It’s a rare thing for a sequel to be greater than the original movie: Wrath of Khan, Godfather II, Empire Strikes Back, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, X2 (despite the dumb naming convention)… you know, a lot of comic book movies come to mind. With the exception of Wrath of Khan, nearly all of these are follow-ups to movies that were well received and successful in theaters. More than that, while the sequels were better, how much better can be debated.
I really liked Captain America: The First Avenger, and it was fairly well received… but the difference between the First Avenger and The Winter Soldier is just immense. We’ve gotten two sequels before this movie (or three if you want to count Iron Man 3) and none of them could live up to the original outside of having better production values. Going in to this movie, there wasn’t any real hint that it was going to be better… but watching the trailer there was a hint that it was going to be different.
Not only does the movie stand above the whole of of the Phase II films, it’s probably the best overall movie that Marvel has ever made. The superhero part of it almost disposable… it’s far more spy thriller and action movie than anything else. The action movie elements of this are at the forefront of this and so much of it is unabashed old-school physical action unlike anything we’ve seen in any of the rest of the MCU movie.
The whole tone of the movie is set in the first scene, and this is probably the fastest we get into the action in any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Outside of the humorous start and an introduction of a new character, we are right to a spy mission to rescue a ship. The opening fight is very Borne-esque, and it sets a new baseline normal for what Captain America does and what he is capable of doing.
This is a movie that is about tension and mistrust, and it does a fantastic job setting it up and then just ratcheting it up over, and over, and over. The only constant is that man at the center, never once wavers… its a movie that says “don’t trust anyone” but implies a silent “except him” with it. It’s a real shame that Marvel Comics didn’t learn that same lesson before doing the just terrible Secret Empire series back in 2017.
The whole of what you see unfolding is always just out of focus or out of reach. You have no idea what is going on in the ship scene, only that something is off with the mission. Steve gets annoyed at the idea of Project: Insight, but we never get the idea that Fury is skeptical of it as well. Before we get answers, Fury is attacked and we get an amazing scene where there are hundreds of well-armed soldiers looking to assassinate him… culminating with the Winter Soldier showing up sporting a Soviet Star on his arm.
As the audience, we know that’s Bucky because we know who the actor is… but our characters don’t (and that’s always the best way to reveal a secret). It was great casting when they did it for First Avenger, and I don’t know if they had planned then to move him forward as the Winter Soldier at the time, but it sure looks inspired now.
We don’t even get a whiff of the “big bad” in this episode until Steve and Widow show up in New Jersey and Zola reveals that Hydra is the big boogeyman behind everything. At that point, everything snaps into place and you see the whole plot come together… and the danger just increases. We know the plan, we know the stakes, and it’s all about just getting it blown apart.
The level and depth of the Hydra infiltration is the one thing that does sort of make me raise an eyebrow… we last saw them as this unstoppable technical force behind the Red Skull, and they are simply everywhere. How did they do this without tipping anyone off until that point? I get the subtlety of what they were trying to do, but the recruitment of that many people should have raised a lot more questions in an agency that’s all about intelligence. Or, it could just be that I’m sad Jasper was Hydra and has shuffled off this mortal coil.
That being said… Robert Redford is simply fantastic in this movie as a villain who had played the hero but is also the villain. What makes him so sinister, so ruthless, is that you know he is a true believer, but worse than that… he thinks he is in the right for it. That’s what makes Hydra so much more terrifying in this movie than they were in The First Avenger. It’s not just a bunch of Nazi’s running around with their twisted ideas… it’s those twisted ideals made more subtle and insidious.
That it runs so deep, that it compromises SHIELD itself… it’s a fantastic twist that sets up the rise of the Avengers as a force and so much more. The movie brought about huge changes to the whole of the MCU. It wasn’t just future movies that were changed and set up by it, but the whole of their television universe as well. This movie marked the point where Agents of SHIELD went from being an okay show to being an amazing one. There is a moment at the end of their first season (which involves Fury and Coulson) where you just want to tear up at what is said.
The introduction of Anthony Mackie as Falcon is where we get another supporting Avenger in, and he is just perfect in the role. The mixture of snarkiness and irreverence that fits the character and plays off the straight-man of Rogers so well. Both Black Widow and Falcon serve a similar role in this movie, and it does just enough as a counter to break up what is a serious action movie otherwise.
The relationship between Falcon and Captain America in the comics is so important (he was the man that Steve trusted to take up the shield in the comics, so I love seeing it here. The connection between them is established quickly, and there’s a lot of shorthand done as brothers in arms, but the actors make it believable. Unlike some of the other movies we’ve had lately, they give him quite a bit of time as a full supporting actor in the movie and doesn’t just use him as an excuse to move around the main characters.
Even though Captain America is in the title, Black Widow and Nick Fury as just as much the main character as Cap is in this. The relationship and charisma between Natasha and Steve in this movie is just… incredible. Her sarcasm in the face of absurd danger carries over from what we saw in the Avengers, and her constant needling and poking at Steve is both endearing and funny.
I suppose you could look at the Winter Soldier as the villain of the movie, given that he’s in the title… but he’s honestly more of a weapon, and a victim, of Hydra than anything else. Every time you see him on screen, you know that something isn’t quite right… he doesn’t talk until the fight where Hydra is trying to kill Steve, and even then it’s a short “who’s Bucky.” Not until later on, when you see Hydra destroying his brain yet again, that he does more and takes a far more tragic place in the story.
It’s the action of the movie that stands at the forefront, being both over-the-top and fare more… I guess practical, than what we’ve had in the past few movies. I mean, don’t get me wrong… it’s ridiculous and insane a lot of the time. The Russo Brothers desperately need a firearms consultant to tell them how many rounds a gun can hold (seriously, those SCARs and M-16s that we see Hydra using hold 20-30 rounds, tops, in the clips shown, and would be empty in under three seconds). But it’s just so good.
Even when it gets particularly silly, like when Cap jumps twelve stories and lands on his shield, gets up, and takes off, you sort of accept it because it is Cap and we’ve seen him do a ton of crazy things. It doesn’t matter if both his legs were broken and he had the “please form a line” sign through his chest, he’s going to get up again because he can do it all day.
The action just keeps coming, and coming, and coming in the movie… but what it manages to do is show us a great story at the same time. The rise of Hydra, the fall of SHIELD, the spy thriller of everything around it… all that unfolds as we walk through the movie and it being there doesn’t undermined the action, and the action feels as important to the story being told.
Even the end fight… which has been a historical weakness for MCU movies not called The Avengers, works in The Winter Soldier where it didn’t in the First Avenger. You know that Steve is going to stop the Helicarriers, and that he’s going to survive it… but the wreckage of SHIELD is all around and there is something tragic about the last battle happening between Bucky and Steve.
One thing that I don’t get… it has been implied that SHIELD is a secretive and clandestine organization that operates in the background to keep the world safe. In this movie, they are front and center, in a large building, and building massive helicarriers that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to set up and launch. Did… did no one notice that they hollowed out such a massive complex under the Potomac to fit three of these beasts, along with hundreds of quinjets and a literal army of heavily armed troops?
Seemingly everything that SHIELD does is just wildly illegal in the United States and no one seemed to care until they made a mess of it in public. At the end, the US defense department and Congressional committee didn’t seem to care that they crashed a bunch of stuff into the middle of the city and wasted all that money, they only cared that the intelligence apparatus, which was heavily compromised, was gone. Maybe the government or the world security council was the real villains in the movie.
By the end, the stage has been reset for everything that comes next. Age of Ultron is only two movies away, and the next one we get will have nothing to do with it, so this is really the only setup. There was also no McGuffin that the heroes were chasing, the movie basically just introduces Falcon and removes a whole lot else. Fury is underground and “dead” (why did he burn his storage unit, anyway… seems like a waste). Maria Hill is at Stark Enterprises, Agent 13 aka Sharon Carter aka great niece of Peggy is with the CIA, and our heroes are in the wind.
The two end credit scenes did a bit to set everything for Age of Ultron and whatever comes next for the Winter Soldier (obviously Civil War, but at the time we didn’t know that). We set up villains in Baron Strucker, who is one of the cornerstones of Captain America comics and a major Avengers antagonist. More importantly, though, we get the introduction of two other minor characters in Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, only called “the twins” in the moment.
We also see that Hydra is in control of Loki’s scepter, something which I have many, many, questions about. I mean… the Avengers had it at the end of the movie, right? They used it to disarm the shield and would have had it. Did they give it to SHIELD, because I don’t see that, given that the Avengers gave the Tesseract to Thor and Loki to take to Asgard. No one knew it was an Infinity Stone at the time, but they knew it was powerful.
This is probably the least comic book movie, that is still a comic book movie, ever made, and that’s one of the things that makes it great. You don’t need to have watched any move before it to still enjoy it as an action movie, and you don’t need to have watched the first Captain America (though you should) to understand the connection between Bucky and Steve in the movie. It does both spy and action movies well, with enough of both to keep everyone entertained.
There is an argument that can be made calling this the best movie of the MCU, and it certainly is the best made up to this point in my eyes… including the Avengers. While that movie is what brought everything together, this is the movie that proved the movies could rise above the comic roots into something else. It’s as good now as when I saw it the first time, and a very solid five out of five.
Since there are going to be a lot of these reviews, and it’s nice to see how all of the movies stack up against one another, we’re going to add a little summary section for the Marvel Cinematic movies. When we’re all done, I’ll have an article that goes over my rankings of all the movies (which won’t necessarily reflect the overall quality of the movie in stars, etc, more of how it ranks within the total collection).
- Iron Man (2008) – 5 out of 5
- The Incredible Hulk (2008) – 2 out of 5
- Iron Man 2 (2010) – 3 out of 5
- Thor (2011) – 3 out of 5
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – 4 out of 5
- The Avengers (2012) – 5 out of 5
- Iron Man 3 (2013) – 3 out of 5
- Thor: The Dark World (2013) – 2 out of 5
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – 5 out of 5
- Guardian’s of the Galaxy (2014)
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
- Ant-Man (2015)
- Captain America: Civil War (2016)
- Doctor Strange (2016)
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
- Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
- Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
- Black Panther (2018)
- Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
- Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
- Captain Marvel (2019)
- Avengers: Endgame (2019)