I’m just going to start off by saying Captain America: The Winter Soldier is probably my favourite instalment within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It just hits every beat perfectly and has this fantastic pacing, knowing when it needs to be ultra explosive and when it needs to calm itself down for some slower dialogue moments. But above all it has some of the best character development, particularly with Captain America finally finding himself in this modern world.
The film starts off with the most simplest of scenes, i.e. Steve Rogers meeting Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, but the way it’s executed is perfect. We see Sam happily jogging along in the earlier hours of Washington DC when suddenly Steve comes surging past him stating, “On your left.” This happens a couple of times, showing how much stronger and faster Steve is to Sam, to which Sam even gets a little annoyed. But their friendship quickly builds-up as they joke to one another about their morning exercises, before Sam becomes curious about Steve’s adjustment to the modern-age, even lending him some suggestions of things he needs to catch-up on (with Steve adding it to his list).
Things kick-up a notch after Steve goes on a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D., turning Captain America: The Winter Soldier into an action-packed spy narrative (completely knocking the likes of James Bond out the window). We’d seen Steve dealing with the parameters of war back in Captain America: The First Avenger, but now he was fighting a new kind of war which is won by stealth operations and infiltration.
At first you think he’s beginning to fit into the new world order but a niggling irritation continues to resurface. Steve feels that things just aren’t the same. The days of following orders blindly don’t have the same merit as he no longer feels like he’s fighting for the same agendas of his superiors, who mostly seem to be hiding things from him, making Steve have trust issues with the very organisation he’s working with.
Steve’s views of the modern world aren’t made any easier when Nick Fury introduces him to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new global weapons system. They plan to launch three specially crafted Helicarriers that can detect terrorist activities before they even happen. This just shows how the Marvel Cinematic Universe is becoming more gritty and desperate within Phase Two. Despite Avengers Assemble seemingly starting an “age of heroes” the stakes have only been getting higher and Loki’s invasion has only made it more clear how Earth is almost completely defenceless.
The narrative becomes quite personal to Steve as he tries wrapping his head around how both the government and military now work and it scares him to think that they now resort to such drastic measures to which freedom is literally discarded for the sake of security. Things are made even worse for him as he visits a Captain America exhibit to draw on his “glory” days, showcasing the contrast between the past and the present even more clearly, most importantly of all the lack of true allies and friends.
As started in Avengers Assemble Steve is a man “out of time” and has lost everything he once held dear to him. One of the most important aspects was his love for Agent Peggy Carter. This was made worse by the fact their relationship didn’t really hit a serious note until the eleventh hour, but by this point it was too late and Steve was forced to sacrifice himself, despite holding onto the vein hope that he’ll come back for the dance he promised.
70 years have passed and now Peggy is in a hospital bed having lived her life, a life without Steve and he has to suffer with that reality. This makes him feel even more lost as he tries rekindling with the past, hoping to make up for lost time but is saddened by Peggy’s deterioration in health (which, honestly, just makes Steve’s story-arc more tragic, personal, and completely conflicting).
However, Steve can’t mope around for too long as shit starts to happen. The film’s tone shifts to become even grittier, harsher, and much more personal as S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised, resulting in Nick Fury being chased down the streets of Washington DC in an explosive action sequence (which never gets old by the way). I think one of the things I love about the Captain America films is how well-balanced they are, able to shift around with the different events and characters so seamlessly.
Here is no different. We get this nice bit of concentration on Nick, exploring his ideals and how he tries to protect the world, told perfectly by how his grandfather had to adapt to his neighbourhood after it slowly grew rougher, not too dissimilar to the world and how Nick has to find new ways to preserve peace.
Nick obviously tries his best to shake off his attackers (who don’t make it easy for one second) and Samuel L. Jackson just shines magnificently, cracking out some funny one liners as he argues with his truck’s computer system, and just displays why he’s a total badass. Sadly, his moment of victory is short-lived after he encounters The Winter Soldier, a specially trained assassin that acts as the perfect “ghost-story”, to which even Natasha Romanova, aka Black Widow, is afraid of after her near death experience with him 5 years previous. Nick manages to escape, regrouping at Steve’s flat where he manages to warn him “not to trust anyone” before being gunned down upon The Winter Soldier’s return.
This places Steve in some really shaky waters as he doesn’t know quite what to do, or who to trust, in this age of continuous secrecy and internal corruption. Before long S.H.I.E.L.D. turns on him, led by Alexander Pierce, and Steve is forced to become a fugitive on the run. He soon teams-up with Natasha and this begins a really engaging and thrilling development process as we start to understand more about her and what she wants.
Her darkening past keeps seeping through, along with her cries for redemption, as she explains about not having a true identity, to which Steve finds jarring, forcing him to be careful around her as he can’t completely trust someone who doesn’t fully understand (but ultimately comes to truly respect her, even building a great friendship, upon finally coming to terms with who she is over the course of the narrative).
Captain America: The Winter Soldier transitions into a brilliant thriller where the stakes are so fucking high and the personal levels just get more and more painful to bare. Things become overly complicated upon Steve and Natasha arriving at Captain America’s old training camp, discovering not only S.H.I.E.L.D.’s original headquarters but also that Arnim Zola has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. from within.
Zola’ scheme started way back when he was employed to work with them (after his incarceration) and then sowed the seeds for HYDRA’s deadly return. Learning from his past mistakes (to which taking away people’s freedom resulted in resistance) he created a plan to make his enemy willingly give away their freedom through self-destruction caused by a clever strategy via internal manipulation.
It’s a very deep moment, one that reshapes the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It even makes you look back at Phase One and doubt the activities going on because S.H.I.E.L.D. was never what they said they (unbeknown by them, and even Tony Stark after he hacked into their software). HYDRA becomes an even deadlier threat on this new plain of warfare where lies and deceit is the ammunition. There is no good or bad, just people with ideals and determination to see them through.
I suppose this is what makes this film even greater because you can actually see the villains point of view. Maybe not with Zola (who’s now an insane brain locked within a computer system) but certainly with Peirce who has calmly been manipulating events from behind-the-scenes. Peirce clearly wants peace within the world through controlled order, and he believes that Project Insight will give him the ability to stop bad things happening (similar to what Nick believed) but HYDRA’s scheme goes a lot darker than just shooting down potential terrorists, instead targeting any potential threat, including all present and future Avengers’ members.
This final nudge pushes Steve to become independent, no longer being the “boy scout” that follows every order given his way without question. As Tony explained to him in Avengers Assemble, he can’t just trust his superiors because they hold secrets, secrets to which hide their own agendas, and now he’s been shown the madness of his words and has to finally act upon them.
And this is where Falcon comes in. Desperate for a trustworthy comrade, Steve and Natasha turn to Sam who willingly jumps back into the fight in order to serve under Captain America, stealing his old tech so that he can fly into battle (thus beginning Phase Two‘s progression of heroes for future instalments). Suddenly The Winter Soldier returns and the trio have their work cut-out trying to take him down whilst avoiding HYDRA operatives. This is where another turning point hits Steve hard. He learns that The Winter Soldier is in fact Bucky Barnes, making his resolve in taking the assassin down extremely complicated due to his conflicting emotions.
Despite this, Steve still has a job to do and upon discovering that Nick is still alive and able to give them the tools to take down HYDRA, Steve makes it his personal duty to end the war once and for all, even at the cost of destroying S.H.I.E.L.D. which has been lost to the enemies’ corruption. And by heck it’s an explosive final battle, filled with some of the greatest usage of practical and visual effects, blended together to create a mesmerising experience filled with so many layers of emotion.
One thing you have to really consider by this point is Steve’s point of view. I mean, he fought hard to take down HYDRA, even confronting The Red Skull solo, before sacrificing himself to take out their attack carrier, only to be woken-up in a world where HYDRA has been secretly taking over, ultimately meaning his actions were worthless because he never made a difference.
And now his best friend, Bucky, has been compromised, taken over by the sick-fuckers to be their personal puppet in order to take out their most personal enemies, such as Howard Stark (with this event going on to play a vital role within Captain America: Civil War). This entire situation is totally fucked-up and the rippling effects hold so many repercussions that risk to destroy everything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has tried to build in terms of heroism.
And so Captain America: The Winter Soldier results in Steve, Natasha, Sam, Nick, and Maria Hill (from Avengers Assemble) to combat HYDRA and give insight into their activities, resulting in a bloodshed as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents turn on each other, whilst HYDRA becomes more and more desperate to remain in control, to the point where Pierce assassinates The Council. Natasha is luckily disguised as one of them and is able to subdue Pierce long enough for Nick to arrive to take control of the situation, resulting in Pierce being forced into releasing all of S.H.I.E.L.D’s security details to the world, thus exposing HYDRA. Pierce attempts to use Natasha as a hostage in order to escape but is quickly thwarted and gunned-down by Nick.
Meanwhile, Steve and Sam storm the Helicarriers in order to reprogramme them to turn on one another. In the process, Steve is forced to confront Bucky in an extremely personal battle (which becomes utterly brutal to watch). Like Thor once did with Loki, Steve tries desperately to rekindle Bucky’s mind and get his friend back but the brainwashing appears too strong as The Winter Soldier continues to lash-out and attempts to kill Captain America at every turn, to the point where Steve is nearly unable to finish his mission due to inflicted injuries.
It’s a really desperate moment because you know that Steve has lost everything, and the modern world is filled with dark holes that serve to only remind him that he lost the war, now being forced to destroy the foundations of the new world in order to have any hope of securing a brighter tomorrow.
So you can see why Steve is so determined to regain one of the elements he held dear to him and maybe give him some sort of hard-earned reward for all his suffering in the line of duty. In the end Steve drops his Shield in order to try and get through to Bucky, resulting in The Winter Soldier brutally attacking Captain America, battling his internal struggle for control as HYDRA’s brainwashing conflicts with the memories Steve brought back to him.
In a moment of glorious pay-off, Bucky starts to see sense after Steve recites a quote Bucky once said to him. This brings him to save Steve from drowning after they both fall from the crashing Helicarriers, before disappearing (shown in the post-credit scene attempting to rediscover himself). The day is won at the greatest of costs, i.e. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been destroyed and the world has been drastically reshaped (for better or worst).
Captain America: The Winter Soldier becomes the most important instalment since Avengers Assemble in that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been drastically changed, leaving you gobsmacked as to how these impactful events will affect the continuation of this expansive world of heroes.
What more can I say about this fantastic sequel. It’s a very clever, personal, and action-packed journey for Captain America to face, pushing him into the darkest corners of modern warfare, to which forces him to finally understand his place within this corrupt new world, ultimately taking him in a new direction that makes him undertake certain actions that will further reshape the Marvel Cinematic Universe.