The ninth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is also the first major disagreement between Tim + Alex. Will they be able to kiss and make up, or will one of them crash a helicarrier into a river with the other still inside?
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)
Alex: Last time we convened, on the rather grave matter of Thor: The Dark World, I mentioned that this was the era where I kind of lost interest in the MCU. Thor was certainly the worst offender in this regard, but – and I realise this is not a popular opinion – it was Winter Soldier which cemented it as a pattern.
Tim: By contrast, Winter Soldier is easily in my top five Marvel films and, depending on how the mood strikes me, often takes the top spot. So, I guess the question is: has this viewing shifted either of our opinions?
Alex: Unfortunately, in my case, not very much. I certainly don’t dislike Winter Soldier, but it still leaves me – like Steve at the end of the last movie and Bucky between history-defining assassinations – quite cold.
Tim: Are you able to put a finger on why? Personally, I still really enjoy it, and while it has some minor problems, I think it’s one of Marvel’s best.
Alex: I suspect it has to do with the movie dropping thematic keywords like ‘freedom’, ‘trust’ and ‘deception’, in a way that’s quite portentous… but none of them ever really land for me (a qualifier I suspect I’m going to be using a lot today).
Tim: That’s a fair criticism, to be honest. Marvel made a lot of fanfare when promoting Winter Soldier that it was inspired by ‘70s conspiracy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, but honestly I think it’s closer to a Bourne-style thriller.
While the HYDRA reveal is a decent enough twist, I think the overblown villainy of their scheme robs it of any real-world parallels. Like, I’m sure the film-makers would like to think they’re making a point about how large institutions can become corrupt without people noticing, but I feel like HYDRA taking out two million people with their flying death ships would generate some pretty instant pushback.
It’s also blunted by the fact that there’s been no build-up or hints at the reveal in previous films, and that we know so many heroic figures within SHIELD. It’s a given that Nick Fury and Maria Hill and the majority of the characters in Agents of SHIELD aren’t going to turn out to be secret Nazis, and the film hesitates to even make them complicit in allowing HYDRA’s growth.
Alex: Weirdly, as you mention Agents of SHIELD, that was actually where I felt this stuff most. The reveal really transformed that show, because it had to live with the consequences for months afterwards. On paper, ‘SHIELD has been compromised by HYDRA’ is a great status-quo shift, one which reminds me of what Marvel’s mid-00s comics line would do after big crossover events. But within Winter Soldier itself, where there’s no time left to show us what this actually means, the change lacks any real impact.
And, look, I can make my peace with all that. Complex spy-agency politics aren’t exactly what we come to Marvel movies for, after all. But there’s another void at the heart of the film, and I wish I didn’t feel this way because there’s clearly good intent there… I just fail to invest in any of the character relationships.
Tim: That’s interesting, because I feel the film does some pretty great work in that regard. The dynamic between Steve and Natasha doesn’t always work (and I think Markus & McFeely may not be super great at writing three-dimensional women), but Steve’s friendship with Sam and his bond with Bucky are both strongly constructed in my opinion.
Alex: As I say, I can see the scaffolding in place to make all this happen. I mean, the whole film opens on a scene introducing Sam, which Nat then enters, and they all trade banter. It’s more like the way you’d expect a comedy to begin, and opening with this rather than the ship infiltration sequence feels like a statement of intent: to rebuild Steve’s supporting cast in the 21st Century, and hint that we’re watching a film about friendship and other personal bonds.
Tim: I agree the opening is a statement of intent, but I think it’s setting up a different theme to you. But before we get into that, we’ve mentioned that this film basically builds Cap a whole new supporting cast – shall we talk about the first appearances of both the Falcon and the Winter Soldier?
Alex: Do you think it’s strange that the MCU has a habit of putting black men in the military-themed sidekick role? We had it right from the jump with Rhodey. It’s made a comeback in the most recent instalment, which retroactively slots Fury into that role alongside Captain Marvel. And here we have Sam Wilson, wisecracking army vet and Cap’s literal wingman.
Tim: It’s a pattern I know people have talked about before. One of my friends even observed that, with the reduced role of the Warriors Three in the Thor films, his closest companion is arguably Heimdall, who is (unlike the comics) a black man in the MCU.
I would struggle to say whether this is an issue which arises from the comics, the movies or both, but it’s a weird pattern. I think Rhodey, Sam, Fury and Heimdall are fairly distinct characters that aren’t all falling into a single stereotype, but they certainly occupy a similar role in all the films you mention.
Alex: That aside, though, I love Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, who has got charisma to spare. Literally, a surplus, because I don’t think this film fully taps it – but it’s smart enough to know Mackie only has to flash the smile, and we’ll buy into the character. His work at the veteran’s centre sets up Sam’s warmth, in a different way to any other MCU character, and it’s fascinating to meet our first everyman hero. (At least, relative to the likes of Steve and Nat.)
Tim: That’s a good point – as skilled as Falcon may be, he’s basically just a well-trained soldier with an advanced piece of kit. He didn’t make his suit, and he’s not got any super-soldier serum backing him up. Given that Black Widow was out of her depth in Avengers, but here is held up as extraordinary, we can see Marvel starting to establish that sort of sliding scale of superhumans that enables them to tell ‘street level’ and cosmic stories all in a single universe.
Alex: Also, he’s just a guy with a job, who chugs orange juice from the carton when he’s home alone, y’know?
For all that I like Sam, though, I cannot get on board with that ugly-ass wingsuit.
Tim: I think it’s a shame it’s introduced with him wearing civvies underneath, rather than the full-blown costume he’s in during the final act, and I think it looks a little clumsy up close, but it’s a great look when he’s actually flying around.
My issue has always been that I don’t like the visual of him with the dual pistols. I appreciate he needs some kind of offensive capability, and it works in the sort of pseudo-military world this film inhabits, but it just doesn’t feel superheroic to me. I was very happy when the Redwing drone was introduced in Civil War – it’s a lovely nod to his bird companion in the comics, and feels closer to what I want to see.
Alex: It’s a shame, too, because even dual-wielding uzis, Sam is never going to win the position of Cap’s best gun-shootin’ buddy. That title will always go to James Buchanan Barnes.
The film makes it pretty clear he’s a big deal, what with his name up there on the marquee – so, Tim, what do you make of the Winter Soldier?
Tim: The film has a really tough needle to thread. We got a few scenes of Bucky in First Avenger, but he remained a fairly generic best friend and companion to WWII-era Steve. The film has to remind us of how important their connection is, while also introducing the Winter Soldier as a mysterious threat, hit us with reveal, give Steve time to react and begin Bucky’s road to redemption. It’s a hell of a lot to fit into a movie where that’s not the core story, and while I think it could have been improved by jettisoning some other stuff, the film (and especially Sebastian Stan) does a hell of a lot with a little.
The scene of Bucky and Alexander Pierce in the bank is quietly heartbreaking, and I think it’s noteworthy that the final fight isn’t really about whether Steve and co will stop the helicarrier launch, but whether Steve can shake Bucky out of his programming.
Alex: I think this is the exact point where our opinions diverge. I agree with you that they’re trying to squeeze a lot of Bucky groundwork into their allotted time – for my money, the stuff to cut would be Fury’s fake-out death, but I do suspect that you can’t realistically balance reintroducing Bucky and maintaining the mystery in one film.
But for me, what it loses in that rush can’t be salvaged. I never feel that bond between Steve and Bucky, which the films tell me is one of the strongest in the entire MCU, and so their scenes together feel like a blank.
I’m guessing you feel differently?
Tim: I do, and I’m going to bring back my different interpretation of the film’s opening and overall theme here.
I think that, spy antics and superhero action aside, this is a film about people dealing with trauma. There’s a reason that Sam Wilson works with the VA, and it’s to show someone who is trying to address PTSD and related issues in a healthy way. Cap, while he appears to be dealing fine with adjusting to the 21st century, list and all, is quite disconnected from the world around him, which is why Bucky is such an important link and why his redemption is so important.
Black Widow may not have seen combat like Sam and Steve did, but she’s dealing with the fallout of her own origins and the fact that she’s wired for deception and betrayal. And of course Bucky is literally frozen in a state of perpetual trauma, unable to deal with a past that keeps getting wiped away. The moment of resignation when the techs offer him his mouthguard just before he has his mind scrubbed again speaks volumes to me.
Alex: That’s fascinating, and would make this the second Phase Two movie to deal with themes of PTSD.
Tim: It’s an interesting contrast, because while Tony’s issues in Iron Man 3 are brand new and fresh, the characters in this film have mostly been dealing (or not dealing) with them for a while.
Alex: Like a lot of Winter Soldier, I can appreciate that on an intellectual level, but the movie never actually makes me feel it the way I do Tony’s panic attacks.
When it comes to Bucky and Steve specifically, do you see the results of that shared trauma as something platonic or romantic? What I’m really asking is: Tim, do you ship Stucky?
Tim: I’m not an active shipper, but I would also be totally fine in the (unfortunately unlikely) scenario that Marvel did decide to make their relationship romantic. It’s ambiguous enough that you can read it that way, but equally the lack of time we spend with them as a pair means that it’s also easy to read Bucky less as an individual and more as Steve’s one remaining link to his roots. That’s certainly a reading that Civil War encourages by having the death of Peggy Carter occur, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Alex: I desperately want to ship them – the first time I encountered the idea that Steve and Bucky are lovers, it felt like the Rosetta Stone to why this film didn’t connect with me – but being completely honest, I don’t think there is enough textual evidence to really support that reading here. Equally, though, I think that’s mostly because the film doesn’t do enough to sell the idea of them as best friends either.
Tim: Steve and Bucky seem destined to always be separated by circumstance, which is probably what makes them such an irresistible pairing to those so inclined to read them as a couple. That’s the stuff of great romance novels right there.
Tim: We’ve already mentioned that the filmmakers’ line during Winter Soldier‘s promotion was that it was the MCU doing a ‘70s conspiracy thriller. Despite all the double-crosses and some decent intrigue, I think that’s overstating it a fair bit.
Alex: That line was something that really irritated me, because it became an accepted truth that got parroted without much examination. Something I like about the MCU, and that we’ve traced from instalment to instalment, is the way they sample from other genres – and while I admit I’m not a student of the ‘70s films being referenced, Winter Soldier feels firmly ‘house style’ to me.
Which, in a sense, is because this is the film that establishes that style. It’s Markus & McFeely’s first team-up with the Russos, the writing and directing teams who would define the next half-decade of the MCU.
Tim: With a few notable exceptions, colourful cinematography has never really been the MCU’s strong suit, and this really locks in the ‘flat and slightly grey’ look that we get in the other Russo films, and see echoed in productions like Age of Ultron and the Ant-Man series
Alex: What I do find interesting about Winter Soldier, in the larger scheme of this film series, is how it picks up our favourite ongoing thread, of military powers losing their grip on the world’s controls as the supernatural increasingly seeps in… and just blows all of that up permanently.
As we’re told in the post-credits sting: “It’s not a world of spies anymore, not even a world of heroes. This is the age of miracles, doctor.” A message that’s already been pretty clearly underlined a few minutes earlier, with the dissolution of the agency that defined Phase One and the visual of three helicarriers dropping out of the sky.
Tim: While it’s not a perfect blend, I feel like the film deftly combines some of the wackier parts of the comics with the more grounded spy-action genre it’s partially aping. Whether it’s turning the robot-bodied Arnim Zola into an aging AI program or (my personal favourite) magnificent French villain for hire Batroc the Leaper into a kick-heavy mercenary, there are some fun adaptations here that are consistent with the universe the films have been shaping.
Alex: Speaking of Zola… between his Operation Paperclip repatriation and Bucky shaping the century with a sniper rifle, I think this is the most the MCU has toyed with real history. We see its past interwoven with our own, but also where the two diverge. How do you feel about the revelation that HYDRA is responsible for everything bad that happened in the past hundred years?
Tim: I was reading something on Twitter the other day about how Marvel and other blockbuster films have a tendency to obscure their politics, and put in messages that different audiences can pick up on so cinemagoers of every persuasion come away happy. At the most generous reading, HYDRA having concealed itself within SHIELD is a metaphor for how any government can slide towards totalitarianism. At the most cynical, it’s a way to say: ‘the real US government would never support coups in other countries or assassinate its enemies, so any time it did that was clearly the fault of these secret Nazis’.
Steve rejecting SHIELD altogether and recognising that the whole apparatus needs to be dismantled inclines me to think the writers might favour the former argument, but you don’t have to work hard to find the latter.
Alex: At the same time, there seems to be some attempt to distance HYDRA’s motives from Nazism. Assuming he does buy into his own line of bullshit, Alexander Pierce genuinely believes he’s on the side of good. I always liked the way Agents of SHIELD handled this, with Daisy outright rejecting the secretly-HYDRA Ward’s appeals to her sympathies: DUDE, YOU’RE A LITERAL NAZI.
…I think the unexpected revelation here might be that Agents of SHIELD is my favourite MCU thing of this era. Tim, before everyone starts angrily @ing me, please save us with some insightful commentary.
Tim: Having briefly touched on Marvel’s dull cinematography, another element of the Marvel movies that’s frequently picked out as mediocre are the scores. While Winter Soldier doesn’t really boast a rousing theme on the level of your John Williams Superman or Danny Elfman Batman, I think Henry Jackman’s score is one of the best they’ve ever done. It’s become a soundtrack I regularly listen to while working, and I think there are moments where it complements the action or emotion of the scenes really effectively.
Alex: You’re talking about the sequence where the score cuts out entirely and is replaced with Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, right?
Tim: Of course.
Alex: Seriously, though, that highway scene is a prime example of what you’re talking about. The music really enhances the action beats, and melds beautifully with the sound effects – and then of course, there’s the trademark Winter Soldier screeches.
Tim: It’s an obviously lift from Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight score, with the Joker’s persistent string note, but it works so well I don’t mind too much.
Tim: While we’re talking about that sequence… the highway ambush and subsequent fight is an uncontested Gem for me, and up there with my favourite MCU action scenes. There are so many wonderful moments, from the Winter Soldier yanking the entire steering wheel out of the car to his excellent ‘arm rebooting’ motion after he’s been shocked by Black Widow. Bucky’s little knife-twist business during the fight, the shot of Cap flipping as his shield is twisted around, the immense impact of that first blow from Bucky’s cyborg arm, I could go on and on…
On top of that, we get a wonderful showcase for both Cap and Bucky’s fighting skills, and while it’s a little bit too shaky-cam for my tastes, we still get a taste of how hard both these actors and the stunt team have trained. Finally, as I mentioned in our coverage of The First Avenger, we get our second incident of a car that Steve is in/on/near flipping over, a surprisingly common recurring motif in the MCU.
Alex: The action in this movie doesn’t quite do it for me – maybe, as you mention, it’s the use of shaky-cam – so instead, for my first pick, I want to focus on a quieter moment: Steve Rogers visiting the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian. It’s an inventive way of squeezing in some ‘previously on’ exposition, in particular a reminder of who Bucky is, that also speaks to Cap’s place in the modern MCU.
The exhibit itself, which returns twice – first as a cute moment explaining how Steve got his classic costume back, and then in the post-credits sequence as Bucky probes his past – is a lovely bit of set design. You can feel a curator’s hand in the varying way each exhibit is housed: dressed mannequins, artifacts in glass cases, interactive screens, big bold text on the walls and the room with a looping short documentary. That feels like something you could really visit, and sweet baby Thor how I want to.
Tim: Plus Gary Sinise is the narrator for the exhibit!
Alex: And it gives us a bonus dose of Peggy Carter, ’50s edition. And, god, that little look down she does to compose herself, just as the interview cuts off, is a magnificent moment of acting that tears right through me.
Tim: My next scene is also a quieter one, and one we’ve spoken about already – the very opening of the film, where Steve meets Sam for the first time. Those Washington-at-dawn shots of the pair running are one of the few times Winter Soldier genuinely looks like a political thriller rather than a slightly grittier-than-your-average superhero film, and seeing Steve lapping Sam multiple times is a fun little showcase for just how buff Cap is.
The actual conversation shows off one of Falcon’s key traits – his empathy – and also contains some great acting. Initially, when they’re just joking around, Steve seems relaxed, but as soon as Sam mentions his defrosting, he stiffens up a little and goes to leave. It’s only when Sam goes beyond that to show he understands how Steve must be feeling that Cap’s hesitancy dissolves.
It’s those tiny interactions that, in my mind, highlight the trauma angle I mentioned. You have to be looking for them, but once you do, it opens the film up to a whole new level.
Alex: While we’re deep in the Feels Zone… my last pick is a moment of inspiring optimism that gets me every time. Towards the end of the movie, Cap infiltrates the Triskelion and gets hold of the intercom. He announces that SHIELD has been taken over by HYDRA and asks any remaining genuine agents to join him in resisting their plot to launch the helicarriers.
Cut to a desk-duty SHIELD agent at his station, being given the launch order. You watch him weigh up the enormity of what he’s just been told and come to a decision, pushing back – “I’m not going to launch those ship”” – even with a gun to his head. “Captain’s orders.”
This could be seen as the kind of ‘not all SHIELD’ apologia we mentioned earlier, but it’s the quiet reluctance on his face that sells the moment. It becomes a reminder that Cap’s real superpower has always been inspiring people to do the right thing, to smaller act of heroism. That resistance in the face of a corrupt authority makes my insides cheer.
And then Agent 13 – who we’ve not really mentioned but is a hero in the Spencer-Dale household simply because she’s played by Emily VanCamp from Revengê – whips out her gun, repeats the “Captain’s orders” line, and we get a Mexican stand-off at the scale of an entire SHIELD base.
It’s exactly the kind of emotional connection, paying off into an action sequence, that I wish I could find elsewhere in the movie. But it does clearly illustrate that this team are capable of those moments.
Tim: I think that’s the crux of this movie – for all the spy shenanigans, the betrayals and double crosses and tension, it ultimately comes down to whether or not you feel it successfully sells the emotional stakes. Personally, I think it sticks the landing, and helps cement Steve Rogers as the tragic heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
THE OFFICIAL T+AKTMCU RANKINGS
1. The Avengers (2012)
2. Iron Man (2008)
3. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
4. Iron Man 3 (2013)
5. Thor (2011)
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
7. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
8. Iron Man 2 (2010)
9. Thor: The Dark World (2010)
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
2. Iron Man (2008)
3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Thor (2011)
5. Iron Man 3 (2013)
6. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
7. Iron Man 2 (2010)
8. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
9. Thor: The Dark World (2010)
- The “Captain’s orders” SHIELD technician (played by Aaron Himelstein) is rewarded for his bravery by Age of Ultron with a recurring role and an actual name: Cameron Klein. Y’know, like the pants. Klein is also the guy that Fury and Hill are on their way to meet in Infinity War’s post-credits sequence.
- We’ve talked a lot about the opening scene and Captain America’s jog, but one thing we should address is that his route makes NO DAMN SENSE unless he’s deliberately trying to meet/flirt with Sam Wilson.
- Fashion Statement of the Movie: Cap and Widow in their undercover civvies, in particular Steve’s heavy-framed glasses and Nat’s slightly grungy hoodie/jacket combo. Yum.
- Fashion Disaster of the Movie: Having already ragged on Sam’s Falcon suit, let’s have a go at the Winter Soldier instead – or, as I like to call him, Bucky with the not-so-good hair. Early on, with the eye makeup and the long locks, he resembles nothing more than Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge-era Gerard Way. Except with a rubbish CG-tinfoil arm.
- Fury’s costume seems to reflect how we’re supposed to feel about him at any given moment. During the Insight chat, he is wearing a tunic-jacket-thing probably best described as ‘North Korean dictator-esque’, but when he returns to the Triskelion to shut down Pierce, he’s back in the Avengers leather jacket and turtleneck.
- The MCU timeline would seem to suggest Stephen Strange isn’t Sorcerer Supreme yet, but apparently an accomplished surgeon is worth mentioning in the same breath as Bruce Banner when it comes to threats to HYDRA’s control. (Or does that just mean the algorithms are really working?)
- Are we to assume that HYDRA has a different soldier for all seasons? If so, I would like to meet the Summer Soldier, who would surely be a chill dude.
- Captain America is yet to see Star Trek, but has apparently caught up on 1983 Matthew Broderick vehicle WarGames. Priorities!
- Cap’s catch-up list is hilarious, primarily because in the cinematic release the items on it varied from territory to territory. The UK, for example, decided it was vital that he caught up on the Sherlock TV series and for some reason England’s 1966 World Cup victory. Korea wanted Steve to get up on a Dance Dance Revolution machine, and Spain reckoned Chupa Chups – a brand of lollipop – were vital to understanding the decades he’d missed.
- Thai food and Nirvana (band) remain constants on every list though. Maybe Steve and Carol could crack open Nevermind and a takeaway pad thai when she comes back to Earth.
- We watched Winter Soldier the day after seeing Captain Marvel (you can read Alex’s thoughts on the movie here). It makes for a fascinating comparison piece (spoilers):
- Any of Fury’s lines about his eye are now hilarious in hindsight (which, unlike Nick himself, is famously 20:20), but his assertion to Steve that “the last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye” is especially chucklesome.
- Steve gets baited with the exact same ‘forget powers, let’s just brawl’ by Batroc that Carol does by Yon-Rogg. The difference between the two Captains is that America goes for it, while Marvel sees it for the macho BS it clearly is.
- The ‘90s setting of Captain Marvel meant it could have got a cameo from septuagenarian badass Peggy Carter. Truly a missed opportunity.
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