Written by Anna Harrison
In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has a lot of favorite scenes, so buckle up.
Back in 2011, the Community episodes “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For a Few Paintballs More” aired, both directed by Joe Russo. Joe and his brother, Anthony, both served as executive producers on the show, and directed many of its more iconic episodes, building on their experience with fellow sitcom classic Arrested Development. In this particular doubleheader, the denizens of Greendale Community College get pitted against each other in a paintball war; the episodes expertly mimic Spaghetti Westerns and Star Wars to create a parody so precise it could almost pass off as the real thing, save for Community’s self-aware brand of humor.
Well, as it turned out, Marvel bigwig Kevin Feige greatly enjoyed these episodes of Community, so much so that he reached out to the Russo brothers to ask about directing a Marvel gig. The gig turned out to be Captain America: The Winter Soldier, an entry widely regarded as among the MCU’s best (if not the best) and one whose success ensured that the Russo brothers would be at the helm for much of the Infinity Saga, concluding their tenure at Marvel with Avengers: Endgame. And to think, all of that started with a couple of episodes about a community college dousing each other with paint.
(The Russos will even bring back Community alums Danny Pudi, Jim Rash, and Yvette Nicole Brown to cameo in their Marvel films, as well as the infamous Bluth stair-car from Arrested Development. As it turns out, Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon has nurtured quite a few future Marvel employees on his shows, most notably Jessica Gao, the She-Hulk showrunner; Jeff Loveness, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania writer; and Michael Waldron, Loki showrunner and writer, who also wrote the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and whatever Star Wars thing Kevin Feige is doing—Waldron in particular will be a very big deal for the MCU in the upcoming years. On a more unrelated note, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins worked on Arrested Development alongside the Russos, and is the director of the infamous “Mayonegg” scene. What humble beginnings all these folks had.)
Feige chose well: the Russo brothers took their action movie parody experience from Community and applied it seriously, crafting not only the best Marvel film to date but a solid spy thriller flick in its own right. The team of the Russo brothers with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (writers of Captain America: The First Avenger and, uh, Thor: The Dark World, unfortunately) would go on to shape the biggest moments in the MCU, but it all starts here.
Where I lamented Steve’s characterization in my review of The Avengers, Markus and McFeely smoothly course-correct; the banter and humor doesn’t just come from old man jokes at Steve’s expense, but allows Chris Evans to flex some subtle comedy chops. In The Avengers (and Avengers: Age of Ultron), Steve becomes a bit of a caricature—a hyper-patriotic goody two-shoes with a stick up his ass and his gaze constantly turning to the past—even down to his costuming choices, and it’s a lazy choice to mine for easy comedy. Here, he’s back to his old (no pun intended) self, breaking rules and creating the witty comments himself, rather than being the oblivious subject of them.
As Markus himself put it: “We also knew what we didn’t want to do, which was the grandpa story of ‘Oh my god, I’m in the future! What are these buttons? What do they do?’ It’s very tempting to go ‘Oh, this rock and roll…’ But he’s the most adaptive man on the planet. His brain’s been juiced, so he’s not going to be baffled for very long by your iPhone, so you have all those ideas first and then you’re like ‘Those are stupid.’”
At one point, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) says, “You must miss the good old days.”
“Well, things aren’t so bad,” Steve replies. “Food’s a lot better—we used to boil everything. No polio is good. Internet, so helpful. I’ve been reading that a lot trying to catch up.” Steve of The Avengers might have agreed with Sam, but his answer here is much more in character.
This isn’t to say that Steve doesn’t think about his past; in fact, the movie is chock-full of ghosts, living or dead, coming back to haunt Steve. He prowls his own exhibit at the Smithsonian just to get a glimpse of the people he’s lost, most noticeably his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and lost love Peggy (Hayley Atwell), and one particularly gut-wrenching scene involves Steve visiting a very old Peggy, now bed- and dementia-ridden. He’s adapted easily to the world around him, but he’s done so alone.
Still, he’s managed to carve a life for himself by working for S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), jumping out of planes without a parachute and demonstrating some exhilarating hand-to-hand combat. He’s assisted by Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), her cynical outlook bounces off Steve nicely, as he remains an optimist at heart; her presence also lets the MCU feel more lived-in—it doesn’t always require an Avengers movie to have our heroes cross paths.
However, Steve begins to grow uneasy with S.H.I.E.L.D. and especially Fury, whose compartmentalization rubs Steve the wrong way; Project Insight, in particular, makes Steve properly angry. The project involves three helicarriers that would patrol the skies and eliminate threats before they occurred, à la Minority Report (but with computers as the Precogs), in order to avoid another Avengers-type cataclysm. While Fury, always the pragmatist, expresses pride in the project, Steve points out, “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.” Steve chafed when the government prohibited him from helping the war effort in the 1940s, and here he chafes again at the terrible oversight the helicarriers would give S.H.I.E.L.D., refusing to compartmentalize and become like Fury.
There’s no particular political ideology behind Steve’s constant balking at governmental orders (the closest Marvel has gotten to endorsing any particular political leaning is The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and even that is vague enough to avoid ruffling most feathers); rather, there is simply a refusal to bend before authorities abusing their power, though things are much grayer here than in Cap’s first outing. The First Avenger preyed on sentimentality and nostalgia for the clear-cut morals of World War II, whereas Winter Soldier complicates things a bit by throwing Steve into a world where even the good guys aren’t so good, drawing on the spy thrillers of the 1970s such as The Parallax View and Marathon Man.
Alas, just as Fury begins to feel suspicious about the organization he runs, he gets knocked out of commission by the mysterious Winter Soldier. (Or “Wiener Soldier,” if you’re Sebastian Stan.) Steve and Natasha find themselves on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D., armed only with their wits, Steve’s shield, and a hard drive Fury gave to Steve before he got shot. The hard drive directs them to Camp Lehigh, the training camp Steve attended in The First Avenger, and so the two make their way there, Evans and Johansson’s long-standing friendship lending authenticity to their characters’ hesitant allyship.
Steve and Natasha’s friendship never attempts to be anything more, a refreshing change of pace when Nat has been shunted around seemingly at random between men. Had they been written to be romantic, it would have been believable (certainly more so than the Natasha/Bruce misfire in Avengers: Age of Ultron); their friendship, however, is even better, especially in a universe where any attractive man and woman who glance at each other seemingly must go to bone town.
Speaking of bone town, Winter Soldier provides our first glimpse of Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), aka Agent 13. Sharon, the grand-niece of Peggy, is Steve’s main love interest in the comics and a formidable character in her own right, at various points joining different Avengers teams and becoming director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Peggy in the comics stays relegated to the 1940s, an afterthought next to Sharon. However, in the MCU, Sharon is the afterthought—much more on this later, but suffice to say most of this film could be summarized with nary a mention of Sharon Carter, and that is quite a damn shame.
Winter Soldier serves as a decent enough introduction for her, despite her lack of screen time; even with the brief appearances here, had she been given a bigger role in Captain America: Civil War, she might have even let fans forget about Peggy. However, Sharon’s treatment in the MCU leaves a hell of a lot to be desired, and it starts in Winter Soldier, even though easy fixes are staring Markus and McFeely in the face: put Sharon in the Natasha role, as she is another spy whose experience could help Steve on the run; put Sharon in the Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) role as Nick Fury’s right-hand woman; have her join Steve and Natasha on the run; have her be a part of Fury’s secret cabal who knows he’s in hiding after the attempt on his life. (Kevin Feige, if you’re reading this, please hire me. I can fix your problems with female characters.) Any of the above would have given Sharon a) more screen time with Steve (with whom she shares a grand total of three scenes) and b) more screen time in general. Alas, this is perhaps the best version of Sharon Carter we’ve seen in the MCU, and we barely see her at all.
But back to the story. At Camp Lehigh, Steve discovers a computer containing the electronic consciousness of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), the Red Skull’s (Hugo Weaving) lackey from the first Captain America, who was hired on by S.H.I.E.L.D. as a scientist after the Nazis fell, presumably as a part of Operation Paperclip or the MCU equivalent. Zola secretly grew Hydra, the Nazi rogue science division he and the Red Skull were a part of, within S.H.I.E.L.D. until it spread to the top, including World Security Council secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).
Pierce is a memorable villain precisely for how ordinary he is. He’s every high-ranking bureaucrat you’ve ever seen, operating on cool logic and played perfectly by Redford in an inversion of his role in Three Days of the Condor, back when he looked a bit like Steve Rogers. “What if Pakistan marched into Mumbai tomorrow,” he posits to a member of the World Security Council, “and you knew that they were going to drag your daughters into a soccer stadium for execution, and you could just… stop it. With a flick of this switch. Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you all?” All the deaths Pierce plans to wreak are smoothed over by good old logic, but at Project Insight as well as Hydra’s heart is fascism.
So Steve sets out to stop Pierce and Hydra, and he and Natasha join up with newcomer Sam Wilson, aka Falcon. Anthony Mackie has an easy charisma onscreen, and provides a bit of levity in one of the most serious Marvel movies out there, proving himself a valuable addition to the MCU (an addition which, of course, will only get bigger and bigger).
When Sam tells Steve and Natasha his wings are locked behind a fort, they shrug and tell him it’s not a problem, and we cut to Sam having already procured the wings. One of The Winter Soldier’s strengths is its trust in its audience: it has a somewhat unwieldy plot for an MCU entry, but largely avoids huge exposition dumps and overly obvious reminders of the storyline. The audience has well-earned faith in these characters by now, and in turn this movie has faith in its viewers.
The trio’s plan to use Hydra mole/fake S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández, reprising his role), however, falls apart when the Winter Soldier and Hydra jump them. The ghosts of Steve’s past come roaring to the forefront as the Winter Soldier is revealed to be none other than his childhood best friend, Bucky Barnes, brainwashed and turned into an assassin by Hydra. While the plot elements from Ed Brubaker’s original comic run featuring the Winter Soldier are completely different, Winter Soldier the movie still contains the thrust of its character beats, including the now-iconic “Who the hell is Bucky?” line.
Understandably, this revelation throws Steve into a tailspin. He seemed to have made peace—or at least a tentative treaty—with the modern world and the personal losses brought with it, but here comes a blow that knocks him completely out of orbit, a living ghost perfectly preserved as he was in the 1940s but missing that crucial spark of humanity, that easy smile and charm, replaced instead by the empty shell of a killer.
For a certain corner of the internet circa 2014, a corner largely populated by teenage girls, the Steve/Bucky relationship became an obsession: whether you viewed Steve and Bucky as platonic or romantic, it was everywhere—it was hot guys acting torn up and tortured inside, so what’s not to love? Sebastian Stan’s performance as Bucky in particular—a mostly mute performance, but one brimming with inner turmoil and a deep vulnerability underneath that expressionless assassin mask—sent ripples through the fandom corners of the web. “Stucky,” as it’s called, became a sensation, for better or worse, and lines like “Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky” and “I’m with you till the end of the line” became peppered over the internet. (The “ship” itself, of course, is harmless, and a way for some fans to create some LGBTQ representation for themselves, since the MCU has been severely lacking in that department, but some of its fans are something else entirely—but let’s table that discussion until Civil War, when the Steve/Sharon kiss drew their ire and coaxed out some very virulent misogyny.)
For a character with only a handful of lines—despite being one of the two titular characters—Bucky makes quite an impression as the Winter Soldier, helped by his cool-looking metal arm and cool-sounding theme by Henry Jackman. The great showdown on the helicarriers as Steve and company bring down Hydra has its grand CGI moments, as Marvel is wont to do, but the final fight between Steve and Bucky feels more visceral and emotional than most MCU finales, full of stabbings and punches but also loss and grief intermingled with hope.
Bringing down Hydra, though, means bringing down S.H.I.E.L.D. as well, tossing away the whole bad egg. Taking down the organization that shaped much of Phase One is certainly a bold move; unfortunately, this will have more of an impact on the television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than the MCU, seeing as Joss Whedon will resurrect a helicarrier in Avengers: Age of Ultron and have a S.H.I.E.L.D. skeleton crew help with the mess at Sokovia.
Still, it’s a huge leap for The Winter Soldier to take, and though it’s one largely undercut by the next big team-up movie (thanks, Joss!), at the time it felt like a Big Deal. It was a risk, and showed that Marvel was willing to blow it all up—even if the fallout from this and subsequent blowups is never as steep as we expect. The illusion of change, as I’ve discussed.
Even if the storylines of the MCU only veer so far off the side of the road, The Winter Soldier did permanently change the nature and perception of Marvel films. It lived more easily in its shared universe than Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World, as it wasn’t afraid to bring in preexisting characters even as Captain America remains a focal point; it had big plot points with ramifications outside a teamup movie; most importantly, it showed that superhero movies don’t only have to be superhero movies. Post-Winter Soldier, the diversity of Marvel films flourished. We had the ’70s political thriller of Winter Soldier, and that paved the way for the action comedies of Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok, for teen coming-of-age flicks like both Spider-Man entries, for Black Panther and Eternals.
Yes, obviously there are common threads and tropes running through all of these films—you can only go so far with a monstrous corporation like Marvel had become by this point, especially one owned by Disney and concerned with remaining palatable to the masses—but Winter Soldier feels distinctly unique within the Marvel canon: tight, visceral, light on quips (it’s probably the least funny MCU film) but heavy on thrills, exciting action choreography, and character moments. It deftly balances the introduction of new characters (well, maybe not Sharon) that will shape the future of the MCU while ripping the rug out from underneath the existing ones, and brims with a fresh energy sorely needed after The Dark World. If Phase One was the birth of the MCU, Winter Soldier is where it grows up.
Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:
- Not groundwork, but an easter egg that’s been pointed out many times before: the Bible passage quoted on Nick Fury’s fake tombstone, Ezekiel 25:17, doesn’t exist, and is a nod to Samuel L. Jackon’s Pulp Fiction character, who quotes this fictitious passage.
- “Last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye.” This line of Nick Fury’s will be explained in Captain Marvel, which… hm. No comment.
- The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who refuses to initiate the Project Insight launch sequence also appears briefly in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
- Oh, look, a Stephen Strange namedrop from Sitwell.
- Robert Redford showing up in Avengers: Endgame was one of the most shocking cameos in a movie built on shocking cameos.
- During computer Zola’s discussion about the Winter Soldier, a newspaper headline appears proclaiming that Howard and Maria Stark have died in a car accident, heavily implying that the Winter Soldier is the one that caused it. This will be an enormous source of conflict in Captain America: Civil War.
- Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre), the leader of the pirates on the ship in the opening act, appears again in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which is fun. He does more leaping in that.
- Steve’s notebook also appears in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Obviously that show takes a lot of cues and characters from this film, but some of the smaller ones are a bit less noticeable to a more casual viewer.
- Both in this movie and the original Captain America, Bucky very briefly picks up Steve’s shield, a nod to his time as Captain America in the comics and foreshadowing in case the MCU decided to go down the Bucky-Cap road (which, of course, they did not, ultimately going with Sam Wilson, another shield-wielder in the comics).
- If you stopped watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. midway through season one because it was mediocre, the episodes set after Winter Soldier, when Hydra is revealed to have been inside S.H.I.E.L.D. all along, skyrocket in quality, and it keeps going up from there (generally). Just saying. They also do some time traveling in season seven and Project Insight plays a part in their travels.
Anna’s Favorite Scene: Where to begin? The hand-to-hand fight on the Lemurian Star, the “who the hell is Bucky?” fight on the highway, Robert Redford slapping around shirtless Sebastian Stan, the elevator fight, Natasha and Steve having a heart to heart which gives Natasha more characterization in two minutes than the entirety of Iron Man 2… the list goes on.
MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. The Avengers, 3. Captain America: The First Avenger, 4. Iron Man 3, 5. Iron Man, 6. Thor, 7. Thor: The Dark World, 8. Iron Man 2, 9. The Incredible Hulk
Captain America: The Winter Soldier Trailer