Back when it was released around this time in 2014, I was perhaps unduly harsh on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, largely citing it as a movie designed to rearrange the pieces on the board for Joss Whedon’s second Avengers film Age Of Ultron and therefore something of a stop-gap instead of a satisfying experience in its own right. But I’m not above admitting when I’m wrong, and as the forthcoming release of Captain America: Civil War has comic book fans salivating the globe over, I thought it a perfect opportunity to look at just why and how The Winter Soldier has become one of Marvel’s most respectable and durable releases.
It’s no secret that The Winter Soldier saw Steve Rogers’ exploits adopt a more serious tone following the jaunty caper feel of The First Avenger. Ironically this shift was pioneered by the directing duo Anthony and Joe Russo, most fondly known for creating TV comedy Arrested Development. Their vision for the film was to tap into their own love of 1970’s conspiracy thrillers, with films like The Parallax View in mind. Alan J Pakula’s paranoia tales tapped into the politics of their era and that sensibility complimented the story the Russo’s were trying to tell with The Winter Soldier. Hell, they even cast Robert Redford as the obviously-villainous Alexander Pierce.
This about-turn into semi-seriousness (this is a superhero movie after all) was in stark (no pun intended) contrast to what came before it as far as we’d seen Chris Evans’ Rogers – largely a figure of fun in Whedon’s first Avengers film – and I admit it put me off-balance at the time. On initial approach I found the film po-faced and plodding. Yet, of all Marvel’s films in the last decade, I find myself returning to The Winter Soldier the most (with the possible exception of Guardians Of The Galaxy; James Gunn’s hilarious space opera that followed hot on its heels – damn 2014 was good for Marvel).
For all its comparative austerity, The Winter Soldier is still relatively breezy. There’s no overt attempt from the Russo’s to ape the no-fun-having Nolan template for instance as some certainly seem keen to in the wake of the Dark Knight trilogy. This is a tone Marvel have pointedly avoided, even if some of their trailers have advertised otherwise (remember the melodrama of the Age Of Ultron teasers?).
Visually the film is very bright and clear. It feels ever-so-slightly futuristic with its affluent buildings and sci-fi technologies. It’s clean and – until the helicarriers come into things – relatively grounded in its action scenes (the elevator, Fury’s car, the freeway sequence). Simply, it’s pristine to look at.The Winter Soldier makes for extremely appealing Sunday afternoon viewing. Familiar enough that it doesn’t require utmost participation, but deep enough to actually reward. But what are those rewards?
Part of the satisfaction comes from one of the real reasons it stands out from the crowd. The Winter Soldier is actually about something. Hydra’s stealthy takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. resonates with modern fears that private agencies may have undue sway on governmental decisions, while the 70’s suspicion of undue levels of surveillance have only intensified over the passing years as it’s become harder and harder to live outside of the view of a camera. Fury’s blanket approach to counter-terrorism adds a pressing modern concern to the mix, especially as we increasingly encounter chilling figures all too keen to paint with broad brushstrokes. The Winter Soldier quite clearly addresses these issues, tapping into the audience’s concerns on all counts. It’s a shrewd move from the Russos, and one that shows up their contemporaries, almost to the point of embarrassment.
Consider the legacy of the current MCU. Which of the films that have appeared to date have the genuine likelihood of becoming future classics? I’m partial to both Thor films (I even stand by my defence of The Dark World), but they’re hardly tales that resonate and neither feels like a classic in the making. Similarly the Avengers films have both weathered rather poorly. In both cases Whedon has shown that it’s actually entirely possibly to have too much of a good thing. The films are plodding and overstuffed. It doesn’t help that while their plots diverge, they both have more-or-less the same structure. Jon Favreau’s initial take on Iron Man potentially makes the grade, but still feels comparatively minor for obtaining any kind of legacy. At this stage it really seems as though The Winter Soldier and Guardians Of The Galaxy are the front-runners to make fans and keep them, albeit for rather different reasons.
And now Civil War is on our doorstep, pointedly bringing to bear another key area in which virtually all of the MCU films have been lacking; interesting antagonists that are a match for these heroes. It’s storytelling 101 that a villain will have more dramatic impact if they’re success or failure has an emotional impact on the protagonist. Several times over Marvel have bypassed this notion (Guardians included), with only Loki providing a lasting impact. While I still maintain that The Winter Soldier doesn’t make quite enough hay of its subtitular menace and his connection to Rogers, it does at least push things in the right direction. Civil War looks set to twist this further by pitting hero against hero.
This is evidently something of a trend (I didn’t see Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice but it’s focus on heroes locking heads is an obvious corollary). But perhaps the reason it’s suddenly in vogue to pit hero against hero is that it’s a shorthanded method of giving the audience a conflict with weight on either side? Marvel spend a lot more time on their heroes than their villains. As such each of the Avengers have had plentiful shades of character bedded in over multiple films. By pitting them against one another, Marvel need not use up valuable screen time explaining to an audience why they ought to care about this year’s forgettable guest bad guy. We might finally get some conflict we actually have a stake in.
We’ll see shortly how well Civil War handles this juicy proposition. That it remains in the Russos’ hands is encouraging, as is their forthcoming takeover of the Avengers franchise for the two-part Infinity War. For now, The Winter Soldier gives us plenty of reasons to be optimistic as well as something solid to while away those Sunday afternoons in the meantime. Consider this my 180.