2010s, 3.5/4, Action, Marvel, Review

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Image result for captain america the winter soldier banner

#1 in my Ranking of The MCU Phases 1-3.

The first twenty minutes or so of this movie establish so much so well, it feels like the Marvel franchise has finally grown up.

The opening scene takes place around the Mall in Washington D.C. as Captain Rogers takes in his morning run, lapping a young ex-soldier several times. When the two finally speak, there’s a grounded sense of community between the two stemming from their dual tours of duty in wars separated by decades. It’s the physical detail that Sam brings up about the over-softness of mattresses contrasted against the reality of their sleeping arrangements in the theaters of war that sells it so well. Rogers and Sam have this immediate connection because of that shared experience that makes Rogers showing up to a group therapy session for veterans instantly believable. He’s not showing up because he’s Captain America and it’s what Captain America would do. He’s showing up because he’s got his own scars and wonders if spending time with others who have similar experiences could help.

That’s the kind of grounded reality that storytelling should reach for. It’s not about being grounded in a recognizable physical reality but in a recognizable emotional and human reality. The movie around that emotional core is still ridiculous with a super soldier created by a magic blue serum, another soldier with a metal arm that’s been repeatedly frozen over the decades, flying aircraft carriers, and a suit with jets and wings, but because it pays attention to the human element so well that crazy stuff gains a more entertaining dimension because it’s at service to an actual story dealing with characters that feel real.

What’s most interesting about the film’s construction is that it uses the human element so well in a paranoid thriller context. The presence of Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce is no accident. His presence calls to mind Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.

Captain America is sent on a mission into the middle of the ocean to rescue some SHIELD operative on a boat that’s been taken over by French-Algerian pirates. Cap succeeds, of course, and his partner Natasha (Black Widow) is there with a secondary purpose, to steal information from the ship. Rogers rankles at this undermining of his authority over the mission and confronts SHIELD director Nick Fury about it. Fury insists that secrets are necessary in order for him to effectively lead the organization and that Rogers is going to have to get used to compartmentalization in the modern world. After Fury brings some concerns to Pierce, a member of SHIELD’s governing body the Council, Fury gets attacked on the streets of D.C. He escapes to Rogers’ apartment, gets shot through a wall, and Rogers gives chase to the assailant, The Winter Soldier, who is actually Bucky Barnes, Rogers’ best friend from childhood who had been brainwashed into being a killing machine.

Rogers and Natasha begin to suspect that SHIELD has been compromised and after a couple of instances of SHIELD proving that beyond a reasonable doubt, the two go on the run. They essentially go back in time in finding the original bunker that SHIELD operated out of, inhabited by the computerized brain of Dr. Zola, the Swiss scientist who had helped Hydra in the first Captain America movie. Hydra, he reveals, had infiltrated SHIELD decades before, sowing chaos around the world and taking control of the organization as a whole.

This is one of the only times Marvel dealt with geopolitical issues in any meaningful way. The idea that an intelligence apparatus that nominally represents the will of the people is actually deeply rooted in its own version of state interests feels almost ripped from the headlines. The idea of outsourcing killing decisions to a program and using drones feels just the same. And yet, the movie never gets bogged down with it. It takes a side against these things and plows forward, understanding that it is more action movie than political treatise. What this does is create an interesting canvas on which to tell this story, lending credence to the emotions that Rogers is going through as he sees an organization that had earned his trust fall before his eyes.

Of course, Rogers decides to fight it out, and he recruits Sam, the Falcon, as well as Natasha. We get a great extended action sequence across three helicarriers as they rise against a ticking clock that the heroes are fighting to beat. It really comes to a head on the third ship when the Winter Soldier and Captain America face off. These aren’t just two people on the opposite sides of good and bad at the dictates of a screenwriter, these are people with pasts and ideals that throw them in conflict. But, instead of wanting to see Rogers simply win against Bucky, Rogers needs to save Bucky from the fate he’s found himself in. It’s a non-traditional way to end a large action sequence, and it works really well because of the emotional work done early. It all fits as well because of the thematic underpinnings. Rogers is haunted by his past and worried about his future. Bucky is a physical manifestation of that worry and concern. He was the friend he lost in battle, but he also represents a more hopeful future if Rogers can reach him.

Action scenes overall range from being filmed too close to coherent within that shaky-cam box. They’re edited really well, but I just wish the Russo’s has pulled the camera back a bit more and kept it a bit more still from time to time. There’s a visual thing that feeds into everything as well. Captain America begins the movie in blue suit (as he’s doing SHIELD’s dirty work without realizing it), but when he decides to fight SHIELD in order to reclaim his own ideals, he grabs the World War II era suit in the Smithsonian, fighting his final battle in the good ole red, white, and blue.

It’s intelligently assembled, emotionally assured, and overall a very good time at the movies.

Netflix Rating: 5/5

Quality Rating: 3.5/4

8 thoughts on “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

  1. This is not just one of the best Marvel movies, it’s on of the best movies for me, period.
    I’ve always been drawn to larger-than-life heroes. I grew up on comic books. Most action movies are, for me, watered down comic books. Here, we have the drama and comic book perfected. You mentioned 3 Days of the Condor, which is where my mind went too, yes due to Robert “Red’ Redford. Only in this movie, the spies are more than human.

    I agree with a lot of your analysis. The humanity of the characters really grounds this, just as it does in Civil War and Infinity War. I don’t know where the Russo Brothers learned their craft, but they get it RIGHT when so many, many, many directors fuck up.

    This is even more grounded in reality than Iron Man. Because guns are a threat to Cap, the bad guys use hardware that are real. Caps humanity makes us better able to sympathize with him in a way we can’t with Thor or the Hulk. We honestly believe that Cap is in danger, that he’s defeatable. It adds a tension most superhero movies lack. No one is every really afraid that Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman will fail or get maimed. Cap has a cute girl in his apartment who thinks he’s cute (she’s also a spy, but she’s still a better match for him than Peggy Carter because Peggy Carter is a bitch). It’s all very human and relatable.

    It’s nearly perfect.

    The only bump for me is the Winter Soldier. I don’t like the character or his origin. Partly this is due to Ed Brubaker being an asshole. But that aside, the movie uses the Winter Soldier well.

    The action is well-done, great choreography, and great tension. This is one of those movies I can watch over and over again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve developed a theory about this movie’s success. There are two keys: Alan Taylor directing Thor: The Dark World and the Russos working with Dan Harmon on Community.

      One of Marvel’s worst movies and one of its best movies were released back to back. They also share some interesting similarities. They’re both Phase 2 sequels to Phase 1 films that most people considered kind of disappointing to certain degrees. They’re both tasked with expanding the universe, and they’re both directed by television directors in their first major motion picture assignments.

      Alan Taylor feels like the ideal television director from an executive producer’s perspective. He’ll show up and just shoot what’s been scripted without question. It’ll be handsome and he’ll get decent performances, but that’s all he really sees his job as being.

      On the other hand, the Russos worked on Community, making some of the show’s best episodes. From what I’ve seen of Dan Harmon’s creative process, he’s very open to creative input from those around him, but he also has very strict ideas on story and structure. The story wheel is his bread and butter, and he’s used it, along with the Hero Myth as outlined by Joseph Campbell. I have to imagine that the Russos were included in a lot of creative story discussions with Harmon that helped them developed sharper than normal storytelling skills.

      The other side of this coin is Kevin Feige. I have no evidence on how he works, but I have suspicions. He gives his creative teams a box with certain goals, but as long as the creatives hit those goals and stay within that box, he’s happy with them being creative. It feels like he gave Alan Taylor an incomplete box and Taylor just filmed the box. The Russos went and actually made the thing work, using the tools they had developed with Harmon.

      It would not surprise me in the least if there’s a draft of The Winter Soldier that existed before the Russos got involved that is just as much of a mess as Thor: The Dark World is.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting. I don’t know much about the Russo’s previous work. That’s a good theory.

        I also suspect a lot has to do with how much the director fights with Feige. Some directors can handle his guidelines, some can’t.

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      2. I think it’s pretty obvious that Feige has loosened up in recent years. Edgar Wright could probably get his Ant-Man get made now after Feige let Taika Waititi let his freak flag fly in Ragnarok.

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  2. This is the last Marvel movie I saw before the trainwreck Ultron put me off them. I have limited time and money; I’d rather not be bored (e.g. Iron Man 2) while wasting both.

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