Written by David Holland
I love this movie. In fact, as I previously wrote, I was so excited to write about this one that I accidentally skipped Thor: The Dark World during my rewatch (I stand by my declaration that this is a perfectly reasonable mistake.) Before this we were gallivanting through the Nine Realms with Thor and after this we travel the universe with the Guardians of the Galaxy, but Winter Soldier brings us a good-old-fashioned Earth based movie with no Infinity Stones or aliens. The movie is exciting and entertaining from start to finish, and I think it holds up as one of the MCU’s best solo films, which means we should hurry up and get into it:
This installment of the Captain America series puts the Russo brothers at the helm as co-directors. I’m not really sure how it works to have two directors who are also brothers, but they did such a good job with this film that they went on to co-direct the Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. It turns out that they were chosen to direct Winter Soldier after impressing MCU Mastermind Kevin Feige with two episodes of Community they directed. I have to say, I do find it weird when directors go from single-camera sitcoms to summer blockbusters and vice versa. It’s like when I found out that JJ Abrams directed an episode of The Office.
On a casting front, obviously Chris Evans returns as Captain America. There were some questions about who else in the SHIELD orbit to include. Samuel L. Jackson is back as Nick Fury, and Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill, but of all the Avengers only Black Widow is featured, which is retrospect turns out to be a fantastic decision. Black Widow’s solo film is only now in the works, but looking back on her character arc through the entire MCU reveals a dynamic character who is more than a supporting role in other Avengers’ solo movies. In Iron Man 2 she was a rule-following undercover agent, and here she starts as willing participant in Nick Fury’s “compartmentalization”, but after the fall of SHIELD she grows into a source of wisdom and direction for the Avengers team. She teams up with Cap not because she is ordered to, but because she knows it’s right. And of course, Winter Soldier introduces us to Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. Mackie’s performance is top notch and he is on record describing the significance of playing the first African-American Avenger.
How Does it Hold Up?
I’m not sure I’ve made it clear how much I like this movie. It feels like Jason Bourne in the Marvel Universe. The second installment of a trilogy is a pivotal one. In the first installment, you build up the protagonist’s support system. In the second one, you rip it away from them and see how they hold up. Sometimes that involves sending your protagonist to get magic training from a frog Muppet in the swamp, and sometimes it means the Sundance Kid is a secret Nazi who tries to use the super-CIA to kill you.
Cap has to rebuild from the ground up, which means everyone has to earn his trust back. From the jump, even his friends are lying to him. Black Widow’s mission in the beginning is different from his, an objective he knows nothing about. Fury stonewalls when he asks about this. One of his lines from Avengers comes to mind: “I wake up from the war and they tell me we won. They didn’t tell me what we lost.” The fact that the world changed during the seventy years he was frozen is fodder for gentle jokes about all that he has missed, but it’s also a commentary. In many ways the world has progressed since the 1940’s, but in many ways it hasn’t, or has even gotten worse. Technology has changed how wars are fought, and the intelligence agencies represented by the fictional SHIELD compromised their principles from the moment of their inception in the name of security. HYDRA acting through SHIELD thought nothing of meddling in economies, thumbing the scale of foreign elections, or outright overthrowing other governments and history kind of backs this up. Cap is principled to a fault – Lawful Good in Dungeons & Dragons terms – and he won’t stand for Fury’s cloak and dagger shenanigans. When Fury wants to salvage Operation Insight (the program that would allow Helicarriers to assassinate anyone anywhere in the world at any moment that *somehow* fell into the hands of bad guys) Cap puts a stop to it. The carriers are destroyed, along with the rest of SHIELD. Nick Fury dies, but not really, because this is Marvel.
We haven’t even talked about Bucky yet. It does take a while for the other title character to even show up, but when he does he changes the whole direction of the narrative. Cap becomes obsessed with Bucky’s redemption, even when Falcon tells him that Winter Soldier is “the kind of guy you stop.” I’ll address Bucky more in the Theme section, but his presence in the film as a villain capable of holding his own against Captain America in fisticuffs makes him all the more compelling. They also took a page from “The Dark Knight” playbook and created a special dissonant sound effect for The Winter Soldier similar to the Joker, just to add more intensity.
Winter Soldier chronicles the fall of SHIELD, which has been infiltrated with HYDRA from the start. After the Second World War HYDRA operatives like Dr. Zola (returned to life in creepy AI form) were brought into SHIELD in a similar fashion to the Nazi scientists incorporated into scientific research during Operation Paperclip. The movie plants the question “Who can you trust?” in its viewers mind, and almost everyone is a suspect. Even after we learn Fury is a good guy, his compartmentalization, paranoia, and willingness to lie to everyone, including Captain Freaking America, call his methods into question. Black Widow, with her willingness to keep Fury’s secrets as well as her own, is also under suspicion. Every SHIELD agent is potentially a HYDRA agent, and the organization we have come to see as all-powerful over the course of the MCU is brought to its knees.
Cap becomes the moral center of the SHIELD remnant. Black Widow, Falcon, Hill, and even Fury take their cues from him. The theme of betrayal is personified in Bucky Barnes, taken by the Soviets after his fall in “Captain America” and turned into The Winter Soldier – a mind-controlled assassin with a metal arm who can be frozen and reanimated as needed. Bucky is just one more support in Steve Roger’s life that he’s lost, and his desire to get his best friend back even when redemption seems hopeless is part of what makes Cap a hero worth cheering for.