Up until this point, audiences had expectations with any given Marvel sequel. A new Iron Man would see more dick-swinging jokes with updated pseudo-tech culminating in another Science V Science standoff. A new Thor would reveal more alien beings and family drama while slipping in another Shirtless Hemsworth Shot™. You could also expect a new Hulk film to deliver a new Bruce Banner.
Then Captain America: The Winter Soldier came along.
Set decades after World War II, this sequel couldn’t simply replicate the old-fashioned delights that made Joe Johnston’s The First Avenger spark. It had to be daring, and one could argue that hiring the directors of You, Me and Dupree is about as daring as you could get. However, Joe and Anthony Russo proved to be the comic book-obsessed filmmakers the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed.
The brothers made an adult espionage thriller complete with infiltrations, government secrets, and malicious moles that go ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP.
Black Widow is a no-brainer choice for a companion in this spy adventure, sharing a buddy-buddy co-worker camaraderie with Steve Rogers that parallels her relationship with Hawkeye. The film anchors a great progression point in her development, having her feel the sting of the KGB past again when SHIELD becomes compromised. She’s come a long way since Iron Man 2.
Also coming back from that sequel is Senator Stern, who turned out to be a Hydra scumbag on the down-low alongside Agent Sitwell from the first Thor. There are also brief re-appearances from Peggy Carter, now a bedridden elder, and Dr. Arnim Zola, now an evil Macintosh. Though these reoccurring threads are small, together they add an impressive amount of strength to the fabric of the MCU.
Having spent previous films doing little more than flex his eyebrow, Nick Fury finally gets his moment as both an action star and a tactician. His vehicular escape sequence is both thrilling and inventive without relying heavily on greenscreen or CG. As cool as it is to see The Avengers defend Earth from an alien invasion or Iron Man fight a fire-breathing Guy Pearce, a well-choreographed no-nonsense car chase proved just as exciting.
This is true of almost every action set piece in The Winter Soldier. They are clear, contained, stunt-championing moments that hit the gut in a way computer imaging simply cannot match. It’s evident in Captain America’s fight with French MMA star Georges St-Pierre, the shit he crashes through when chasing the Winter Soldier, and that most excellent moment where he singlehandedly drops a gang of goons in an elevator.
The sterling score from Henry Jackman sets the action to an intense metronome, melding militant percussion with a scorching Winder Soldier theme that borrowed maybe one-too-many notes from The Dark Knight’s orchestra. It adds to the Winter Soldier’s already threatening presence, and even though the Bucky twist wasn’t that surprising, his character has never been more interesting.
Actually, correction: this is the only time Bucky’s been interesting.
The severely underrated Frank Grillo adds more than expected in his first appearance as pre-Crossbones Brock Rumlow. Though he always looks ready to jump inside a UFC cage, Grillo harbours a charismatic ease that makes his character super likeable to begin with. It gives the knife extra twists when he starts stabbing backs.
Anthony Mackie was also a supreme choice to play Sam “Falcon” Wilson, a successful soldier and everyday good bloke that reflects the righteous qualities of Captain America. It’s a nice touch seeing him tend to carriers of PTSD in a place that’s a hell of a lot sunnier than the therapy basement seen in Netflix’s The Punisher.
And they didn’t skimp out on Falcon’s superhero moment, either. Mackie rocks those wings and is the clear highlight of the film’s climactic set piece.
Unfortunately, the climax doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the film. After being treated to a gluttony of high-bar practical action sequences, this heavily digitised explosions-in-the-sky finale doesn’t carry the same hands-on feel to make it as gripping.
It’s passable, but it’s not in the gamut of things that make The Winter Soldier memorable. Same with Robert Redford’s just-happy-to-be-there performance as Alexander Pierce.
The Winter Soldier should be remembered for how it successfully and boldly switched genres. It showed that the MCU could branch out of the standard definition of ‘superhero film’ to deliver something fresh and unexpected.
It should also be remembered for the statement it makes about the world we currently live in. Hydra’s plan to get into power involved selling lies to the public, emboldening those that secretly held their awful beliefs, and using Zola’s algorithms to command the world. That’s Trump, the alt-right, and fake news wrapped up in one Magic 8-ball.
And then there’s the themes that bolt the two Captain America films together: truth and freedom. Steve has been through the WWII propaganda machine, so he’s rightly sceptical of higher powers and their agendas. His faith is with the decency of ordinary people and believes the truth will ultimately prevail in their hands.
He bets his life on his convictions in the final confrontation with Bucky that – again – sees him sacrificing himself in a descending aircraft.