least wear a helmet? Even Captain America wears a leather helmet, not that he needs it because he can survive jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. Maybe it’s just to protect his hair?

    Jenny Agutter’s character got a pretty raw deal in this movie. I thought it was pretty awesome when this previously unassuming councilwoman started kicking serious ass, but then it just turned out she was Scarlett Johansson wearing a mask. Missed opportunity.

    Also when I heard the subtitle was going to be “The Winter Soldier” I kind of expected the movie to take place in winter. Maybe that’s dumb on my part but these Marvel movies look so boring and always seems to be set in the middle of summer. It would have been nice to have a change of weather.

    • Thomas Stockel

      Well Jenny Agutter was 62 when this movie came out. While these are super hero movies they still obey some form of logic and I can’t see a woman her age being able to pull off those physical stunts.

      I agree, though, that it’s very, very convenient that most of these films take place in warm cliimes or warm parts of the world. That was one of the things I liked about the middle act of Iron Man 3 because he did wind up someplace cold.

      • David Klopotoski

        They still obey some form of logic? Need I remind you of the flying invisible aircraft carrier? A 62-year-old woman kicking ass is way too illogical for this kind of movie?

        • Thomas Stockel

          Okay, I am going to amend my earlier statement; there are older people in the world who possess remarkable physical abilities. But they are pretty rare, I think we can all agree. The older we get the more time and effort it takes to maintain those physical abilities.

          But for the purposes of this film what you are suggesting makes no sense from a narrative standpoint. There is no indication that Jenny Agutter’s character is supposed to be able to do the things you are implying she should have done so her breaking out the kick-ass moves without establishing her abilities beforehand is just bad writing. And if she was capable of doing such a thing then Pierce would have known and he would have taken measures to insure she was neutralized beforehand. Hawley is a suit, an administrator, that is her role in the story. What would you have had Natasha doing while Agutter was going Rambo on Pierce and his goons?

          • David Klopotoski

            “There is no indication…” That’s exactly what made it badass in the first place. Also part of the whole narrative of the movie was subverting what the characters thought was possible. Redford’s character was able to betray Nick Fury because Fury never suspected it was possible. Hydra was able to infiltrate Shield because Shield had its eyes closed. And if Redford should have known about the councilwoman’s fighting prowess then he also should have known that Black Widow could possibly assume the councilwoman’s identity and prepare for that, and yet he didn’t. And what would I have had Natasha doing? I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean I would toss out an opportunity to show an unassuming woman kicking ass just because I needed to give another character something to do.

          • Thomas Stockel

            If you don’t know what Natasha is supposed to be doing while Jenny Agutter, who up until that point was a character of little importance, was having an out of left field moment, then you aren’t thinking the whole thing through. Agutter’s character was one of the people responsible for launching a nuclear strike against New York in Avengers and now if we continue with your logic she is going to destroy SHIELD? None of the council would want SHIELD destroyed because that is their power base. So she wouldn’t have dumped SHIELD’s files on the internet, she woudln’t have allowed Natash to do so either.

            As for Pierce being surprised that Natasha infiltrated so deeply, I don’t expect the guy to be able to anticipate every move because throughout the film the heroes do counter him a lot. The heroes do, not a minor character who has had some five minutes of screen time over two movies. Pierce trusted that security could keep Natasha out and he miscalculated; he’s smart, not perfect.

            You are trying to re-write the entire third act just so Jenny Agutter can have ten seconds of action. I get the feeling you are a huge Jenny Agutter fan. I like her, too. I liked her in Logan’s Run, I liked her in An American Werewolf in London. But her character in the grant scheme of things is largely irrelevant and Feige has no plans for her to appear in the movies any time soon because Coucilwoman Hawley is a character of little importance who served her purpose and is no longer needed.

          • David Klopotoski

            Actually I had to look up her name. I’ve never heard of her. I just like the idea of that character unexpectedly breaking out and having an action scene for no reason other than it would be awesome, and it would add more gravitas to the moment especially if she had been loyal to Shield and was now faced with the horror of her agency’s actions. I really don’t see too much of a logical problem with this idea, especially in a movie that’s trying to sell itself on plot twists + ass-kicking action.

          • John

            Because the twists and action still have to make sense. Having a character that nobody cares about and has had no focus suddenly getting so much screen time and attention, especially since it would be taking away from arguably the second most important protagonist makes no sense.

            Having a 62 year old bureaucrat, regardless of gender, suddenly being able to fight 2 black ops soldiers easily makes no sense.

            There wouldn’t be any extra gravitas, people would be wondering how she was able to do that and where Black Widow was.

          • David Klopotoski

            Here’s my thought. 62-year-old bureaucrat kicks ass for five seconds, wasting hardly any extra screen time. Robert Redford looks at her shocked and says, “Where the hell did that come from?” She says, “There’s a lot you don’t know, Robert,” or whatever his name was, “This isn’t what I signed up for, and we’re stopping you.” And Black Widow and Nick Fury show up on a helicopter later. Or Black Widow is doing something on one of the 3 flying aircraft carriers, because again a 62 year old woman of any profession being able to fight is somehow illogical but flying aircraft carriers is perfectly fine in this taut political thriller.

          • John

            No, a 62 year old politician being able to drop soldiers with MMA moves is illogical without any previous explination. Samuel L Jackson is almost 70, but Fury is established as a veteran soldier and spy. His ability to fight isn’t a surprise. And the helicarriers are the product of advanced technology, it’s not like they have no explanation.

          • David Klopotoski

            Here’s the thing… It’s a movie, so any character you want can be a black ops agent if you just write them as one. So why can’t a 62-year-old woman be a former black ops agent that knows how to kick ass? Just because she was never established as one? What would be the point of being a black ops agent if everyone already knew? The initial surprise is what made the fight interesting. The reveal that it was actually Black Widow wearing a magic holographic mask made it less interesting, and made me wonder what happened to the woman she was impersonating. Did she murder her? Had shebeen impersonating this character the whole movie? It would have been way cooler just to have whatever Agutter’s character’s name was do the ass kicking. It doesn’t have to make perfect sense. Again, flying aircraft carriers.

          • John

            When she arrives at the SHIELD base she complains about running late due to traffic, I always took it that Widow swapped out with her on the way to the base.

            And while everyone can have their own opinion I’d say most people went from surprise that a random councilwoman was able to fight so well to thinking “oh that makes sense” when it was revealed to be Black Widow.

            And it really comes down to her character not being important enough in the movie to justify having such a scene. That goes for all the counsel members there. Agutter’s character only existed in this movie so Black Widow would have somebody to disguise herself as. And the rest of them only existed to reject HYDRA’s offer and then get killed.

          • Jonathan Campbell

            “Agutter’s character was one of the people responsible for launching a nuclear strike against New York in Avengers” –

            Was she?

            I know she’s a member of the World Security Council, but I’m not sure she was on that particular iteration of it. Powers Boothe was on it in the first film (and he turned out to be HYDRA so of course hes for nuking Manhatten), but he wasnt in TWS – it seems like the roster just changed.

            Granted I wasnt paying much attention to the Security Council in tge first film so I might have missed her…

  • Jonathan Campbell

    Natasha at the end of the movie is asked by Cap again about the neighbour and who she was and she says “Sharon. She’s nice.” Natasha knew who she was and was trying to hook then up anyway.

    (Also Sharon was his secret bodyguard, not his handler; your handler is the person who manages you- Fury is closer to Caps handler in this flick.)

    But yeah, great review and great movie.

    • Thomas Stockel

      Well, by then some weeks have gone by after everyone has landed on their feet and gotten other jobs and Steve recuperated from his injuries. After all that fallout with Sharon being in the open now I could see Natasha getting to know her better.

      Point taken about her being Cap’s bodyguard, though.

  • Black Doug

    I’m with you about dreading the future of the MCU in 2014 between the two movies and what seemed like the missed opportunities of Agents of SHIELD. This movie and the big reveal of Hydra’s presence on AOS were a one-two punch that completely revitalized the potential of the franchise.

    Of course then for a few months I thought it would all come crashing down when Guardians inevitably tanked…

    • PhysUnknown

      Unfortunately, the TV and Movie divisions had a falling out, and what seemed to be a promising relationship between the show and the movies evaporated.

      • Black Doug

        Yeah, Kevin Feige had enough of Ike Perlmutter’s bullshit and convinced Disney to let him go around the rest of Marvel. It’s not surprising that the movies kept getting better. If the MCU is going to be a key component of Disney’s streaming service they’re going to have to figure out their TV production complications.

  • GreenLuthor

    In the comics, Sam Wilson’s time as a criminal was itself a retcon, added to his history quite a while after his introduction. So retconing it away isn’t that big of a deal. (Actually, the whole “Snap” Wilson thing was… not the best choice to make, really, and I’m actually kind of glad it’s been written out.)

  • John

    The best Phase II movie and maybe the best MCU movie overall.

    The only issue I had wasn’t really this movie’s fault, but the fall of SHIELD And the rise of HYDRA seemed like a really big change to the status quo. But it is never fully explored, HYDRA is seemingly wiped out in the intro of Avengers 2. The helicarrier shows up at the end of Avengers 2 and every Earth based movie after this could very easily have included SHIELD with no change to the plot.

    And for the record I realize Agents of SHIELD is also set in the MCU so SHIELD never really gets disbanded but that’ll never get mentioned in the movies.