The cycle of Captain America films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most interesting in terms of tone and style. Iron Man plays very much in the realm of techno-political thrillers, Thor films are very much in the realm of fantasy adventure (although it would be given a tweak of tone into something more comedically anarchic with its third film) and Guardians of the Galaxy has always had its zany space adventure tone. But all three of the films that put Steve Rogers front and centre have always felt different to the other, even with two of his instalments coming from the same sibling directing team.
Cap’s first film was a period action adventure from the director of The Rocketeer, complete with a World War II setting and tone of high adventure. For the famed sequel, Marvel would make the unexpected choice of going with a sibling director team more famous for their work on Community and Arrested Development.
The superhero genre has always had a habit of giving audiences films from directors that at first sight seem a little outside the box, but it’s those choices that can throw up the best films; Tim Burton going from Beetlejuice to Batman, Christopher Nolan going from Memento to Batman Begins, Patty Jenkins going from Monster to Wonder Woman, Sam Raimi going from an Evil Dead trilogy to a Spider-Man trilogy, and so on.
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The directing team responsible for helping bring some of the funniest US comedy series of the past 15-20 years would end up giving audiences not only one of Marvel’s best but also its most efficient and legitimately game-changing film complete with some of its best action sequences and plotting.
Where The First Avenger was a film about cherishing the nostalgia of the past, The Winter Soldier is about dealing head-on with the complexities of a darker, more challenging modern world, where even old friendships give way to embittered and not easy to divine antagonism.
While the film does make room for some of Marvel’s trademark humour, this is also one of its most directly dramatic, with scenes and moments that play dark in a way that makes it refreshingly one of its most mature. The action is bruising, intense and efficient, as if it’s walked in from something cooked up by Paul Greengrass or Michael Mann. The Russo’s had mentioned being influenced by the works of Mann and even Brian De Palma’s work on the first Mission: Impossible, but what makes the film fly and those action sequences work so well – and what has helped make the film a continuous high watermark for the Marvel Cinematic Universe – is how it is unafraid of change.
One of the biggest and divisive criticisms of the MCU is how the films are sometimes unafraid to inflict direct change. Even this film’s sequel, the enjoyable Civil War, never feels like it genuinely rocks the boat in the way that its comic book inspiration did, which saw Spider-Man reveal his identity to the world and Captain America arrested. Of course, that film couldn’t go that far with Spider-Man due it only being his first appearance in a Marvel Studios film, but it still felt watered down somewhat given the game-changing nature of the source material and the epic battle sequence that formed the middle of the film which, while enjoyable, was mostly played for crowd-pleasing laughs.
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The Winter Soldier, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to tear down much of what we’ve known. It potentially has the danger of making it feel like it is contradicting things we’ve known in the past, but amazingly the Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus screenplay has a tight command on how it deals with its revelations, and they make sense.
The notion that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by Hydra the entire time and that many of its members – including the newly introduced Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, in a lovely call back to Three Days of the Condor which this film pays glorious tribute to) and recurring characters Agent Sitwell (Maximillian Hernandez) and Senator Stern (the late, great Garry Shandling) – have been double agents is both insane and brilliant. It’s an incredible creative decision to tear down the walls of the house just as the audience is getting comfortable with everything, as seen with the increase in box office performance of nearly every subsequent instalment after Avengers Assemble.
The fact that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had only started a few months prior and was going to have to deal with this revelation on a week by week basis made it an even brilliant and enticing one. At the heart of the entire enterprise is Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. While Iron Man had kickstarted the entire franchise and made Robert Downey Jr its biggest star, it would be Chris Evans and his performance as Rogers who would increasingly become the central heart and soul of the MCU’s themes of morality.
Many may argue over what is the better superhero trilogy, The Captain America Trilogy or The Dark Knight Trilogy, the truth is only The Dark Knight can win that battle on a technicality – because it’s a genuine trilogy. Captain America’s story has continued beyond the realm of his three stand-alone films and into Avengers Assemble, Age of Ultron, Infinity War and of course the soon to be released Avengers: Endgame.
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His first film presented him in a world and time that was his own, but beginning with Avengers Assemble, we have seen him deal head on with a modern world that may be more technologically advanced, but one with its morals and ideals turned on its head. The world has moved forward in some ways that even Steve Rogers would say is better, but it has used its technology to secure itself through the promotion of fear and in the end be susceptible to be used by a corrupt system that wants to use it for its own nefarious ends.
That this includes Helicarriers that ends up flying over the skies of Washington DC and the onslaught of as much skyscraping destruction as it entails may feel like a cliche for the genre at this point. It was the biggest criticism levelled at the film; it earns the drama that comes with it and as is the case with much of it, the action is so well staged it’s hard not to be entertained by it.
This clash of the old and the new is represented emotionally more than anything by the return of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) who, along with Chris Evans, would go on to inspire a fandom devoted to their friendship that borders on the charmingly obsessive.
Barnes was believed dead at the end of the first film, but instead became a Hydra version of Steve himself as The Winter Soldier. It’s this revelation that forms the basis of not only one of this film’s best reveals (although let’s be clear, everyone knew going in to see the film where this was going, the visual reveal on screen is what makes it feel more dramatic than it could have easily been) but setting in stone the next stage of Steve’s journey in Civil War.
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On top of returning appearances from Scarlet Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smolders, we get the first appearance from Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, who instantly makes an impression and has great camaraderie and chemistry with Evans on screen.
Given the film’s techno-political concerns (which makes it a surprise that Tony Stark doesn’t make an appearance in some form here), and gritty action, there is the danger that the visual of Mackie with a pair of mechanical wings flying over Washington might make the film silly or take the audience out of the action, but it just adds to the film’s fun, but it’s fun with consequences and sometimes it feels like it marks the last point when that would be the case.
Make no mistakes, I like Avengers: Infinity War and Captain America: Civil War is hugely enjoyable, but it sometimes feels like they never commit fully to the potential dramatic heft in the way The Winter Soldier does. By the end and post-credit scenes, S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone, Nick Fury is in hiding, Black Widow has testified to a Senate Subcommittee and things feel as if they’ll never be the same again.
When the “snap” happens at the end of Infinity War, as dramatic and distressing it was to see characters that we’ve come to care for disappearing as ashes in the wind, we know for sure that has horrible as it is, the heroes will find a way to take it back. Walking out of the cinema at the end of The Winter Soldier, there was a brilliant sensation of wondering what was going to happen next, especially since after the next film from Marvel, which was Guardians of the Galaxy, we were going to get Age of Ultron, teased with a post-credit appearance from Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor Johnson as Quicksilver.
It is easy to look back at 2014 as the last year when the MCU was capable of taking chances in the way that it did here and with its decision to hire James Gunn to bring their next batch of characters to the screen, and an unknown batch of characters at that. The box office takes may have gotten higher and higher as the next few years would continue, and the films would remain incredibly enjoyable, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that 2014 was a period of peak-creativity and risk-taking for the studio.