Marvel Movie Club: Is Captain America: The Winter Soldier still the best MCU film?
As we count down to the long-awaited uber-team-up Avengers: Infinity War (out April 27), EW’s Marvel Movie Club is preparing by revisiting the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in the weeks leading up to the mega-sized movie. EW will revisit one Marvel movie a week, every week, to reassess its powers and hopefully answer important questions along the way like “What was The Incredible Hulk?” “Does Nick Fury wash his eye-patch?” and “Is there a point to Hawkeye?” This week, Chancellor and EW writer Devan Coggan dig into the twisty, political thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
CHANCELLOR AGARD: Welcome to Marvel Movie Club, Devan! I’m so glad you agreed to join me in revisiting Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is probably still my favorite Marvel movie. (I’m waiting to decide where I rank Black Panther). I love the movie’s tense and paranoid atmosphere. There’s this pervading sense of claustrophobia, especially in the awesome elevator fight scene and the first assassination attempt on Nick Fury’s life (watching a bunch of “cops” relentlessly pursue a black man feels even more resonant now than it did when the movie first came out). Everything feels very tight, and in the best way possible. Also, there’s the big HYDRA twist, which changed the Marvel Cinematic Universe forever (albeit briefly).
Before I get too carried away gushing about this movie, I’d like to hear some of your initial thoughts after rewatching Winter Soldier. Out of curiosity, when was the last time you watched this movie? Do you think it still holds up?
DEVAN COGGAN: Thanks, Chance! Of all the Marvel movies we could’ve talked about, I’m most excited to talk Winter Soldier. If you ask most people for their MCU rankings, Winter Soldier usually ends up near the top, and it’s not hard to see why. I think like many people, I fell in love with this movie the first time I saw it in theaters, but it wasn’t until I rewatched it a second (or third or fourth) time that I really started to appreciate how meticulously crafted it is.
When you look at the MCU as a whole, you can pinpoint certain films that shifted the entire trajectory of what a Marvel movie can be. The first Iron Man set the tone for every origin story to come after, The Avengers upped the stakes and established the superhero family dynamic, and Guardians of the Galaxy said, “Hey, it’s okay to actually crack a joke every once in a while, and you can even throw in a talking raccoon and a sentient space tree if you want.” With Winter Soldier, its influence is a little less obvious, but it still marks a major turning point in the MCU. Earlier Marvel movies had drawn real-world parallels with their villains and storylines, but Winter Soldier raises major questions about who we are as Americans and the very nature of a modern government’s role.
But as poignant and thought-provoking as those themes are, the real reason I love this movie is character. The First Avenger made Captain America, and Winter Soldier puts him in to the test. When we first meet Steve Rogers, he’s a Boy Scout, a baby-faced idealist who’s not looking for fame or glory or the chance to punch Adolf Hitler in the face; he just doesn’t like bullies. It’s a simple, aspirational ideology — and Winter Soldier forces him to think a little deeper about what he believes in. He’s already on shaky ground as the film starts, this man out of time suddenly thrust into the 21st century, and before long, everything he thought he knew has suddenly collapsed. Colleagues and partners are now untrustworthy. The government may not be as well-meaning as originally thought. And all this time you’ve been grieving an old friend, it turns out you should have been grieving his life.
What do you think of Cap in this movie, Chance? And what are your thoughts on some of the characters who surround him?
CHANCELLOR: One of the things I love most about the movie is how it’s one of the first MCU films that makes some kind of coherent political statement. Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and to an extent The Incredible Hulk offered a half-hearted critique of the military industrial complex and cycle of violence, but it never comes together. You can’t say the same thing about Winter Soldier. With the HYDRA reveal and subsequent destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D., the movie basically calls into the question the oppressive security state, reflects on how fear generates more violence, and considers the possibility that these security organizations that protect us may actually be some of the most dangerous threats out there. That’s compelling, thought-provoking stuff! While I love the MCU, there’s definitely a sense that most of its movies are like CBS procedurals; they’re aiming for the middle and don’t want to question the system too much out of fear of alienating viewers. In this metaphor, Winter Soldier then becomes The Good Wife and/or Person of Interest of the MCU, the series that dares to challenge power. Unfortunately, the MCU kind of undercuts this message. The continued existence of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. basically says: an omnipresent, invasive security organization wasn’t a problem, it was just run by the wrong people.
But to answer your question: I love everything about Cap’s story in this film. While The First Avenger convinced me that it was possible to make Captain America interesting, Winter Soldier made me a true Captain fan. It’s a shame that HYDRA twist is what I (and I assume most people) remember the most about this movie, because I think what makes Winter Soldier the best Marvel sequel is that it challenges its titular hero in a new way and doesn’t rehash the arc from the first movie. As you mentioned, this film is very much about Steve feeling adrift in the modern world and learning how to live in it. (ASIDE: Also, you should check out this Avengers deleted scene, which I was just made aware of last month and touches on similar material, too). Unlike Tony Stark and Thor’s solo stories, there’s something relatable in there. When this movie came out in 2014, I was preparing to graduate college and concerned about what post-uni life would look like. Could I fit into it or find my way? Now in 2018, I feel like I’m struggling to adjust to a world that suddenly seems more absurd and scarier. (Both Cap and I are forced to come to terms with the fact that Nazis are still a thing.)
In terms of the supporting cast, I think Anthony Mackie, who makes his MCU debut as the very charming Falcon, might be the MVP of the movie. Like so many Marvel actors, he has that ability to make you immediately care about him within a short amount of screen time. After Steve visits his veteran support group, I spent a lot of the movie just waiting for him to come back because he’s just so fun. And of course, there’s Scarlett Johansson, who makes the case for a Black Widow solo film in almost every scene. The script balances using her as a comedic relief (like how she brings up Steve’s love life mid-mission), reminding us she’s a badass, and making us understand how this HYDRA reveal affects her; she hoped working for S.H.I.E.L.D. would clear her ledger, but now she finds out that she was wrong.
Obviously, we have to talk about Bucky. I know you have some feelings about both Bucky and his relationship with Steve, so I’ll just yield the floor to you…
DEVAN: Let’s talk about Bucky!
The MCU has always been notorious for having a bit of a villain problem, with only a few notable exceptions. For the most part, Marvel is populated with all these fantastic, complicated heroes — and then the baddies are just sort of your standard-issue, hell-bent-on-world-domination villains.
And then you have Bucky.
The character of Bucky Barnes is as old as Captain America himself, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby to be Cap’s spunky kid sidekick. Originally, Bucky was sort of the star-spangled Robin to Cap’s Batman, until he was killed off in the 1960s. (For years, Marvel fans joked that there were only two characters who were dead and could not be resurrected: Uncle Ben and Bucky.) In 2005, however, Bucky was resurrected in the comics as the tragic, brainwashed Winter Soldier, who’s been tortured and used as a ruthless assassin throughout the decades.
It’s that Bucky we see in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The MCU wisely made its Bucky the same age as Steve, turning him into Steve’s oldest and most loyal friend, instead of a sidekick. Their brotherly relationship makes Bucky’s tragic fate all the more gut-wrenching. For years, Steve has been dealing with guilt over Bucky’s death. Now, he learns that the man who is the closest thing he has to a family met with a fate much more gruesome than death: trapped in his own mind, tortured and brainwashed and reprogrammed as a brutal, emotionless killer.
The revelation of the Winter Soldier’s true identity is a gut punch, and it’s made all the more powerful by Sebastian Stan and Chris Evans’ performances here. We first saw their camaraderie and chemistry in The First Avenger, and The Winter Soldier takes advantage of their on-screen bond to devastating effect. You don’t have to ship Stucky to acknowledge that the relationship between Cap and Bucky is the heart and soul of the Captain America franchise. This branch of the MCU tells the story of two men who are just trying to do the right thing, while juggling their own traumas and mistreatment at the hands of a larger, uncaring government. Their relationship is simultaneously the most heartwarming and heartbreaking thread throughout the entire storyline.
Plus, Steve and Bucky’s fight scenes in this movie make for some of the best hand-to-hand combat in the MCU.
Chance, there’s one character we haven’t talked about yet: Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who gets one of his best storylines in Winter Soldier. What are your thoughts on everyone’s favorite eye-patched grump?
CHANCELLOR: So, that was probably the best case for loving Steve and Bucky’s relationship I’ve ever heard. While I don’t hate it, I’ve never been super invested in it (I think part of the reason is that stretches it to its limits in Civil War). But rewatching Winter Soldier, I definitely picked up on what you mention here. Their final fight, which takes place in the middle of CGI-d mayhem, gives that climactic action sequence the emotional heft that most Marvel movies lack.
I honestly forgot how great Samuel L. Jackson is in this movie! S.H.I.E.L.D. is definitely one of the most boring aspects of the MCU; however, you tend to forget that whenever Jackson is on screen because he commands your attention. He forces you to take goofy, faux-spy jargon like “deep shadow conditions” seriously. Furthermore, Jackson’s appearance in this movie stands out from every other time he’s popped up in the Marvel universe because this is the first time we actually see this super spy face real challenge. From very early on in the movie, you get the sense that Fury is playing a game that he’s already lost, or at least very close to losing. That’s what makes the car chase so damn compelling. You’re sitting on the edge of your seat waiting (and hoping) Fury will get out of this impossible jam.
If there’s one complaint I have about Winter Soldier — and I think we’ve spoken about this before — it’s that Fury should’ve actually died. It’s easy to understand why Marvel chickened out here, but it kind of undercuts the movie’s themes and impact. Winter Soldier is about destroying this oppressive, old order, and there’s an argument to be made that Fury should go with it because Fury is S.H.I.E.L.D., for better or worse. Now, if Marvel had committed itself to exploring how Fury adjusts to this new, post-S.H.I.E.L.D. world where the rules have changed once again, I’d probably feel better about Fury surviving the film, but obviously that’s not in the cards for Marvel since S.H.I.E.L.D., unfortunately, is still a thing thanks to the TV show. (Our colleague Christian Holub has also made the case that killing Fury off here would’ve allowed Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill to take on a more prominent role in the MCU).
So Devan, I shared my one complaint about this movie. Is there anything in Winter Soldier that you don’t love? In the wake of Black Panther, where would you place it on your personal MCU ranking? Finally, let’s end this by sharing our favorite lines from the movie.
DEVAN: Some of the issues I have with other Marvel movies — uninspired villains hellbent on world domination, bloated third acts, etc. — don’t really apply to Winter Soldier. The final mission is a bit silly, as Cap and Co. have to board each helicarrier and swap out a chip, but it sets up some really excellent aerial acrobatics from Falcon, and I like the visual impact of each helicarrier crashing into the Potomac. Vastly preferable to yet another superhero movie where there’s a giant portal and/or beam of light in the sky.
Really, my only quibble is that I would have liked Peggy Carter to play a slightly bigger role. Hayley Atwell’s charming but tough-as-nails performance was such a key part of why The First Avenger worked so well, and she’s definitely missed in The Winter Soldier. We do get that heartbreaking scene where Steve goes to visit the elderly Peggy in the hospital, but her influence looms so large over the events of this movie. Not only is Steve still grieving her loss, but she founded S.H.I.E.L.D. in an attempt to make the world a better place and carry on the legacy of Captain America — which makes the big HYDRA twist all the more harrowing. Those are all really fascinating (and devastating!) character elements I’d have loved to see explored in a deeper way.
But, as you mentioned earlier, The Winter Soldier does give us what might be Scarlett Johansson’s strongest outing as Black Widow. The Avengers movies frequently cast her as a flirty, badass love interest, but here, she just gets to be Steve’s wisecracking wingman, while also serving as his guide to the world of shadowy spy tactics. Not only does Johansson simply get to have fun in this movie, but it also gives her some of her strongest material to work with, as Black Widow grapples with her guilt and whether her heroic deeds will ever be able to cancel out her past. If we ever get that Black Widow movie, here’s hoping it looks more like Winter Soldier and less like Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Like you, I’m always wary of recency bias, so I’m waiting to see Black Panther again to decide how my updated MCU ranking shakes out. (Honestly, if you asked me to name my all-time favorite Marvel movie right now, point blank, I might say Thor: Ragnarok just because I can’t stop thinking about “Get Help.”)
But as Infinity War approaches, and we quite possibly face the end of Chris Evans’ run as Captain America, I think The Winter Soldier will always stand as one of the strongest outings the MCU ever produced. Not only does it take the best parts of the MCU — strong, character-driven drama with epic action spectacles — and execute those extremely well, but it also sends the series in a new direction. We always talk about how Guardians was the first Marvel comedy or how Spider-Man: Homecoming was the first high school movie, but Winter Soldier was the first movie to really push the boundaries of what an MCU movie could even be. With its paranoia and conspiracy thriller overtones, it’s the first genre Marvel movie. (We haven’t even talked about the brilliance of casting Robert Redford as a shadowy government villain, when he was a staple of ‘70s paranoia thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.) When Evans finally hangs up the shield, I think we’ll look back on Winter Soldier as not just his personal best, but as a high-water mark for what a 21st-century superhero movie can be.
And great lines? “On your left” and “Who the hell is Bucky?” are strong contenders, but “I’m with you to the end of the line” is simultaneously devastating and romantic as hell. I mean, damn.
CHANCELLOR: “On your left” is definitely amazing, and is the basis of one of my favorite GIFs. However, my favorite line definitely has to be Nick Fury’s “You’re wrong, I do share. I’m nice like that.” Jackson’s delivery is perfect.
Next Week: Guardians of the Galaxy, a.k.a. Avengers With Better Music But a Lamer Villain