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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.

There are 9 Replies

the Russo brothers might be mediocre filmmakers

directing four of the best comic book movie films = mediocre?

well TIL

Posted April 28th by s.o.h.
s.o.h.
 

Yes. This is my take-away from my retrospective already. The Russo brothers are mediocre filmmakers overall. They do certain things very well. Action, powers, character beats - they tend to excel at those. But in terms of things like, say, staging, pacing, themes, story - I think they are actually kind of weak.

And yeah, to me, Winter Soldier, Civil War, and Infinity War are - as films - pretty overrated. By no means "bad." But I think, as films, those are the ones I find least compelling overall. They have some of the best action, but for me, I don't just want good action and character moments in my 2+ hour film. I know I'm in the minority here, but I find their films to be the most narratively messy, thematically confused, and structurally weak of all the Marvel films. That won't matter to most, but for me, I think their films highlight how they do a couple things really well, but overall are pretty mediocre Hollywood directors. (And I say this loving their work on Community, as I think they directed my favorite episodes.)

To me, the Russo brothers films also feel the most disposable. They're the ones that feel like they exist to set up the next film, so once you get the next film, there isn't much of a reason to go back. All of these films do some sort of set-up, sure. But I think the strongest ones are the ones that don't primarily exist to do that. Winter Soldier, to a lesser extent Civil War, and definitely Infinity War all feel like that to me.

Posted April 28th by Jet Presto

Which MCU film do you feel to be the strongest?

Posted April 28th by S.o.h.
S.o.h.
 

I'm still making my way through the retrospective, and there is a stretch coming up that I don't remember entirely well. I think both Guardians of the Galaxy films are strong. Black Panther is strong. Thor: Ragnarok stands out in a lot of ways. From memory, I also think Ant-Man is pretty solid overall. The Avengers is really one of the most solidly structured films in the whole franchise. All of the films have their flaws (most of them in the third act). But I think of those ones when I think of the films that will probably last.

Posted April 28th by Jet Presto

I caught IM3 I enjoyed it for the 2/3rds of the film but afyer the twist it drops in quality. Not so much becaise of the twist I just didn't find the main villain to be that compelling.

Posted April 28th by S.o.h
S.o.h
 

Yeah. I think that final act of Iron Man 3 really killed the entire thing. It's first two acts were actually pretty good and among the strongest and most compelling. (I think it was the most interesting Tony Stark has ever been, honestly.)

I feel sometimes like Marvel loses it trying to make their finale action sequences too big and too much. I don't necessarily want the tiny fight that Tony Stark/Obadiah Stane was in the original Iron Man, but I mean, I'd love a movie that ends with Captain America fighting someone one-on-one for a while. Like imagine if the Winter Soldier was *just* a fight between the two of them for 10 minutes and the action was all staged so we could see it, and you focused on the character beats. Or have a bunch of henchmen thrown in, also. I think about a lot of martial arts films and how Jackie Chan would tend to fight a horde of disposal enemies, but then always face off for a few minutes against a sort of "Boss Fight" guy. Dunno why everything has to be armies.

Posted April 28th by Jet Presto



I feel like you'd really enjoy this video Jet. It touches on a lot of the stuff you're talking about here.

Posted April 29th by The Bandit

This might be the film that we disagree on the most--I have Winter Soldier as my #2 or #1 MCU film, with only Black Panther as competition. Though maybe Civil War will surpass that since I also see that one as among the MCU's upper echelon.

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.


This to me is one of the central strengths of the film. Previous MCU films, Avengers aside, have had just the one central hero, but this is the first "solo" film to really take the time to develop other heroes of the MCU. Black Widow became a real character in Avengers, but here is the first time she experiences real growth as a character. Steve Rogers challenges the way she does things, spurs her to develop deeper relations with other people rather than just playing the super-spy, and causes her to question her identity as being just a tool of whatever organization she's working for at that point. This ultimately pays off--in Age of Ultron, she's fully bought into the team as a whole and is even pursuing Bruce Banner, and by the time Civil War rolls around, she's arguably the character with the deepest connections among the rest of the team...and is willing to make the hard decisions based on her own personal view of the situation, rather than just following the mission. At the same time, she pushes Steve by showing him that his ways of doing things are not always the most effective ways, and by pushing him to find a different way to define himself than just "Captain America" (you can definitely argue that her questioning about his love life gets old, but it's nice to see a character care about Steve's non-hero life). Sam eventually becomes Steve's best friend (a far better relationship in modern times than his friendship with Bucky, since Bucky spends virtually all his time in the modern day either brainwashed or recovering from being brainwashed). He's someone who has largely moved on from military life, but he shares a ton in common with Captain America as far as worldview goes and, similarly to Cap, has difficulty standing aside when a situation requires his intervention. Mackie is excellent in the role and I always wanted to see him step out of Cap's shadow.

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.


Yeah, I don't really agree with this. We see Steve questioning whether he wants to continue with SHIELD very early on in the film, after the first mission reveals Natasha had a secret mission within the mission and the reveal of Project Insight, and his conversation with Sam reveals that he's not really sure he wants to continue on his course but that he's also not really sure what else he'd be doing. He visits the Captain America memorial largely as a reminder of "simpler" times, where the Nazis were clearly bad, as opposed to the complications he's feeling with SHIELD. Despite having worked with her to save the world in Avengers, Steve still doesn't trust her, the consummate SHIELD agent. And when they're making their plans at the end of the movie, Fury pushes to excise HYDRA and let the remainder of SHIELD continue, but Steve is the one who shuts that down and wants both HYDRA and SHIELD to go. Fury's not seen as a villain because he's not planning on murdering people, but Cap is clearly opposed to his methods. I don't think you need to question individual agents in a structure (like Sharon Carter) to argue that the structure is fundamentally flawed.

If it bothers you that HYDRA makes it too easy for Steve to turn away from SHIELD, sure. I don't see that as a problem, but I can see your point. But he's never shown as being thrilled about SHIELD over the early parts of the film even before the HYDRA reveal, and I think the clear implication of him refusing to allow Fury to salvage SHIELD is that he's rejected the way SHIELD operates. If anything, the HYDRA reveal is what forced Natasha out. But I don't think that's a negative in her case--I see Steve as coming to terms with HYDRA's infiltration relatively easily because he was already suspicious of SHIELD, but Natasha's just had her world rocked, and I like the juxtaposition.

Halfway through the film, it stops being about figuring out this vast conspiracy and more about Cap trying to save his old friend Bucky.


I disagree with this as well. I don't think the film ever ceases being about stopping HYDRA. The heroes make no plans on how to deal with Bucky, they plan on how to stop HYDRA and Project Insight. Bucky's a complication to achieving that goal, not the conflict (on that we agree--he's a plot device in this film rather than a character), and he's one that Steve deals with only when his main mission of stopping HYDRA is complete. That's because Bucky's the personal problem that Cap wants to solve, but he puts the overall goal--the protection of innocents and the destruction of a bad institution--above his personal goals. The fact that he's a personal problem for Steve makes him a more affecting and significant complication than most, but ultimately Cap puts the mission first. I think it's fair to argue that the film is mis-titled, but I personally don't really see it as a problem if HYDRA is the major threat for this particular film with Bucky being a complication that's intended to be fulfilled later in later installments.

I love Winter Soldier because I think it gives us a good view of Steve Rogers (but really, all his appearances, aside from his sadly truncated one in Infinity War, have been great), perhaps the best view of Natasha Romanoff, and certainly the best view of Sam Wilson. It also gives us one of our best looks at Nick Fury as a character, and even Maria Hill gets into the action at least a little bit. The pacing of this film is excellent--as much as I love most MCU films, there's often a section or two in which I find myself a little bored, but that's not the case here...and it's not because it's all action (though the action in this film is some of the best in the MCU), all the time, but because there are solid character moments littered throughout to balance the film. Bucky is largely just a plot device to have an impact on Steve, but the final moments of their fight are tremendously affecting. And I think the twist works really well within the context of this film--you're right that AoU blunted the effects of it long-term (both with the helicarriers at the end and the unceremonious dispatching of HYDRA in the opening scene), but I think that as a self-contained story this one is excellent. I think one of the bigger issues is that Sharon Carter is largely superfluous to the film...but her presence did at least give us a window to see that awesome scene where random terrified SHIELD Agent #435 puts his trust in Captain America and defies Rumlow. Even that's not a major complaint, which is another reason I put this film up to the top--I really don't have anything major that bothers me enough to impede my enjoyment of this well-done film. I even have more complaints about Black Panther than I do about Winter Soldier, though I think that film's high points are higher.

It may be worth noting that I may be a little biased towards this film due to my affection for Agents of SHIELD. The HYDRA twist in this film marked the turning point in that show from being mostly a boring slog to being legitimately worth watching, and eventually (and surprisingly) to one of my favorite TV shows. Although ironically, I didn't actually watch Winter Soldier for the first time until a couple of weeks before Infinity War, obviously well after the HYDRA twist hit the TV show.

Edited April 30th by white lancer

Going to point that those implications of of shield being hydra and the fall out are explored a lot more heavily in agents of shield.

If I'm not mistaken after flushing out hydra and other rogue shield elements coulsen sent out a message to the avengers regarding Lokis scepter.

Posted May 1st by S.o.h.
S.o.h.
 
Reply to: Marvel Retrospective: The Winter Soldier (2014)
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