Marvel Retrospective: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Posted: Posted April 28th by Jet Presto
Boy. This one is gonna be kinda controversial, I'm sure.
There is something to be said about the Russo brothers’ ability to turn Captain America movies into some of the most beloved entries in the Marvel cinematic universe, given what many consider one of the most boring characters. Yet they have managed to create a series that features some of the best action and character beats, even if their stories are a bit pretentious and convoluted.
The Winter Soldier is often heralded as one of the best Marvel movies, and it isn’t hard to see what people like about it. It’s part character-drama, part espionage film wrapped up in grounded hand-to-hand action that is generally more thrilling than CGI lasers or fireballs or whatever. Many have noted that the film attempts to say something about the nature of freedom versus security. It’s certainly there, and is the central contradiction between Captain America and the rest. Interestingly, this theme doesn’t just separate Cap from the villain, Alexander Pierce, but also with Nick Fury, one of the long-standing “good guys” and the creator of the Avengers.
The difference between Fury and Pierce is not that great. Both want to use an overly militarized force to pre-emptively secure the peace. Their differences are in what constitutes a threat, but beyond that, their objectives are actually nearly identical. Cap stands in opposition to both men. Interestingly, Pierce makes a substantially more compelling case for Hydra than Red Skull ever did. Not that he’s a sympathetic villain (he’s very much not), but he does a solid job explaining his motivation in a way that gets viewers to realize that he wasn’t that far off from Fury. The only thing that’s really confusing is the notion that Hydra specifically created and fostered global conflict and chaos for the explicit purpose of getting SHIELD to arm up. Then, they could infiltrate SHIELD, take control of, and utilize it to put down threats for the purpose of creating order. Creating chaos to argue a need for order is…odd. We’re not talking about just one or two false flag attacks either, but decades of systemic policy. Hydra took credit for much of the chaos they say they want to put down. But, I suppose mystic fascists aren’t known for sound logic.
Cap and his crew are very much at the center of the film, with his relationship to Sam Wilson and Black Widow being among the most compelling and fun parts. He cultivates engaging dynamics with both, bringing out the best in them. This is the appeal for these types of characters: they are great leaders and supporters that draw out the potential of those around them. They also possess the ability to do that with us as viewers/readers.
The character drama is where the film truly shines. Some argue that the problem with Captain America is that he never really grows or changes, and it’s easy to see that criticism. Most of The Winter Soldier is about Cap showing just how great he truly is, rather than seeing how he grows or adapts. The elevator sequence shows that he is willing to fight and break ranks, but we had already seen that willingness in First Avenger. When he refuses to fight Bucky at the end, nearly dying once again, it is something we’d already seen before. True, he was willing to die to protect his friend rather than to save the whole world, but it’s the selfless act that is the same. What we only really see with the benefit of hindsight is that all of this sets up the conflict in Civil War. By the time of the third Captain America film, we have seen Tony Stark move more towards the idea of institutionalized or organized crime fighting. Yet through The Avengers and The Winter Soldier, Cap has drifted more to questioning said institutions. We can’t know this at this point in the series, but this is the film that needs to happen for Civil War to work.
Unfortunately, the film also suffers from a really strange structure. For a movie called The Winter Soldier, it really isn’t about him or his role in all this until the finale, and even then it only matters to the Cap action, not the Fury/Wilson/Black Widow stuff. It feels a bit disjointed. When he shows up prior to the reveal, he is only a subordinate to the main bad guy. He is the force for the action, but has no bearing on the plot. Plus, he literally has no agency in even his own actions. Even by the end, he only serves to push the character drama with Cap, not the overarching narrative of the film itself.
Which, we should take a moment to discuss the reveals. For what amounts to an espionage film centered on a vast conspiracy, the film doesn’t take long to give everything away. Quite literally, we learn everything by the half-way point. Even more: so do our protagonists. The middle of the film literally unfolds with a sequence of four or five reveals – in a row! First, Cap and Widow figure out that SHIELD has been infiltrated by Hydra. Then, we see the reveal that Alexander Pierce is the Big Bad. Next, we get a scene where Cap, Widow, and Falcon figure out that Pierce is the main villain. That is followed by a long action sequence to reveal that the Winter Soldier is actually Bucky. Finally, the last scene in this stretch reveals that Fury is still alive. By the mid-way point, all of the central mysteries have been revealed to both us as the audience and our heroes within the film. There are no unanswered questions by the final third.
By the time of the final act, all we have in store are the prolonged “saving the day” action sequences and a bunch of exposition dumps. Given we all know the end results here (superhero movies are really not that unpredictable, and that’s not really the point of them), the central tension is ultimately gone. We are not entering the finale with any sense of confusion or uncertainty. We know all the cards on the table, so there are no more surprises. It undercuts its own construction to have the final act be nothing but pre-ordained action. Yes, it’s a comic book movie, and yes we want the spectacle, but there isn’t even all that much interesting going on in the battle between Cap and Bucky. Nothing gets resolved and only a tiny fraction of the film's story gets advanced. It only hints at the possibility that Bucky might remember, to some very minor degree, who he is. Again, this serves to set up Civil War, but leaves The Winter Soldier feeling inconclusive and unsatisfying.
The “freedom versus security” thing sort of gets muddled, too. It’s sort of ultimately arguing that the militarized police force with too much authority to act in the name of defense is bad, but the individuals within it that who are conducting the pre-emptive strikes are good, and that – as a political statement – kind of doesn’t add up. We are meant to think that SHIELD was overreaching, that that as an institution is unjust and problematic. Yet we aren’t meant to feel the same way about Nick Fury, the man who got Project Insight going and, previously, looked into weaponizing the tesseract. Or, alternatively, we are meant to have questions about SHIELD because Cap has problems, but we never question Sharon Carter as an agent even though she supported SHIELD and Fury as they moved forward with Project Insight. So, we aren’t meant to feel SHIELD is all that bad because the problematic elements are literal Nazis, the most basic movie villains of all time. So it isn’t so much a problem with SHIELD as much as it was that Hydra was able to infiltrate it. The oversimplified, extra-convoluted comic book conspiracy plot thread takes precedence for most of the film.
It doesn’t even matter that much to the central character. We don’t get a chance to see Captain America sitting with the idea that he could have been a part of something bad. He isn’t depicted ever questioning his decisions to work with SHIELD. Because it was the overly simplistic Hydra bad guys that infiltrated SHIELD, we don’t even really get to see him wonder where he fits in this new world. Instead, he is given a situation that is actually pretty easy to figure out. The problem isn’t SHIELD or the government; it’s Hydra. It’s not a conflict with Fury; it’s a conflict with Pierce. Cap isn’t happy about what SHIELD is doing, but he is not put in any sort of morally or philosophically compromising positions, and there is no reason for him to be introspective.
When people say that the problem is Cap never grows, I wonder if they consider the possibility that it is more that the stories the Russos have put him in don’t really allow for much growth to begin with. Imagine how much more Cap would have had to internalize and figure out as an individual if the central conflict was with Fury and Project Insight, rather than the resurgence of his black-and-white battle with Hydra.
Halfway through the film, it stops being about figuring out this vast conspiracy and more about Cap trying to save his old friend Bucky. This is a thing that happens in Civil War also: the film is basically two totally separate stories that don’t really connect in any meaningful way. Yes, Bucky is a tool of Hydra. Yes, it makes canonical sense for this to be the arc. The issue is that Bucky has no direct significance on the larger story that is central to the film: the one where Fury, Cap, Widow, Carter, and others are trying to root out the secret invaders of their organization. Bucky isn’t even really a character in this film. He’s a tool. Yes, he conducts some of the violence for Hydra, but he has no agency. He has almost no dialogue. And he has no characterization. This would sort of be like arguing that the iceberg is the most important character in Titanic. It's not insignificant.
Bucky, quite simply, is only compelling because we know he’s Cap’s best friend from World War II. We care about this story because it matters to Cap. It doesn’t matter to anything else in the film, which is kind of a big deal when your film is over two hours long and this is sort of the “emotional” action beat in the finale. The character drama of Cap finding out Bucky is alive and being controlled by Hydra could have been a neat little parallel to the SHIELD arc. After all, both SHIELD and Bucky have been depicted as basically good in the past and are primarily viewed as problematic here because they have been corrupted by Hydra. Yet the film doesn’t really spend any time looking into this either. We just get a sequence wherein Cap gives up and can’t fight his friend.
Of course, as we learn in Civil War, this is consistent with his character. Over time, Cap becomes inherently more skeptical of institutions and more reliant on individuals. The criticism here isn’t that it’s “inconsistent;” it’s that the film makes no effort to really dive into it. The entire film isn’t one big character drama, but it probably should have been.
The Winter Soldier is an interesting film in that it becomes stronger when you view it in retrospect knowing where it went in Civil War. Yet when examining it as its own thing, it feels kind of hollow and pointless. It’s there to showcase some great action (and the action really is top notch – the Russo brothers might be mediocre filmmakers, but they really do a great job highlighting character abilities and personality traits). Otherwise, it’s primarily there to set up the next film.
It’s an enjoyable film, and one that is pretty fun. I’m just not sure – especially at this point – that it really deserves to be among the top tier of Marvel movies. It delivers the spectacle, which I suppose is all that really matters for most.
REDUCTIVE RATING: It’s fine and fun.
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