The year 2014 was a great one for Marvel Films. Five films based on Marvel properties were released, more than any previous year, and four of them were very good. Marvel Studios released the next two films of its ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the Russo Brothers, 2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014). These are generally counted among the best of the MCU films, but they couldn’t be more different in their approach. The former is a sequel featuring a well-known character whose popularity was recently bolstered by an appearance in The Avengers (Whedon, 2012), while the latter is based on a property not even known to most casual comic book readers. The former is a taut, Earth-based political thriller with minimal use of superpowers, while the latter is a comedic space fantasy featuring different planets and alien races. More telling, however, are the stylistic choices made by the Marvel Studios filmmakers. The MCU films had distinguished themselves by their bright colour schemes, deep-rooted humour, light tone and unabashed geekiness, which Guardians of the Galaxy fully exemplifies and The Winter Soldier defies.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s palette is muted, as is its sense of humour, and it adopts a more serious, mature and intense tone than other MCU films. Despite that, it doesn’t feel out of place in the MCU and actually represented the way forward for the series. The greatest strength of the MCU is the way that different films and filmmakers approach the “comic book film” through the lens of previously unrelated styles and genres. This has allowed them to release over 20 films without ever feeling like they are stagnating. The Winter Soldier is inspired by paranoid political thrillers of the ’70s, making it the most radical departure from the tried-and-true MCU formula up to that point. But that same year Marvel Studios also released a wacky pop-rock space fantasy. Both films were excellent, highly successful, and comfortably occupied the same universe. Clearly emboldened by the massive success of The Avengers, the producers at Marvel Studios chose not to safely stick to their successful formula, but instead bend and break that formula to keep things fresh.
Beyond bold stylistic and tonal choices, The Winter Soldier filmmakers also made bold narrative choices. Most notably, SHIELD, the intelligence organization that served as the glue that held the MCU together in its early films, is revealed to be deeply corrupted and is destroyed by the end of the film. The film also represents a turning point in the development of Steve Rogers/Captain America as the creators of the MCU transition him from the loyal patriot depicted in Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) to the authority-questioning insurgent in later films. These were further signs that Marvel Studios was not going to play it safe after its earlier success. The filmmakers were going to continue to take risks within their chosen area, blockbuster comic book films. The ambitious ideas behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and their absolutely perfect execution by the filmmakers are why this film is viewed as one of the best Marvel Films and, beyond that, one of the best comic book films ever made.
The film draws from numerous comic book influences. After the smart decision to set Captain America: The First Avenger entirely in the Second World War era, the filmmakers behind The Winter Soldier are able to explore the far more interesting “man out of time” aspects of the character. Steve Rogers/Captain America is frozen in arctic ice towards the end of the war, and he’s discovered and thawed in the classic Avengers #4 (March 1964). From the moment he awakens, he’s displaced from his own time, and slightly out of step with modern sensibilities. This has become more pronounced over the years, as Marvel’s sliding timescale has stretched the original 20 years on ice to nearly 70. Since his emergence in the modern Marvel Universe, comics creators have used Steve’s outdated perspective to comment on changing politics and attitudes in the United States, and the world. For example, in response to the Marvel equivalent of the Watergate Scandal, Steve renounces his alter-ego and becomes Nomad in Captain America #180 (December 1974). He returns to his Captain America fairly quickly, but he simultaneously declares that he stands for American ideals rather than a specific government or military. This distinction would come to define the approach of Marvel Studios to the character starting in The Winter Soldier.
Also notable from that era was the introduction of Sam Wilson/Falcon, who first appeared in Captain America #117 (September 1969). Falcon is notable as the first black superhero to not have the word “black” in his superhero name. He was a man from Harlem in New York City who flew using a wingsuit and communed with birds. Falcon’s close partnership and friendship with Steve defined Captain America in the ’70s, and the comic was even renamed Captain America and Falcon for most issues from 1971 to 1978. A redesigned, more militarized version of Falcon was introduced to Marvel’s Ultimate Comics in Ultimate Nightmare #1 (October 2004), and this look informed the character’s cinematic portrayal in The Winter Soldier.
The film takes its title and key plot points from writer Ed Brubaker’s celebrated run on Captain America, which began in Captain America Vol. 5 #1 (January 2005). Brubaker’s opening story arc made a splash by doing what was previously considered unthinkable: resurrecting Cap’s young wartime partner, Bucky Barnes. Beyond just resurrecting him, Brubaker recontextualized the character. Rather than just Captain America’s plucky teen sidekick, Bucky was actually a covert assassin on Cap’s wartime missions. He was recovered from the arctic ice shortly after the war by the Soviet Union, brainwashed to become an assassin, the Winter Soldier, and is cryogenically frozen between missions to slow his aging. Steve reverses the brainwashing, and Bucky even becomes Captain America for a time after Steve is assassinated. Brubaker’s run was earning acclaim as the Captain America films began production, and thus became a significant influence on the films aesthetically and narratively.
The final significant comic book influence on The Winter Soldier, but one not discussed nearly enough, was Secret Warriors. The series, created by Jonathan Hickman, Brian Michael Bendis and Stefano Caselli, followed Nick Fury as he created an underground team of operatives after being ousted from SHIELD. In Secret Warriors #1 (April 2009), Fury discovers that SHIELD has secretly been a division of Hydra, their sworn enemy, all along, and he sets out to take down both SHIELD and Hydra. This inspired the biggest twist in The Winter Soldier.
Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, already Marvel veterans after writing The First Avenger and Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013), intended to make The Winter Soldier more grounded and realistic than other MCU films. They smartly rooted Steve’s cultural shock in views on morality. Steve brings with him a Second World War-era black and white morality, but finds himself operating in a politically grey time. Navigating this divide is the central character arc of the film. Markus and McFeely drew tonal and structural inspiration from paranoid political thrillers of the ’70s, such as The Parallax View (Pakula, 1974), Three Days of the Condor (Pollack, 1975), and All the President’s Men (Pakula, 1976). The latter two starred Robert Redford, who is cast in a key supporting role in The Winter Soldier as a knowing wink to these influences. The ’70s thriller approach is the primary reason The Winter Soldier has a refreshingly unique feel amongst comic book films. The idea to have Steve destroy SHIELD came from Kevin Feige, the chief creative visionary of Marvel Studios. The destruction of an element so central to the MCU signalled to the screenwriters that they were free to take bold narrative leaps, and the resulting confidence is evident throughout the screenplay.
Besides the narrative and tonal risks, the producers of The Winter Soldier also took a risk with their choice of directors. Again, the risk paid off. Joe and Anthony Russo were best known for directing a combined 14 episodes of Arrested Development (2003-2005) and thirty-three episodes of Community (2009-2015), both cinematically ambitious sitcoms. They had only directed two films, Welcome to Collinwood (Russo Brothers, 2002) and You, Me and Dupree (Russo Brothers, 2006), both smaller scale comedies. This experience didn’t immediately indicate an aptitude for big-budget blockbuster filmmaking, but Marvel Studios was establishing a pattern of hiring promising directors of smaller-scale projects and providing them with the tools to work on the largest possible canvas. This approach had often yielded exciting results, with the likes of Joss Whedon on The Avengers and Shane Black on Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013). The Russos rose to the challenge, making The Winter Soldier taut and inventive, and creating some instant-classic action scenes.
The Russos continued the ’70s thriller approach by muting the colour palette and grounding the action. They depicted Steve’s emergence in the modern world cinematically by employing the tricks of modern action filmmaking, such as close-up combat cinematography, naturalistic lighting, and handheld cameras. These techniques entered mainstream popularity with The Bourne Supremacy (Greengrass, 2004), and had been the dominant action film style in the ensuing decade. Their use here is another break from Marvel Studios style, which had been the model of sleek, classical Hollywood compositions up to this point. The Russos broke from contemporary action tropes by avoiding choppy action editing, instead employing classical editing techniques. These types of intentional, story-driven choices make The Winter Soldier seem less like it was chasing trends, and more like it was molded by a strong creative vision. The Russos also cited Heat (Mann, 1995) and Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996) as influences on specific sequences. If Captain America: The First Avenger feels like an Indiana Jones film, the sequel feels more like a Jason Bourne film. I don’t know if there have ever been sequels that have felt so tonally and stylistically distinct as these. All of these strong creative voices working together to mount The Winter Soldier result in film that breaks nearly every rule in the burgeoning MCU, and is a singularly excellent film as a result.
The narrative template for a ’70s paranoid political thriller, perhaps most clearly defined by Three Days of the Condor is as follows: in the course of his regular job the hero accidentally asks the wrong question or uncovers the wrong information; he unwittingly becomes a target of his own organization or unsavoury people within it, and must go on the run without knowing who to trust; midway through, he determines what made him a target, and must use that information to fight and earn back his life. This is the plot structure of The Winter Soldier, except it replaces the typically bookish, intelligence analyst hero with Captain America. The entire film up to the climax adheres to its political thriller roots, with taut, smaller-scale thrills and action scenes that work beautifully. The climax blows out into a larger, visual effects-driven set-piece, which doesn’t work quite as well as what came before. Even still, the finalé works due to strong character dynamics established earlier in the film.
But before the thriller elements can kick in, early scenes take the time to explore Steve’s mindset, and relate it to the real issues faced by many veterans. The Winter Soldier opens with a small musical quote of Alan Silvestri’s bombastic score from The First Avenger, before Henry Jackman musically modernizes the score. Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) is jogging around Washington, D.C., and is lapped several times by super-soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). As they cool down, Sam asks Steve the basic questions about adjusting to modern life that he’s likely asked by everyone. Sam suggests listening to the soundtrack to Trouble Man (Dixon, 1972) by Marvin Gaye, and Steve adds it to his pop culture to-do list. (On a side note, the last five items on the list were standard on all versions of the film, but the first five changed depending on location. There were at least 11 different versions globally, voted on by fans). Just as Steve is about to end his friendly encounter with Sam, Sam manages to connect with him as a veteran. They have a more meaningful conversation about the difficulties of returning to the comforts of home after war. Steve, of course, experiences that more acutely than anyone, as he returned home after being frozen for 70 years.
He catches up with Sam again at a Veterans Affairs meeting, and they bond further over losing their partners in combat. Steve also speaks with Peggy (Hayley Atwell), his love interest from The First Avenger and later founder of SHIELD, who is now quite old and suffering memory lapses. Through these conversations, Steve explains that he’s unsure where he fits into the world. He joined SHIELD after being unfrozen basically by default, but isn’t clear about why he’s fighting. Even worse, Steve doesn’t even know what he would do if he quit SHIELD, as his adult life has been defined by being a super-soldier. This is a strong place to begin the character in his first modern film. It reminds me of the choice to have Tony Stark experience post-traumatic stress disorder in Iron Man 3. Steve is feeling fatigued and stuck, wondering if a soldier is all he can ever be. Much of his uncertainty seems to come from following the orders of his superiors, whose motives are often suspect. Over the course of the film, Steve’s resolve returns as he gains greater clarity about his enemies and greater autonomy over his actions. Evans continues to cement himself as the ultimate cinematic boy scout hero of our time, with his strong sincere performance as Steve Rogers.
Steve is currently a SHIELD operative, and his early scenes with Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) demonstrate his moral disconnect from the organization. Steve and Natasha are sent on a mission to rescue hostages on a SHIELD ship in international waters. They are accompanied by a strike team led by Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), and fight a team of terrorists led by Batroc (Georges St-Pierre). Steve and Natasha have an easy chemistry throughout the mission, demonstrating a comfort built over many missions together since The Avengers. It helps that this was Evans and Johansson’s fourth film together in a decade. Steve single-handedly clears the ship’s deck of terrorists in a fast, brutally-effective manner. As part of bringing Steve into the modern world, the filmmakers reasoned that he would have studied and perfected modern martial arts techniques. This culminates when Steve faces down Batroc. Having popular UFC fighter St-Pierre in the role reeks of stunt casting, but his brief fight with Steve is fun enough.
The hostages are rescued and the mission succeeds until the end, when Natasha disobeys Steve’s orders to complete a side mission ordered by Fury to download data from the ship. This allows Batroc to escape. Upset, Steve confronts Fury at the Triskelion, a massive SHIELD headquarters in the middle of Washington. Fury makes it clear that Steve serves his purpose as an excellent, honest, forthright soldier, and Natasha serves a different purpose as a morally-ambiguous, frequently dishonest spy. Fury then introduces Steve to Project Insight. Insight consists of three heavily-armed, mostly-automated SHIELD helicarriers (flying aircraft carriers) that, upon their imminent launch, will patrol the planet to preemptively eliminate predicted threats to the free world. Project Insight perfectly encapsulates Steve’s discomfort with modern political and military structures. Fury sees Insight as vital to preemptively protect the world from future wars or terrorist attacks. Steve, on the other hand, feels that it’s unjust to target and kill people if they have not yet done anything wrong, and echoes Benjamin Franklin’s concerns about trading freedom for security. All of this compounds Steve’s concerns over his place in the world. The filmmakers smartly avoid such hacky gags as Steve not understanding a smartphone or complaining about music these days, and focus his culture shock on shifting morality.
Another smart move by the screenwriters is deciding that Steve is not a character who changes over the course of a story. He instead changes the world around him with his principles. And so, the trouble in the film truly begins when Steve’s argument actually makes an impact on Fury, and causes him to second-guess his plans. Fury visits his boss, and head of the ill-defined World Security Council, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, wonderful to see in any film these days). Fury asks Pierce to delay their launch of Project Insight. Before he knows it, Fury is attacked in his car by men posing as police officers. The street attack and subsequent chase is very intense, harkening back to the standout action scene in Heat. Fury’s reinforced, gadget-ridden car is crashed into, shot, and then a battering ram is brought in to burst open his driver’s side window. Fury is in constant conversation with the car’s AI-assistant, offering a bit of levity in an otherwise severe scene. Fury soon breaks away, leading to a car chase through Washington.
The sequence feels very practical, more at home in a Bourne film than an Avengers film. The effects are mostly practical, and the only elevated elements is the gadgets in Fury’s car. The chase ends when the mysterious, dangerous Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) appears in the middle of the road and flips the car with an explosive. The whole chase is exciting and inventive, with a welcome spotlight for Jackson who is typically a glorified cameo in these films. This would certainly be the standout action set-piece of the film if not for another sequence several minutes later.
Fury breaks into Steve’s apartment. He loudly plays music while informing Steve that his apartment is bugged, a classic paranoid thriller trope. Fury is then shot by the Winter Soldier, but not before telling Steve to trust no one, another trope, and passing him a USB stick full of data Natasha stole from the ship. Steve learns that his sweet neighbour, Sharon (Emily VanCamp), is actually a SHIELD agent before chasing down the assassin. Steve loses him, and then watches alongside Natasha and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Fury’s second-in-command, as Fury dies on the operating table. Even casual Marvel Comics fans likely knew that Fury’s death was a fake-out, but the filmmakers used this fairly obvious twist to misdirect from the larger SHIELD twist that was coming. Steve meets with Pierce and, without actually lying, avoids giving up any information. As a result, Steve becomes the next target, as indicated by the brilliant, instant-classic fight scene that follows.
Steve leaves Pierce’s office and takes an elevator. He’s joined floor-after-floor by other SHIELD employees, including allies like Rumlow. As the elevator fills, Steve is pushed to the centre of the car, surrounded on all sides in the small space, and he begins to suspect something. The tension builds quickly and effectively until Steve calls them out, and the fight begins. It’s brutal, claustrophobic, inventive and, most importantly, clear. The action is well-choreographed and beautifully shot so that nothing is obscure. The Bourne films popularized a type of close-quarters action cinematography that was intentionally disorienting, and was effective in those films. But the technique became overused and sloppy in numerous other films, more often used to obscure poor choreography.
The clarity of the elevator sequence is a big part of why it became so popular among action fans. It’s also not showy in a way one might expect from a superhero film, but appropriate for a film that eschews many comic book film trappings. The attackers grab Steve and try to affix strong magnets to his wrists. He takes many of them out, even with one of his wrists magnetically attached to the side of the elevator car. Soon, only Rumlow is left, insisting the attack is nothing personal before Steve knocks him out, and is left standing above his defeated attackers. Steve then escapes the building by jumping out of the elevator, directly borrowing an image from Civil War #1 (July 2006) by Steve McNiven.
Steve immediately encounters Natasha, and they go on the run together. They trace Fury’s data to the army base where Steve trained in The First Avenger. Returning Steve to the base is a nice way to compound his nostalgic uncertainty. He has been rejected by his modern organization, and longs for his seemingly simpler past. On the base, Steve and Natasha discover the very first SHIELD headquarters. But beneath that, they discover a massive room filled with very old, interconnected computer databanks. The computers hold the consciousness of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), a captured Hydra scientist from The First Avenger. Zola’s appearance in the comics was typically a face on a computer screen on the torso of a robot, so his appearance here is a nice reference to that, if a little too openly “comic-book” for this film. That is quickly overlooked, however, as Zola gives his exposition.
The United States recruited brilliant Nazi scientists after the war, and Zola claims that Hydra scientists such as him were recruited to SHIELD. They never renounced their desire for world domination, however, and they quietly moved into positions of power throughout the organization while they waited for the proper moment to strike. They would occasionally use operatives like the Winter Soldier to affect change, including a passing reference to the assassination of Tony Stark’s parents (a key plot point in Captain America: Civil War, Russo Brothers, 2016). With the advent of the internet and social media, Hydra gathered information about global citizens that was freely uploaded, and created an algorithm for targeting potential threats to their rule. Project Insight represents their masterstroke, as it will neutralize all opposition under the guise of protecting the world.
The base is attacked, and Steve and Natasha flee to Sam’s house to hideout. Natasha is disillusioned, having worked for corrupt Russian agencies before apparently joining the good guys with SHIELD, but Steve is glad to have a clear purpose. The Hydra twist explains the moral dissonance he has with SHIELD, makes him trust his moral compass again, and gives him a clear enemy to fight. For viewers, the Hydra twist was largely a shock, even to those like myself who read Secret Warriors. More than Nick Fury, SHIELD was the central element, the glue, that tied the MCU together. If Marvel Studios chose to make SHIELD retroactively corrupt and destroy it then, excitingly, nothing was sacred in the MCU. It makes perfect sense for the metanarrative of the series, however. SHIELD was the mechanism by which the Avengers were assembled, but the Avengers made SHIELD obsolete. In the context of The Winter Soldier, the Hydra twist narratively ties it back to The First Avenger much more closely than expected for films set seventy years apart. Finally, the whole “I was working for the enemy I thought I was fighting” aspect is a great spy thriller narrative trope, cementing The Winter Soldier as a very different type of comic book film. The twist is a bold, surprising storytelling decision that elevated the film above of the other “Phase 2” Marvel Studios sequels that preceded it, and it gave MCU fans justified faith in the future of the series.
After these revelations and Steve’s new sense of mission, the film propels towards the finalé as it enters into the paranoid thriller stage of “using the uncovered information to strike back at the villains.” It maintains the thriller feel until the action climax, with the launch of Project Insight from the Triskelion, which feels too large-scale for the rest of the film. Sam recovers his wingsuit from his military days, and the heroes set out to gather more information from Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández), a familiar, background SHIELD agent from Thor (Branagh, 2011) and The Avengers. They find him meeting with Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), returning from Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010), who is also revealed to be corrupt when he whispers “Hail Hydra” into Sitwell’s ear. These characters represent one of the joys of the shared universe concept. The film needed a corrupt SHIELD agent and politician, and the filmmakers decided to use pre-established characters rather than inventing new ones. It’s subtle and practical, and a nice nod to the fans. Also, the “Hail Hydra” whisper became a meme after the release of the film.
Meanwhile, Pierce is revealed to be the main villain as he orders the Winter Soldier to kill Steve. Pierce’s villainy is unsurprising, given the casting of such a high-profile actor in the role, and it’s fun seeing Redford, who played the hero in films such as Three Days of the Condor and the underrated Sneakers (Robinson, 1992), playing the big bad. Sitwell is killed in a highway ambush that spills into a foot chase. The sequence feels like a continuation of the chaotic attack on Fury earlier in the film, nearly matching the intensity, especially when Natasha is shot by the Winter Soldier. Steve’s fight with the Winter Soldier, a well-staged one-on-one fight, ends with the revelation that the Winter Soldier is actually Bucky, Steve’s childhood friend and wartime partner. After his apparent death in The First Avenger, he was taken by Zola, given a robotic arm, and brainwashed to become a Hydra assassin. He was cryogenically frozen between missions, explaining his still-youthful appearance. This revelation was no surprise to comics fans, or people who noticed Sebastian Stan on the cast list, but it works because of how it impacts Steve. The end of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980) still works after first viewing because “I am your father” devastates Luke Skywalker, who we care about. The revelation about Bucky shakes Steve to his core, and he resolves to save his friend by any means necessary.
Steve, Natasha and Sam are captured by SHIELD, but rescued by Maria Hill. She takes them to Fury, still-alive and committed to fighting Hydra. Fury wants to root out Hydra from SHIELD, salvaging the organization. Steve means to take down SHIELD entirely. They argue at first, but Fury acquiesces and says “Looks like you’re giving the orders now, Cap.” This moment is key. With even Nick Fury deferring to Captain America’s leadership, he attains the status of definitive leader of the MCU, the person every other hero follows. This is more-or-less the position he has held in the comics universe for 50 years. The team plans to infiltrate each of the Project Insight helicarriers and replace a control chip, allowing them to take control. Steve also plans to appeal to Bucky. Finally, in a symbolic move, Steve steals his Second World War uniform from a Smithsonian exhibit, replacing his SHIELD operative outfit.
The large scale of the climax lessens its impact compared to the rest of the film, but The Winter Soldier is so strong and well-made up to this point that the sequence doesn’t even come close to sinking the film. In a lesser film, or with lesser filmmakers, the ending would have seemed tacked on, insisted on by studio heads to give the film a more “superhero” feel. The film’s real asset at this point is the character relationships. Fury and Natasha confront Pierce in his office to access Hydra documents and leak them online. Fury’s anger with Pierce’s betrayal make these scenes crackle. Meanwhile, Steve makes an impassioned speech to non-Hydra SHIELD agents to help him. I particularly enjoy the scene when a SHIELD technician (Aaron Himelstein), though terrified and threatened at gunpoint, refuses to launch Project Insight, citing “Captain’s orders.” Once again, Steve doesn’t change, but he changes and inspires those around him. Steve and Sam have fun banter as they infiltrate the helicarriers and give control to Maria Hill. Hill causes the helicarriers to attack each other, but Steve stays behind to save Bucky. He finally gets through to Bucky in some way, and Bucky saves Steve from the crash before disappearing. It’s the well-drawn characters that carry the film through this fairly conventional finalé, and keep it from stumbling at the finish line.
As the film ends, good SHIELD agents finds new jobs while Hydra agents are rounded up. Natasha becomes the public face of the new order, implying that the Avengers will fill the hole left by SHIELD. Fury goes underground to hunt Hydra, and Steve set out to find Bucky with rediscovered resolve.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fantastic comic book film despite breaking every pre-established Marvel Studios rule. It has funny bits, but it’s not as fundamentally comedic as other MCU films. It’s gritty, serious and grounded, whereas most MCU films are light and fantastical. The colour palette is muted and the effects are largely practical, while the rest of the MCU is colourful and CGI-heavy. It’s distinct from the MCU, and yet doesn’t feel out of place in the MCU. It demonstrates the sturdiness of the shared universe created by Marvel Studios, that films like Thor and The Winter Soldier can comfortably coexist within it. It also represented the way forward for comic book films, a way to avoid stagnating as a genre, by applying the tropes and structure of a different genre to a comic book film. The Winter Soldier is a ’70s paranoid political thriller through the lens of superhero film. Marvel Studios would go on to tackle space fantasy in Guardians of the Galaxy, heist films in Ant-Man (Reed, 2015), and coming-of-age comedies in Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watt, 2017), keeping things fresh. On a sidenote, The Winter Soldier also had a tremendous positive impact on the MCU television show Agents of SHIELD, which was spinning its wheels for 16 episodes in its first season until the fall of SHIELD finally gave the show some exciting direction.
The political nature of the film also had some serendipitous topical resonance. The film was well into production before concerns about Obama’s drone policies were in the news. The automated Project Insight helicarriers echoed concerns about drone warfare. The Winter Soldier also features its heroes exposing the villains by leaking classified intelligence onto the internet, much like Edward Snowden controversially did in June 2013, shortly before The Winter Soldier wrapped filming. Thus, the film felt like a throwback to another decade’s political thrillers while also being relevant to modern concerns.
Upon its release, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a success. It was praised by critics and audiences nearly universally, making it Marvel’s best-received film since The Avengers two years earlier. The studio released the film at the beginning of April, giving it a one-month headstart on the summer movie season, and the strategy paid off. The film made $259 million domestically (a 40 percent increase in ticket sales from the first film) and $714 million worldwide (a 93 percent increase in revenue over the first). These massive improvements over The First Avenger were in large part due to increased familiarity and appreciation of the character following his appearance in The Avengers, particularly in foreign markets where the first film struggled. This “Avengers bump” was not so drastic with Thor: The Dark World, however, so the rest can be accounted for by the quality of the film. The Winter Soldier demonstrated the exciting choices that Marvel Studios would continue to make, emboldened by the success of The Avengers. Its success was a sign of the great things to come in the MCU.
Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Stan plays the Smithsonian security guard who discovers that Cap’s Second World War costume is missing, and exclaims that he “is SO fired!”. That is 19 cameos in 31 films.
- The mid-credits scene, written and directed by Joss Whedon as a lead-in to Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015), depicts Hydra scientist Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) discussing the fall of SHIELD and Hydra, as he continues to conduct his own experiments using Loki’s sceptre from The Avengers. He claim that we have entered the Age of Miracles, as he observes Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) demonstrate their powers. People speculated that Pietro’s appearance here was intended to introduce the character of Quicksilver on-screen before Fox (who also had cinematic rights to the character) could do so two months later in X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
- After the credits, Bucky is shown exploring the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian, discovering bits of his forgotten past.
- Joe and Anthony Russo would go on to direct Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016) before Marvel Studios handed them the keys to the kingdom with the third and fourth Avengers films
- Anthony Mackie would go on to appear as Sam Wilson/Falcon in four films and counting- Emily VanCamp reprised her role in Captain America: Civil War, and fellow SHIELD agent Aaron Himelstein was given a nice cameo in Avengers: Age of Ultron
- The post-credits scene introduces Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Thomas Kretschmann to the MCU, setting up larger roles in Avengers: Age of Ultron
Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order: It feels like significant time has passed following The Avengers, and The Winter Soldier serves as a perfect lead-in to Avengers: Age of Ultron, so:
- Iron Man
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Thor: The Dark World
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Next Time: Sony’s big shared universe plans for Spider-Man are scuttled by the lackluster Amazing Spider-Man 2.