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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