“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, and it follows up not only “Captain America: The First Avenger”, but also “The Avengers” in which Steve Rogers is now living in the modern world, still trying to adjust to changes in government, as well as its attempts to prevent any type of attack from the threats that face humanity. But with this new ear that Rogers is thrust into, he soon learns of a conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D. and now he, along with Black Widow and new ally, Sam Wilson, AKA the Falcon have to have to undermine said conspiracy and also deal with a mysterious assassin who’s called “The Winter Solider”.
Every now and then, you get a comic book movie that isn’t JUST a comic book movie. This film has the familiar elements, especially to the MCU, what with Captain America and the connective tissue to other movies in the universe, but what the Russo brothers did was focus solely on the character of Captain America and challenging him in some way, and they did so by making this movie something of a political-conspiracy thriller, and it’s these elements that make this movie one of the best entries in the MCU.
A big focus in this movie is Steve Rogers trying to adapt in the modern world after being thawed from ice and fighting an alien invasion. This is done in some humorous ways, such as his little notepad full of pop culture references that he’s missed throughout the years, but also in very dramatic and emotional moments, such as his tour through the Smithsonian Museum in which he reminisces about his past in World War II, or his conversation with a much older Peggy Carter. Steve is very much so struggling to adapt to this new world and his struggle is only intensified when a certain twist is revealed halfway through the movie.
Jumping right into said twist, it’s revealed that ever since S.H.I.E.L.D. was founded after WWII, Hydra (Red Skull’s organization) was secretly operating inside the organization and ultimately acting as an Illuminati type of group, controlling certain facets of society and being responsible for major world events such as the assassination of JFK, and even smaller events like the death of Tony Stark’s parents. It’s this revelation that really shakes Rogers to his core and it’s a great hurdle for his character to overcome. For so long, he’s always had this naive view of a government that serves its people, and this belief also applies to his views on S.H.I.E.L.D. The organization that was suppose to protect people has now been compromised and it’s actively working to spread chaos under the guise of protection and security. High-level members of S.H.I.E.L.D such as Nick Fury were completely unaware of this, but even Fury has his own ulterior motives that play into Rogers’ growing distrust of the government that he thought he could trust. This is the best possible challenge to throw at a patriotic character like Captain America and the Russo brothers handled it seamlessly.
But Rogers’ problems with the modern world aren’t his only problem. He also has to deal with a tragic reminder from his past in the Winter Soldier. What starts out as a mysterious entity who occasionally pops in to assassinate someone is revealed to be Bucky Barnes, Rogers’ old friend who was thought to have died in “The First Avenger”. Now Rogers has his world completely crumbling around him as he’s faced with his closest friend coming back, but as a brainwashed product of Hydra and its grasp on everything in the modern world. If you want to talk about a comic book movie that seriously dedicates itself to stripping away and deconstructing its protagonist, this movie deserves to be in that conversation because of everything that’s thrown at Captain America, both in the present and from the past.
Whenever I hear people talk about the MCU’s best villains, they always seem to leave out the Winter Solider and it frustrates me to no end. Yes, villains like Killmonger and Loki are great in their own ways, but Bucky as the Winter Solider deserves major credit as well. He’s a very mysterious and eerie character whose goal is to simply complete his assigned mission, which is generally to kill a target. It’s shown in this movie that he’s a near unstoppable force when he’s on the hunt and he proves to also be a legitimate physical threat to Captain America. But not only that, there’s a clear human side to him in Bucky. There comes a point in this movie when Bucky starts to remember everything from his past, including Steve Rogers, and you see his struggle as well. He’s clearly conflicted in that he wants to find out who he really is, but he’s given no choice as he’s constantly being brainwashed and programmed by Hydra, all for the sake of being used as a weapon against his will. The Winter Soldier is a physical threat when he needs to be, but he’s also an internally conflicted human and that makes for a great MCU villain who seems to be overlooked by many.
The other villain in this film is Robert Redford’s character of Alexander Pierce, friend of Nick Fury, senior member of S.H.I.E.L.D. and leader of Hydra. I like Pierce as a villain because he really represents the new world ideology that conflicts with Captain America’s views. Captain America is of the mindset that everyone deserves freedom, but also security, but not in the way in which either of them are given up. Pierce on the other hand is heading a program in which Hydra basically eliminates any one person who’s allegedly a threat, no due process and no Habeus corpus. He believes in stuff like preemptive strikes and mass surveillance, crafting a villain who’s much more ideologically threatening when compared to the physical threat is the Winter Soldier. These two antagonists serve their purpose well in this movie and they fit perfectly in making this movie come off as a political thriller.
As well as this movie handles ideological contrasts and creating a real world scenario which dramatically alters Captain America’s worldview, this movie also takes the time to create solid relationships between the characters. The banter between Rogers and Sam Wilson immediately connects as they’re both war veterans who feel responsible for losing someone under their respective watch and a bond is formed. Adding to that is the growing relationship between Rogers and Black Widow, though it’s not a romantic relationship. It’s one of growing to trust one another in the face of serious mistrust after all of the shady dealings within S.H.I.E.L.D. It would’ve been so easy to turn this into a cliched romantic subplot, but I give the Russo brothers massive props for making it about them growing as characters and developing their view on the world and each other.
This movie also has some of the best action sequences in the entire MCU. There’s the intense road chase between Nick Fury and Hydra operatives as you genuinely feel that Fury is pulling out all of the stops as he’s fleeing from a sudden barrage of people within his compromised organization. There’s also the well-filmed, fast paced hand-to-hand combat between Rogers and the Winter Solider in their first confrontation, but I also love their second fight aboard a Helicarrier in the film’s climax. This is really when Steve tries to reach out to Bucky and it’s genuinely having an effect on Bucky. It’s actually very emotional to see Bucky in a state of confusion, not knowing if he should carry out his mission to kill or finally remember who he is and let his internal struggles finally come out. Cap’s refusal to fight his friend is the perfect summation of who he is in this conflict and in the end, he prevails as Bucky does end up saving his life and leaving as he begins his quest to finally abandon the Winter Soldier and embrace his old self that he was growing up, as indicated in this movie’s post-credits scene.
By the end of the movie, S.H.I.E.L.D. as a whole is brought down in an attempt to also bring down Hydra and this is quite the big direction taken within the MCU. Nick Fury goes into hiding, Steve and Sam agree to pursue Bucky together, and that lays down the foundation for a more vulnerable world, something that only adds to growing concerns for certain characters within the universe.
The mid-credits scene in this movie establishes the two character of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson providing cameos in the respective roles, and this is basically a small little set up for “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. This scene along with the post-credits scene featuring Bucky makes for one of the better combination of end-credits scenes in the MCU, in my opinion.
Overall, “Captain America: The Winter Solider” is fantastic and it’s one of my favorite installments in the MCU. As a sequel, it does everything it needs to. It challenges the protagonist and his beliefs, it ups the action, creates bigger stakes with real world implications, fleshes out the characters and their relationships, and it adds an intelligent social commentary that makes this movie stand out from all other MCU movies. This is not only mandatory viewing for someone who wants to catch up on the MCU, but also someone who wants to watch a legitimately great comic book movie with something on its mind.
Rating: Better Than Sex!!