Why don’t people talk about The Winter Soldier anymore? Has it been overshadowed by Captain America’s next two appearances in Age of Ultron and Civil War? Most definitely, but The Winter Soldier is easily the best Captain America movie and still one of the best MCU movies so far. Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy stole its thunder pretty quickly, but The Winter Soldier is the strongest movie of Phase Two by mostly jettisoning much of what made Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World feel so disposable.
The Winter Soldier is the directorial debut of Anthony and Joe Russo, two filmmakers who stretched the boundaries of television comedy on the likes of Community and Arrested Development, but cinematic paintball fights couldn’t prepare fans for the assured and confident direction these two forged for Cap. Unlike the previous two Phase Two movies, The Winter Soldier wasn’t the second instalment of an ongoing story. It’s the first full look at how Steve Rogers fits in the present, without a world-ending threat like Loki to bring him off the side lines. Instead of feeling like a sequel to The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier draws from, and improves on the best aspects of that film, using them as a way to bridge the gap from the distant past to the present.
The Winter Soldier is a movie of partnerships, both new and broken. Both Steve and Bucky are men out of time that are on opposite sides of the conflict, Steve and Sam Wilson are soldiers that lost their wingmen and formed a partnership out of shared respect and experience, and Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce are old friends whose ideals have come into conflict. Black Widow is at odds with what agency she’s serving, and SHIELD is cannibalised by Hydra. All of this leads to excellent character work, and an espionage plot that feels fresh in the ways that Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World felt stale.
Captain America is a very old-fashioned hero, and the way the Russos manage to update his character as a symbol of values over the corruption of government agencies is a clever way to go with the character. It answers the question of how to make Cap fit in a world that has moved on: he doesn’t.
Ticking the Romance Box
Apart from some early seeding with Agent Sharon Carter (that sounds extremely rude when I read it back) The Winter Soldier doesn’t have a romance plot. Well, ok it has two, but they are both non-sexual and unconventional. The first is the fact that Cap and Black Widow are now work married. Seriously, you can’t tell me that after this movie Tony doesn’t call Cap Natascha’s work husband.
Thankfully the Russo’s didn’t decide to pair these two off because their platonic chemistry is one of the best parts of the film. Like The Avengers, and unlike Iron Man 2, Natascha feels essential to the action, with her spy skills complementing Steve’s more forward approach. Without her Steve would have been killed many times over, and if she tells you that the Winter Soldier is a bad dude (the woman who cracked Loki, I might add), then you take that shit seriously.
The Best Villains Corner
Bucky isn’t a great character – in fact, he’s barely a character at all, but his actions as the Winter Soldier make him one of the most feared villains in the MCU. He’s also, alongside Steve, a part of the main love story of this film. Say what you want about Sebastian Stan’s awful acting (and he only gets worse in Civil War), the Winter Soldier is formidable. The way that he is shot in this film, like a ghostly Terminator, he’s scary enough for me to be worried about our heroes anytime they take him on. His relationship with Steve is one of the most pivotal in all of the MCU, a bond that guarantees that Steve, despite what Bucky has done for Hydra, will stop at nothing to save his friend. After the weak villains of the last two films, Steve and Bucky’s battles are given an emotional dimension that elevates the material way higher than your normal superhero movie.
That’s because The Winter Soldier isn’t a normal superhero movie in the first place. It’s a spy move where the main character happens to be Cap. It’s a team-up movie with characters that have skills and experience to count on rather than a hammer or an iron suit. The fights are refreshingly without the pyrotechnics of special effects, relying on choreography while adding a realistic brutality to the action. Some of the action scenes in this movie are insanely good: Nick Fury’s car chase, the three-way freeway fight between Bucky and team Cap, Steve chasing Bucky over rooftops – all of them have a visceral quality that something like Civil War’s airport fight is lacking.
If you haven’t guessed by now, The Winter Soldier is my favourite MCU movie in the retrospective to date. It’s darker than The Avengers, less convoluted than Civil War, and while its not as colourful as Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok, it makes up for it by perfectly balancing its drama, action, and comedy. Not bad for a fossil.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image courtesy of Phactual.com)