The first Iron Man and The Avengers aside, there was a distinct feeling by 2014 that the MCU was somewhat of a one trick pony. Take a quippy comic book character, surround them with a quippy supporting cast, add more quips, chuck in some perky CGI action, add a dash of forgettable villain, leave to simmer and then simply garnish with yet more quips and serve piping hot. It’s a fair commentary and the existing entries into Marvel’s Phase 2 – the divisive yet smartly subversive Iron Man 3 and the queerly entertaining misfire that is Thor: The Dark World – hadn’t done much to dispel that theory. Also, prudent to point out that Captain America wasn’t that popular a character despite being skillfully played by Chris Evans. “Too dull compared to Tony Stark” was one such theory, “All he can do is jump higher and punch harder” was another and in his pre-Mjolnir lifting days of proudly announcing himself as America’s ass, you can sort of see the point. Steve Rogers doesn’t have daddy issues, a dark side, a wonky moral compass or a magic hammer (yet), but what he DOES have is an unbreakable spirit, unshakable morals and a concrete solid sense of right or wrong which essentially renders him immune to your basic character arc. In short, it’s apparently not hip to be square…
There was also the slightly worrying fact that Anthony and Joe Russo, the brand new directing duo hired to marshall Cap on his newest adventure, were somewhat unproven in the crash and bang genre too, with their only credits at that point being episodes of Arrested Development, Community and the feature films Welcome To Collinwood and You, Me & Dupree. Impressive, but hardly the directing mettle to help Captain America throw his mighty shield…
Then came The Winter Soldier.
After the events of the Avengers, Captain America (aka. good old, dependable, Steve Rogers) is now working for the heavily advertised world police S.H.I.E.L.D but is slowly growing weary of cleaning up after grouchy cycloptic director, Nick Fury, especially as his last mission smelt fishier than a fisherman’s fish dinner. When made privy to Fury’s audacious and morally sketchy new plan of having an algorithm direct automated helecarriers to destroy targets before they commit crimes, Cap is incensed and Black Widow’s nonchalant attitude certainly isn’t helping.
Things take a sinister turn when a mythical, metal-armed assassin known as The Winter Soldier pops up and seemingly snuffs out Fury but not before he manages to pass sensitive info onto the Star Spangled Avenger which instantly makes him S.H.I.E.L.D’s number one target. Suddenly finding himself in the middle of a vast conspiracy with nowhere to turn, Rogers goes on the run with Black Widow – who’s going through the novel experience of actually having conflicted morals and loyalties – and tag along friend, ex rescue operative, Sam Wilson but secrets and lies thought long buried rise to the surface as the list of who they can trust dwindles, but will the most harrowing secret of all, one incredibly close to Rogers’ own past, signal the end of Captain America – and perhaps America herself?
Smart, muscular and moving with the speed of a greased monkey, CA:TWS takes it’s lead from paranoia thrillers from the 70’s like Three Days Of The Condor and brings a far more mature tone to a franchise that started with the fuzzy, rose-tinted, fantasy version of World War II and gets to work by ruthlessly tearing down much of the established world Marvel was building during the whole of it’s first phase. It’s also is the first movie since The Avengers to properly utilize other, fairly major Marvel characters in a solo story in order to properly expand the universe. Scarlett Johansson gets to further flesh out her slinky alter ego, adding telling cracks in the Black Widow’s steely facade as she starts to openly question the people that gave her a chance to rub out that red from her ledger and Samuel L. Jackson actually gets to take Fury out for a spin in a superpower-free car chase that’s far more real world and bruising than you’d expect from a genre where characters routinely brush off obviously fatal injuries. As for the newcomers, Robert Redford (a man who, in his youth wouldn’t have been a bad shout for Cap himself) liberally smears class over every scene he’s even remotely close too, Frank Grillo gives reliably good thug as the man who’ll become Crossbones, Emily VanCamp joins the ranks of Cap’s sort of “romantic interest but not really because there’s too much spy shit to do” and the charisma maelstrom we mere mortals know as Anthony Mackie brings the style as the high-flying and loyal Falcon. But it’s the spoilerish return of Sebastian Stan as the titular pain-bringer that gives the film it’s focus. Wreathed in mystery and his very own screechy theme tune, Stan spends much of the movie as a faceless, wordless henchman, but brings a genuine sense of threat to proceedings – not an easy thing to do when it’s open knowledge as to how long every actor’s contract is.
Being a nicely subversive (but not too subversive thanks to it’s Hydra based twist) and relatively straight laced thriller is a reward in of itself, but what pushes The Winter Soldier confidently over the top is it’s remarkably incredibly intelligent action scenes that starts with our hero surgically dismantling french pirates by beating seven bells of merde out of them with a vibranium frisbee and then gets even more imaginative from there. A ten on one brawl in the enclosed space of an elevator and a truly magnificent highway firefight/smackdown still rank as some of the MCU’s best action to date with tiny character beats laced throughout (unable to beat Winter Soldier one on one, watch Black Window employ endless fake outs to try and score a shifty victory – and notice how Cap’s costume changes reflect his personal stance during the film).
The effect of The Winter Soldier was stratospheric. Cap’s story arc was finally cracked (you don’t change Steve Rogers to fit a plot, you change the world around him to test his iron morals and keep him the constant) therefore finally cementing the red, white and blue boy scout as legitimately awesome and thanks to their multifaceted direction the Russo’s eventually became the keepers of Marvel lore with Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, with each steadily swelling the scope and stakes of this expanding universe to the near religious proportions it has today.
A cracking thriller, a genuine game changer and a certain shoe-in for the best action scenes of 2014 (never forget that was a year that also contained the gore streaked genius of The Raid 2 for God’s sake!) Captain America: The Winter Soldier was possibly the most impressive glow up for a Marvel character until Thor: Ragnarok brought the silly.
America. Fuck yeah.