Captain America: The Winter Soldier
You can count me as one of the people who had a great fondness for Captain America: The First Avenger. I found it to be a welcome spin on the standard superhero film that had been released up to that point, an excellent addition to the “Phase One” Marvel continuity and a damn good World War Two movie to boot. I thought Chris Evans was perfect for the part of “Cap” and his adventure captured the best of the blended genres of comic book and war. It had a great villain, a great supporting cast, and the perfect tone for the title character, as well as leaving off on just the right moment.
After a stopover in The Avengers, Rodgers is back to see if, like Stark and Thor before him, he can make a franchise of his own. Replacing Joe Johnston at the directorial helm are the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, whose mostly comedic pedigree before this (Arrested Development, Community) might have sparked concerns about their ability to handle such a venture. Many see Captain America as, in character terms, the weak link of the Avengers line-up. Are they right? Or is this classic American hero just the guy to keep Marvel ticking over in time for Age of Ultron?
Sometime after the events of The Avengers, Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is continuing to adapt to life in the 21st century, where he struggles to confront an age where enemies and how to fight them are no longer as clear cut as they used to be. After S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is targeted by the mysterious mercenary known only as “the Winter Soldier”, Rodgers is forced to go on the run with fellow agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and aerial combat veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to investigate a deadly conspiracy at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D and its senior leader Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).
In-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.
As a continuation of the Captain America franchise and, more generally, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), The Winter Soldier is a success. It has several different elements to it, and most of them intermesh fairly well. On the surface it’s a fairly standard action-thriller, that rises to a higher level because of the competence and variety of its action sequences, from street-level ambushes to the CGI-fest finale involving several helicarriers.
But on a deeper level The Winter Soldier is a more taut conspiracy film, dealing with Rodgers’ procedural-like investigation into some rather unsettling aspects of the S.H.I.E.L.D organisation, many of them surrounding Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce character, whose role and casting is a deliberate callback to 70’s films like All The President’s Men that The Winter Soldier is trying to emulate a bit. Most of this stuff is interesting enough, if not quite Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It is all in a film that matches the typically brilliant pacing that nearly all of its brethren have shared, with scenes of action and exposition balanced fairly perfectly against each other, with the adrenalin pumping beats coming at the right moments and never any feeling of ever being bored (unlike, say, Iron Man 3). This is a film with a production team that is confident in what it is and the messages that it wants to send out, a considered evolution of everything that we saw with the title character in The First Avenger.
The first act reintroduces us to Rodgers, set up his modern day situation very quickly and efficiently, and then gets us up to speed with everything else. Fury, Pierce, even the minor players like Carter and Rumlow are introduced and expanded enough to get by, all in scenes that let them stand out on their own terms. Case in point, Pierce’s first scene with the “World Security Council”, where he cracks wise and defends the record of Fury and the proposed “Project Insight” plan. Such scenes serve a dual purpose. There’s the simple matter of introducing Pierce and making him unique, but also of convincing the audience that he isn’t a threat without it becoming too obvious. The Winter Soldier succeeds in both respects.
That first act rolls on nicely, punch marked with the apparent assassination of Nick Fury (coming after his escape from the first attempt, making it doubly distressing) and Captain America going on the run. We’ve already seen Rodgers out of his comfort zone in general, now everything has flipped turned on him: the American hero is now a wanted man, and it still isn’t immediately clear as to who the real bad guy is, apart from some shadowy mercenary with the metal arm. That kind of set-up can be difficult to pull off, but the Russo brothers did it, with good dialogue, good characterisation, a patient approach (seriously, this film starts off with Rodgers exercising as a means of introducing Sam “Falcon” Wilson, who else would have thought to do that?) and the right action beats: nothing too flashy, but enough to make the audience sit up and take notice.
But then the second act dawns, with Cap and Romanoff on the run, and the whole thing just goes to hell. Because the plot gets revealed, and in the worst manner possible: with the villain narrating it to the main characters.
Here’s the thing about the central premise of The Winter Soldier. HYDRA coming back is hardly a surprise, they’re the standard S.H.I.E.L.D villain. But The Winter Soldier takes the inferred agreement with the audience, that some crazy stuff will be presented that the much vaunted “suspension of disbelief” will have to deal with, and then just runs and runs with it. You can easily get away with a few nonsensical moments in your overall plot, with only a little bit of “fridge logic” stuff possibly ruining it, but The Winter Soldier expects the audience to buy into just a little bit too much. Let’s go over it. We are expected to believe that:
1. S.H.I.E.L.D was OK with hiring HYDRA scientist Arnim Zola to work for them after World War Two.
2. Zola used this situation to implant a HYDRA cell within S.H.IE.L.D.
3. This HYDRA cell(s) grew in power to such an extent that they were able to control much of the organisations direction, eventually coming to be in a position where they were ready to launch a total coup of its operations.
4. HYDRA did the same to other American institutions.
5. HYDRA was thus able to tinker with and alter the unfolding of world history to suit their “More Chaos” agenda.
6. They were able to assassinate anyone who got close to discovering them without suspicion, like Howard Stark (it is implied).
7. When Zola was diagnosed with a terminal disease he was somehow able to upload his brain onto contemporary computers in a hidden bunker underneath S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters.
8. He was thus able to keep controlling HYDRA operations up to the present day.
9. With the advent of social media and extensive online records of individuals, this Computer Zola was able to invent an algorithm that could search a person’s records and use them to determine that person’s future to a degree where HYDRA could determine their potential worth/threat.
10. HYDRA was able to manipulate the creation of Project Insight and its unstoppable death guns.
11. Further, they were able to ensure that such a project had no kind of non-S.H.I.E.L.D failsafe to wrest away control once it had been launched.
12. HYDRA achieved all of this, and were never discovered by anybody in S.H.I.E.L.D or any other institution in the American government for over 60 years.
This is the premise that The Winter Soldier is asking the audience to accept, and its completely moronic, made worse by the fact that the person outlining it is a long dead Nazi speaking through an ancient computer. Additionally, the film to that point had been a deadly serious conspiracy film, with nary a hint of the ridiculousness that was about to unfold.
The answer you’ll often see to things of this nature is to “just go with it”, and some even applaud Marvel for embracing the more silly aspects of the source material (where HYDRA have, I’m sure, infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D more than once and will again). I’m not buying that. There’s no need for such an extreme tie-in to the larger universe, to the detriment of the overall tone and plot development of the film. Pierce and his underlings could easily have been part of a smaller conspiracy to undermine S.H.I.E.L.D operations. They could even still have been HYDRA, just without a computerised Arnim frikking Zola directing their operations from beyond the grave, or with such a large focus (check out the latest Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, HYDRA is everywhere in the organisation apparently). But no, instead the brilliantly executed set-up for The Winter Soldier is largely ruined by this mindmelter of a second act revelation, that doesn’t even seem to have that much of an impact on the later plot, they barely mention Zola again. But the inclusion of it was just too much for me, with the suspension of disbelief state shattered.
(As an aside, I can well imagine that such a plot point can be turned to Marvel’s own purposes, in covering up other plot holes and generally being a catch all for any case of distorted continuity. Got such a problem? HYDRA did it).
Thankfully, The Winter Soldier rapidly veers back to its original tone and level of quality following this moment of superhero insanity. The rest of the second act is largely taken up by some great fight scenes and a much better revelation in the form of Nick Fury’s death faking/the Winter Soldier’s identity (well known to comic fans, but still presented very well onscreen). The stakes are high, but there’s been a great amount of work put in to making this counter-movement, led by Rodgers, into a viable and very dangerous group in the eyes of the audience.
The climax has its ups and downs. This kind of conspiracy film works better with lower-intensity action sequences, and the CGI heavy finale based around the helicarriers was almost an unwelcome reminder that I was watching a comic book movie. The sequences were still competent and exhilarating, but almost felt wrong as the ending to everything that had gone before. There’s an obvious pressure, post Avengers, to have such a finale (Iron Man 3 had its suit extravaganza, The Dark World took part of London to pieces) and here it’s this triple helicarrier bonanza, with lots of explosions, exotic deaths and showdowns on a height. But it can’t be said that the fates of individual characters were written poorly or went to the wrong places, though some might have been a little underdeveloped. But The Winter Soldier set-up a conspiracy to be investigated, punctuated it with great action scenes, and brought things to a coherent conclusion, even if it went off the rails for a time in the middle. The story is clear, precise and well-rounded (again, except for that moment in the bunker) and that is something to be applauded.
A big part of that is the effective characterisation and journeys that the main characters go on, starting with Captain America himself. The first act in that regard is simply fantastic, a wonderful re-introduction to a Rodgers who feels so out of place in the modern world, trying desperately to maintain the black and white-type values of the 1940’s in a world of terrorists, espionage and a distinctly grey tone to everyone else’s moral compasses. That struggle manifests itself in different ways, and it was great to watch Rodgers go through the motions on all of them: militarily, with the hostage rescue (very far removed from the work of the Howling Commandos), romantically, with his heartbreaking visit to an ailing Peggy Carter and shyness around his next door neighbour, and on a more direct personal level, as he finds himself unable (or unwilling) to trust the likes of Romanoff and Fury, people who were born into a world where one of the first lessons is “Don’t trust anybody”. He seeks out people like Wilson, fellow soldiers who understand his feelings on a more basic level than anyone else, and who make him feel far more at home than people like Fury with all of their machinations. He has vivid flashbacks to his time as a soldier in a museum exhibit, and before his transformation at Camp Lehigh, as a scrawny weakling, who had all the heart America could need.
Rodgers’ journey is that of a man trying to find a reason to keep fighting. He seems to be almost sleepwalking through his service with S.H.I.E.L.D, seemingly close to packing it in altogether, increasingly disgusted with the propagation of fear over freedom. The crisis of Fury’s murder allows him the opportunity to break free of those shackles and find a more pure purpose, one that takes him all the way back to the Second World War: a clear bad guy, a clear wrong to make right in the form of S.H.I.E.L.D’s ponderous corruption. Zola mocks him by proclaiming his life to be “a zero sum”, but he’s actually shooting himself in the foot: HYDRA’s reappearance is all the motivation that Captain America needs.
Along the way there are friendships to make and trust issues to sort out, with Wilson, with Romanoff and with Fury, injecting some old-fashioned dependability into this modern era where such things are scoffed at. Further, the appearance of his old friend Bucky Barnes makes clear how much the past has come into the present, only in this case perverted and warped into a thing of destruction and evil. Rodgers, as the man he was before and remains still, defeats the schemes of cynical, power-hungry men like Pierce and brings Barnes back from his mind-altered state of emptiness. With S.H.I.E.L.D gone and HYDRA on the run, he then finds his purpose, the thing that will drive him on even more: finding Bucky and saving him, as clear a goal as defeating the Nazis or HYDRA. The man who was aimlessly running around Washington when the film opened has found his goal, and he started finding it the minute he actually stopped to talk to Sam Wilson, an ordinary soldier just like Bucky Barnes was (at least to the naked eye).
Black Widow’s journey is decent enough in its own right, simple, but very compelling. From the off, it’s clear that she’s assumed something of a confidante role for Rodgers, knowing things about his personal desires that nobody else knows, and there are definite hints that she holds some sort of a romantic attraction towards him. She seems confused about these feelings, playfully flirting with him at one moment and warning him that he’s in the wrong business if he expects people to trust him the next.
Things become a bit clearer as time moves on. Her feelings towards Rodgers better match that between Romanoff and Clint Barton in The Avengers, something bordering on a unsaid romantic interest perhaps, but better defined as a friendship that is surprisingly deep for a woman in Romanoff’s profession. Such attachment scares her a little, doubly so since she feels so burned following Fury’s death.
Through the course of The Winter Soldier, Romanoff opens up as much as she is going to, most notably in the scene within Sam Wilson’s home. In Rodgers, she has someone she really can trust, maybe because he is so far removed from the times in which they both now live. She has to earn any kind of reciprocity – Rodgers disgust at her actions early on the boat are very real – but that’s something that she becomes committed to.
The ending of The Winter Soldier subverts the traditional love-plot tropes. There’s no kiss, to confessed feelings, no lingering looks of infatuation. That isn’t Romanoff’s style. After all, “love is for children”. But she has found a partner in life in a different way, someone to place her faith in, to the extent that she’ll let her entire history, one of the only pressure points of her being, get leaked out into the public domain.
The last journey to mention is that of the other title character. Poor Bucky has been put through the wringer, but for somebody who shares top billing with Rodgers, he is surprisingly under-involved in this production. With the exception of a flashback scene set in the 1930’s, the Winter Soldier actually has only around ten lines of dialogue total in the film, a lot of them with only a few words – “Whose Bucky?” “But I knew him”, “You’re my mission” – and that badly effects any real attempts at character development from his end.
There is some though. The Smithsonian exhibit reminds us about Bucky’s part in The First Avenger, and when the Soldier does turn up the eerie look in his eyes is a little terrifying, indicating some very deep seeded trauma. But really the characterisation for Bucky is found by looking at Rodgers. When he finds out who the Winter Solder is, he’s stunned and grief stricken, remembering the young man who reached out to him after his mother’s death over a half a century ago. Seeing Rodgers’ emotional frailty upon this revelation makes us a care a bit more about Bucky’s fate, even if that character himself won’t really get the chance to be anything more than a killing machine.
The conclusion for Barnes is a little weak. Rodgers is able to partially snap him out of it with a line that only the two of them would know, and Barnes goes through a partial redemption by saving Cap from drowning in the Potomac. The post-credits scene does set him up rather nicely for any evolution of his character in a sequel, his own search for the truth about Bucky Barnes and what it will mean for his mangled memory. What moments pass between Rodgers and Bucky, some of them very understated, are still some of the film’s best, living up to what the title and early trailers promised.
Minor characters also get plenty of opportunity to have little arcs of their own. Fury is more involved here than he was in The Avengers, going through much the same experience as Romanoff, only with an even more ingrained distrust of the world and all of the people around him. By the end, he’s literally burned that identity to the ground and has gone off to find a new purpose in life, much like Rodgers. Sharon Carter turns against the establishment that she was a key part of due to the actions of Captain America. Brock Rumlow shows his true colours and promises to be an implacable foe in future. Alexander Pierce, the modern face of HYDRA, see’s his cynicism defeated. Sam Wilson, a mirror for Rodgers, finds a new war to fight that he very much wants to, and a new brother-in-arms. Many of these are small little arcs, barely deserving of “sub-plot” status, but I felt they were effective in story telling terms.
Wilson is actually one of the best parts of The Winter Soldier. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have some racial diversity in the MCU, but Wilson is far more than just a colour. He’s a brave, resourceful and committed guy, a wandering soldier who isn’t quite sure what to do with himself until Captain America shows up running next to him. It’s an obvious parallel to Rodgers himself, only Wilson shows an even greater glee at getting involved in events, having given off a sense of drifting through life beforehand. He plays well on screen with Rodgers and Fury, and seems to me to be a far more interesting character than the somewhat similar James Rhodes/War Machine of the Iron Man franchise, someone who was increasingly maligned as the series went on. Also, on the issue of diversity, it was MightyGodKing that made me realise the depth of The Winter Soldier’s diversity: the good guy team consists of one white guy, two black men and two white women.
The political messages inherent in the story do become eye-rollingly unsubtle long before the credits roll, as the never ending debate of security or liberty is shown as a key part of the plot from the earliest moments. That’s all well and good, and the callbacks to the era of World War Two were a bit better in explaining these choices, even if it came with some stupidity. Much worse was the stuff nearer the conclusion, as Romanoff becomes Edward Snowden and Julian Assange rolled into one. A Congressional hearing berates her for destroying the countries intelligence apparatus (though S.H.I.E.L.D’s always seemed to have some kind of international mandate really) and the word “leak/leaking” is thrown around liberally. The recent remake of RoboCop pulled some of this same stuff, and I was surprised now as I was viewing that, at the blunt way that such allusions came about onscreen. Make no mistake, some of the final scenes of The Winter Soldier play like a salute to the Edward Snowden’s of the world, the only ones standing between us and HYDRA. It is, in my eyes, an unwelcome bit of political point making.
My usual word on female characters must follow. Romanoff is one of three of real note, and easily the most important. There’s a depressing tendency to describe characters like the Black Widow in terms related almost entirely to their clothing and their role in action scenes. Romanoff is a beautiful woman, wears distinctive get-up and is a powerful fighter in The Winter Soldier, but she is much more than any of that. The Avengers showed that she could be a compelling character beyond all of those things, and The Winter Soldier continues that trend. Her running sub-plot of wanting to get into a position of trust with Rodgers showcases some very human vulnerability, and the unfolding of that sub-plot was excellent to watch. Romanoff “only acts” like she knows everything, and that includes an outward persona of sheer confidence that hides some deeper problems: namely her fears over her background becoming public, getting too close to people (lest they hurt you by dying) or allowing such closeness to compromise her own position. By the time the credits roll she’s gotten over a bit of that with Rodgers, Fury and, to an extent, Wilson. She’s not completely flawless, but she’s made significant character progression, and none of it involved her breasts or swooning into the arms of a male hero.
There are also two much smaller roles in the form of Sharon Carter and Peggy Carter.Sharon Carter is only in a handful of scenes, but does exude an aura of competence and decisive initiative, and is sure to play well opposite Rodgers if she gets the chance to do so in a more substantial way. Peggy Carter’s single scene is one of the MCU’s real heartbreaking ones (I believe that it might have been shot for The Avengers, but went unused) and her role in The Winter Soldier seems to be as a very depressing anchor between Rodgers and his life in the 1940’s, a time that, as Carter illustrates so powerfully, it is impossible to go back to. We may yet see more of this character in the world of television if rumour is to be believed, so that is something to look forward to.
So, where do we go from here? In the same vein as The Dark World, and very much opposite Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier leaves off on a very interesting place, with plenty of opportunity to go to even better places in any sequel, or in Age of Ultron. S.H.I.E.L.D is toast, HYDRA remains a threat in other parts of the world and Bucky Barnes is still out there somewhere (along with a probably vengeful Crossbones). If I was a gambling man, I would bet that Captain America 3 will be some sort of “The Death Of Captain America” story, rounding off Rodgers’ tale with Barnes taking up the S.H.I.E.L.D as the new Cap, matching elements of the official comics continuity. Such possibilities are fascinating to contemplate, and the strength of The Winter Soldier’s conclusion is that the audience is truly looking forward to them greatly. That mid-credits scene (how I do loathe them) is brief and a suitable teaser for Age of Ultron, and that’s about all I can say for a sequence that is (and always is) distracting fan service.
The plot of The Winter Soldier has its problems. Well, one giant glaring problem in the middle. But the sum of its parts are better than that notable flaw’s ability to detract. The Winter Soldier is great storytelling, on a general and character level, seamlessly blending action and conspiracy plot into a very well-paced and enjoyable experience.
Chris Evans continues to imbue the role of Rodgers with a necessary humanity, this personification of the 1940’s American psyche of good morals, hard work and iron will. He keeps to that, but adds that great inner conflict over reconciling that personality with the needs and demands of the present. He remains one of the least interesting Avengers really, but Evans can never be accused of not giving his all in the role, whether its verbally sparring with Jackson and Redford, reaching out to Johansson or just dealing with his multi-decade absence and the things he must catch up on (which includes Nirvana, Star Wars and the 1966 World Cup Final according to his notepad). More than anything, his Rodgers is just a very genuine person, matching the times that he came from. He despises subterfuge and lying, and his warmth is plaint to see when dealing with friends. Some tend to look down on Evans because this role has none of the witty charm of Robert Downey Jnr or OTT gravitas of Chris Hemsworth, but it’s on the same level, just a bit more understated and endearing.
Johansson expands upon her performance in The Avengers with aplomb, starting off with the action-heavy stuff before opening up into a better character than she has previously been allowed to perform. Her Romanoff is put into emotionally compromised positions here, and shows it, far more than she did with Loki in her last outing. She was good then, but is better now, really making the audience believe in the evolution of the character, all the way up to her showdown with the US Congress, as flippant as required. Johansson is a great female lead, and really does deserve her own film.
Samuel L Jackson has always performed fantastically as Nick Fury, and he does his best work yet here. He was just sort of a plot engager in The Avengers, but The Winter Soldier he is able to insert himself more concretely into things, even if he might just have less screen time. Getting his own action scene was important for that, as was a really great showdown with Alexander Pierce, with all of the intensity and biting cynicism that has come to be associated with Fury.
Anthony Mackie is similarly great in his MCU debut. Wilson is a soldier’s soldier, tough, conditioned but with a certain inner frailty and regret. Mackie portrays his lack of purpose really well, and his exuberance when called back into a fighting position. His back and forth with Evans was of a necessarily high standard, and I have good hopes that he will avoid becoming a side kick cliché in time for Cap’s next adventure.
Sebastian Stan doesn’t really get the opportunity to do very much here, hidden behind a mask or in shadows for most of The Winter Soldier’s running length. That’s OK, because he isn’t really the main villain anyway, and the role called for a stoic, traumatised seriousness. He’ll get the chance to show off more of his acting chops in another film I’m sure.
Robert Redford, the very definition of the old pro, gives his shadowy role as a S.H.I.E.L.D honcho all he has. There are times when it seems as if he should be almost embarrassed by the lines he is given – he certainly doesn’t put that much gusto into “Hail Hydra” – but this is Robert Redford. You could give him anything to say and he would imbue it with the requisite charm, venerability and gravitas. As a villain, he was startlingly chilling when revealed as one, and I almost regret the fact that we won’t get to see him in the role again (though there is a vacancy in the “digitised HYDRA genius” role now).
The lesser players – Cobie Smoulders, the menacing and effective Frank Grillo and surprise inclusion Emily VanCamp (playing what is a potentially very important role in the future of the franchise) – all bring something special to their respective roles despite their limited involvement. Grillo is particular noteworthy as an adversary worthy of sparring verbally and physically with Captain America in future. The rest of the cast – Toby Jones, George St-Pierre and Hayly Atwell – perform to expectations. Generally speaking, the acting on display is of a very high quality, a testament to both the cast and the ability of the Russo brothers to get such performances.
The film continues the visual mastery that others in this canon have previously demonstrated, with some slick CGI work and impressive camera efforts. The Russo brothers may not have had a big blockbuster pedigree, but shot The Winter Soldier with skill and aplomb, taking in many great vistas across Washington and making sure that issues of space, lighting and angles were never an issue. Some of the locations were really inspired, not least the Triskellion itself, this impressive office building that the directors take great pleasure in destroying.
Great care has gone into bringing the 1940’s world into the 2010’s, with a sequence set at a Captain America museum exhibition being a particular treat. There had been some pre-release criticism of Captain America’s updated uniform, but I thought it looked perfect, and its creation set up the reversion to the “classic” look of the finale. The Winter Soldier also looked great, and that mechanical arm gave him a very potent motif of warped destruction. When Wilson finally becomes Falcon, it’s a breath of fresh air in a world of armoured suits and flying hammers, and he looks as good as anyone else in the finale.
The action chorography is fast-paced and enjoyable, with Captain America more inclined to visceral hand-to-hand stuff than other Avengers. The dreaded shaky cam does make some appearances, but doesn’t ruin the entire thing thankfully. Nick Fury’s thumping escape from his would-be assassins was a unexpected delight, coming right after an impressive one-on-one bout between Rodgers and French-speaking mercenary Batroc. Rodgers’ escape from the Triskellion, with a tight quarters fight in an elevator with over ten men, was similarly awesome, shot with skill, with a great angle from above. The sequence around the freeway bridge was probably the best of the lot, and while the CGI-heavy finale had plenty of great visual hooks, not least a really well put-together sequence of the helicarriers firing on each other, it was the only thing approaching a weak link when it came to the action parts, and only because it seemed so out of place within the rest of the film.
The script’s great, with plenty of stand-out lines and scenes to supplement the consistent competence of the entire production. Every character sounds distinct and unique, be it Rodgers’ painfully upfront honesty, Romanoff’s slightly faux-confidence, Fury’s seriousness or Pierce’s flippant attitude. One on one moments, like that between Rodgers and Romanoff in Wilson’s home or Fury’s sermon to Rodgers about his grandfather are particularly well written, with a lot being said in a few lines of dialogue to keep characters evolving and the plot going. When the right punctuating line is called for, it is provided, not least with the likes of Pierce’s “Somebody murdered my friend…I’m going to find out who”. Even Arnim Zola’s monologue was written well enough for what it was, including that brilliant final pop at Rodgers, that they are both “out of time”.
One thing these films have usually been good at is including the right measure of humour, even in the midst of action, and The Winter Soldier is no exception, with the Russo’s timing being as perfect as it can be. The best of it actually goes to Redford, with his snarky “Did you get my flowers?” when Fury re-emerges from the grave. Part of the greatness in the script is how the minor characters, even with a handful of lines – like Maria Hill, Bucky, Sharon Carter – all get to stand out and be counted as separate entities. They have their own voices, and nobody really seems to be a cardboard cut-out of any kind. That’s worth applauding.
Henry Jackman’s score is as good as the effort made for The First Avenger, though I suppose it does get dull as time goes on. The blaring horns can get a bit too much if you know what I mean. The better parts revolve around the Winter Soldier and his suite which, while taking more than a fair share of inspiration from the likes of the Joker theme of The Dark Knight, is still suitably warped and incoherent, suiting that character perfectly.
Theme wise, there are some obvious ones to talk about. There is a running discussion throughout the course of The Winter Soldier on the classic “security vs liberty” question, that engulfs so much popular commentary today: something the Russo brothers are well aware of. It comes as a surprise to see a superhero film take the standard liberty side, with Captain America and his confidantes doing everything they can to destroy the intelligence and security apparatus that S.H.I.E.L.D represents, essentially the anti-thesis to the likes of The Dark Knight. The ends do not justify the means in The Winter Soldier, and characters like Nick Fury, who start out from positions of believing that pre-emptive action, having a bigger gun is better and never trusting anybody is normal, are shown to be wrong by the conclusion: Fury does as much as anyone is making S.H.I.E.L.D crumble, having realised that their introverted world view has allowed HYDRA to subvert their message and mission.
Rodgers, that fossil from a bygone age where morals and issues were as black and white as they could be, is the perfect man to lead this effort, but he’s joined by the right group of people: the intelligence operative tired of hiding her past, a former soldier who lost so much in a faulty war and S.H.I.E.L.D members who have rapidly become disillusioned with the organisation they supposedly protect.
Their opposites are the fascistic HYDRA members. They want order through chaos, a new system of ruling brought about by pain. They take advantage of mass surveillance and record keeping to make good their goals, which are expressly stated as convincing the population of the world to give up their freedom willingly, having failed to take it by force in World War Two. Zola’s monologue offers a grim view of the way human civilisation has gone since that glorious epoch of freedom over tyranny: a fear mongering decline, which has resulted in humanity loading a gun and putting it in HYDRA’s hand. HYDRA, even the coolly logical Pierce, are undoubtedly the bad guys, and their destruction is a necessary and heroic event. Rodgers and company, the ones who destroy HYDRA, the helicarriers, the Triskellion and dump S.H.I.E.L.D’s info all over the internet, are the heroes. The message could not be clearer on the importance of privacy, reduced government invasiveness and the dangers of a runaway intelligence organisation.
(As another aside, do people know Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden exist in the MCU? They’re namedropped in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D).
HYDRA deals in fear, another key theme. That’s all Captain America see’s when he gazes on the helicarriers Fury is overseeing. The S.H.I.E.L.D director looks on them as a security practicality, since you can’t really trust anyone, but the truth is that he’s afraid, even if he isn’t inclined to show it. Terrorists, alien invasions, demigods from another dimension, the Earth has gone through a lot, and has much to be afraid of. Pierce and HYDRA encourage and spread that fear, knowing that it is a far more potent weapon than anything in any Nazi arsenal.
Rodgers, that great American symbol, is the opposite of fear. He’s hope, patriotism and courage wrapped up in a brilliant blue uniform and he’s the exact kind of thing that HYDRA is trying to destroy. Zola, even though he needles Rodgers like he has already won, knows this, from firsthand experience, it’s one of the reasons he stalls Cap long enough for a missile to nearly kill him. People are easily frightened by the things that happen around the, but they can be inspired to greatness too, just as that “Greatest Generation” was. HYDRA wants to make a go of World War Two again, having removed hope from the equation. Rodgers and his friends bring it back, and are victorious. I suppose that trust, something that Rodgers comes back to repeatedly, is the key thing. Only somebody like Rodgers, so upfront and without hidden levels, could take on this immense S.H.I.E.L.D apparatus and win, because he has an ability to unite and lead people like very few else. HYDRA is an organisation of moles and agent provocateurs. Their greatest weapon is a human guinea pig for mind altering experiments and their individual leaders die alone when the plot comes to its main point.
Finding purpose is another key theme, one we see right from the start. Rodgers is aimless, begrudgingly doing S.H.I.E.L.D’s messy clean up jobs but taking no joy in them. He’s keeping busy, just so he can avoid reintegrating back into the world like a normal person, avoiding friendships or romances. In Wilson he finds somebody he can talk to, and discusses openly his sheer lack of direction, a returning veteran who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.
The crisis that HYDRA creates snaps him back. Aside from allowing him to revisit his past glories, it gives him an opportunity to hit the thing that he really seems to hate the most: S.H.I.E.L.D itself, and the altered present that it represents. With that behemoth felled, he has the opportunity and the means to do something really worthwhile, something he considers a very prime purpose: to chase down Bucky and help him.
That involves the last theme I will discuss, that of friendship. While he doesn’t really have that much of an impact in The Winter Soldier, Bucky is defined by his former friendship with Rodgers. We see the two in a desperate moment back in the pre-World War Two days, and understand that there was a deeper friendship there than simple museum exhibits can explain. The loss of Bucky was Rodgers’ up close brush with death, and it affected him greatly, as much as Wilson was damaged when his wing man died.
Such a connection allows for an obvious friendship to grow between Rodgers and Wilson, while Rodgers and Romanoff share a evolving bond throughout The Winter Soldier, one with a slightly flirtatious vibe, but which remains platonic by the conclusion. Rodgers needs those relationships, just as he needed them in the Second World War. They’re what set him apart from his enemies, and what give him the strength to keep going when things seem impossible. “I’m with you till the end of the line”. Only a character like Steve Rodgers could get away with such a line, but only because it is clear that he means it so very much.
The Russo brothers have continued the fine work of Joe Johnston and done another sterling job with the Captain America character, managing to bring him into the modern age and give him his own adventure in as seamless a manner as possible, no easy thing when the hero in question is basically a World War Two propaganda caricature in many respects. Elements of the plot – specifically the bad guys plot – are very convoluted and seem too reliant on “fridge logic” for this, the ninth Marvel Studios effort in this universe, to be considered one of the very best of the genre (like say, the first Iron Man and The Avengers, which remain the best films this studio has made). But the other elements of The Winter Soldier make it more than worthy of a place of honour in the MCU. That brilliant (and diverse) cast, the excellent visuals, the memorable script and the generally fine level of the production really do make this one of the better superhero films of our times. Marvel stuttered with Iron Man 3, proved Thor could have his own franchise in The Dark World, and has now righted the ship fully with The Winter Soldier.
But now, bring on the Guardians of the Galaxy, and we’ll see if Marvel’s big leap of faith with one of its lesser properties will bear similar fruit.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).