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Published on April 24th, 2015 | by Brad

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MCU Retrospective Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2011)

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Year of Release: 2011

Film Number: 9

Budget: $170 million

Box Office Takings: $714.8 million

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo

Written By: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Hail The Return Of The Spy Thriller

After the all-guns-blazing blowout of Avengers Assemble, Marvel took it easy for a couple of movies. Though Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World had significance to their titular heroes, their impact on the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large was limited. They were fun romps, a victory lap after the success of Phase One. At first glance, Captain America: The Winter Soldier appeared to be another one of these, taking Cap and bringing him into an espionage thriller a la the legendary Ed Brubaker run which began with Winter Soldier.

Running across issues 1-9 and 11-14 of the fifth volume of Captain America (with a break on issue 10 to tie into the X-Men crossover event House of M), Ed Brubaker took what had been a more classical superhero comic, and updated it into a 21st Century spy thriller. Investigating the assassination of the Red Skull, Cap is drawn into a conspiracy involving a Russian general he had encountered during World War 2, and the mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier. It’s one of the all-time classic comics, with some top-notch artwork from Steve Epting. Check it out, I recommend it very highly.

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The film opens with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) AKA Falcon, one of Cap’s longest-standing allies and the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics, out for a run in Washington DC. While he jogs at a normal pace, he’s repeatedly lapped by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who keeps calling out “On your left” as he passes, much to Wilson’s chagrin. The two bond over a discussion about the difficulties of coming home from active overseas service, and Wilson has Rogers add Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man soundtrack to his list of pop culture to catch up on. The pop culture list is a great gag, as it had different references depending on what part of the world you saw the film in (Elvis in the USA, The Beatles here in the UK, etc.)

Rogers is picked up by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and taken to his next mission, liberating a S.H.I.E.L.D. satellite launch ship from pirates, led by Algerian Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre). Better known to comic fans as Batroc the Leaper, he’s a long-standing Captain America adversary, best known for his purple-and-gold jumpsuit, his exquisite moustache and his outrageous French accent. One of the best things about the recent proliferation of superhero adaptations, DC and Marvel alike, is seeing some of these particularly silly concepts and characters adapted for the screen. This is a great take on Batroc, keeping the martial arts prowess and having him wear a t-shirt with the purple-and-gold design of his jumpsuit whilst otherwise making him look like the type of modern mercenary you might see on the news.

Cap goes in ahead of the strike team and clears the deck of the pirates. This is a brilliantly staged action sequence, setting the tone for what’s ahead and proving that we’re in very capable hands with the Russo brothers. There were a few murmurings of surprise when they were first announced for this film, given that their previous was entirely comedic, primarily Arrested Development and Community, whilst their previous film was 2006’s entirely forgettable Owen Wilson vehicle You, Me and Dupree. Despite this singularly unimpressive set of credentials, they do a great job with Captain America: Winter Soldier, and have already been signed on for its sequel, Captain America: Civil War and are taking over from Joss Whedon on the Avengers series with Avengers: Infinity War Parts 1 & 2. Not bad for the directors of Welcome to Collinwood.

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After Cap takes down Batroc, it’s revealed that Black Widow is secretly there on a separate mission to download data stored on the ship’s computers and deliver it to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). This infuriates Cap, who doesn’t like being kept in the dark about the parameters of the mission as it could cost the lives of the people he’s leading. He confronts Fury in his office at the Triskelion building, the base of operations for the Ultimates repurposed here as S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. Fury takes Cap down in a lift to see Project Insight, the programme that Black Widow was recovering data on for him. I’m going to go into the lift in a bit more detail later on, but as well as giving Samuel L. Jackson a cool monologue, this scene is vital to establish the space for one of the film’s best action sequences later on.

Project Insight is shown to be three helicarriers, similar in design to the one seen in Avengers Assemble, but here linked to each other and a satellite network, and propelled by the repulsor technology which makes the Iron Man suit fly. These helicarriers will be in the air 24/7, and have smart guns capable of taking out a million targets a minute. Overkill is underrated at S.H.I.E.L.D., apparently. Rogers looks at this and sees the kind of fascism he fought to defeat back in his own time.

It’s scenes like this in the first half where Winter Soldier is at its most interesting; the questions of security vs privacy, safety vs freedom et al. These are legitimate social concerns which we need to have a serious discussion about in the real world, but lack the confidence, knowledge and interest to really do so. This was a film written and developed against the backdrop of drone strikes and the Benghazi Embassy attack, against WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden. It takes the framework of a Marvel superhero flick and builds a 70s-era conspiracy thriller on it, like 3 Days of the Condor with a bionic arm and an indestructible shield.

While Cap goes off to do a bit of soul-searching, Fury attempts to take a look at the data Black Widow recovered. Upon discovering he’s been locked out, apparently on his own authorisation, he goes to talk to his friend on the World Security Council (the faceless screen folk who try to nuke New York in Avengers Assemble), Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Redford is absolutely brilliant in this, his presence lending credibility to the conspiracy-thriller trappings, whilst twisting them by having him be the shady authority figure rather than the idealist under threat as he usually was 40 years ago. Fury implores Pierce to delay Project Insight while he investigates the data further, which Pierce agrees to.

As Fury drives away, an attempt is made on his life. Men disguised as Washington D.C. police smash their cars into his, fire upon it with machine guns, and then try knocking through the reinforced windows with a portable pneumatic battering ram. Fury deploys the car’s various Bondian gadgets to make good his escape, leading to an absolutely thrilling chase through the streets of America’s capital. There’s a real clarity and intensity to sequences like this, using longer takes and Steadicam as opposed to the more modern techniques of rapid-fire editing and shaking the camera to create a sense of kineticism. It’s a more classical aesthetic, meant to evoke the 70s-era thrillers I mentioned before, but what it really reminds me of is Michael Mann. They have the same intense, matter-of-fact brutality of Mann’s best action sequences, from the likes of Heat, Collateral and this year’s under-seen, underrated Blackhat.

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Just as Fury thinks he’s gotten away, a figure steps in front of his car. Masked and with one bionic arm, he walks slowly, menacingly towards Fury, launching a magnetic mine at his car. As Fury’s car flips over with the force of the explosion, the figure casually sidesteps to avoid it. The titular Winter Soldier makes his first appearance in the film, and it’s one of the great cinematic entrances. Cloaked in mystery, with a look that’s instantly iconic and completely badass, a lot of credit for which must go to Steve Epting for the original design from the comic and to costume designer Judianna Makovsky. The entire costume design for the film is pretty spectacular, actually, from Cap’s S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform to Falcon’s wing-suit, so kudos to Ms Makovsky for that. Fury escapes through a bit of gadget work and gets the data to Cap before Winter Soldier puts a few bullets in him. With Fury apparently dead, Pierce confronts Cap to try and get him to tell him about the data. Cap fobs Pierce off, setting into motion the man on the run thriller the second act takes the form of.

It all starts with Cap getting into that lift we saw earlier on in the film. As I said before, that earlier sequence of Cap and Fury in the lift is of vital importance to establish the space for the action to follow. In the first scene, Cap and Fury are filmed in a wide two-shot, with the two principals at opposite ends of it and a large gap between them, creating a sense of space and roominess, like you could fit a lot of people in there. In the latter scene, Cap is centre of the shot when he first stands alone in the lift, with large gaps either side of him suggesting that you could easily surround him. As the lift descends, Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), leader of the strike team from earlier, and various other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents get on at different floors. As more men fill out the lift, the camera gets tighter and tighter, culminating in an extreme close-up in which we see sweat bead and then streak down an agent’s forehead. This not only gives us the sense of how close attention Cap is paying, but also, by having a segment of one man’s head fill the same frame that was earlier large enough to fit two big movie stars and a lot of space between them, shows just how tight a spot this previously expansive space has become for Cap. It’s a supremely intelligent use of space which pays off in spades when Cap takes down the strike team and frees himself from the confines of that lift by diving out into the open air, saved by the strength of his shield.

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After escaping the Triskelion and meeting back up with Black Widow, Rogers and Romanoff discover that the data originated from the very camp where Steve was trained back in World War 2. They find their way into an underground bunker filled with old databanks and supercomputers. It’s a great set, has the feel of the lair from an old Bond movie. In amongst all this, they find a USB dock wired up, and plug the drive with the data into it. The machinery boots up, to reveal a complex Artificial Intelligence with the mind of Doctor Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), assistant to Cap’s nemesis from The First Avenger, Red Skull. He reveals that after the war, he and various other HYDRA scientists were recruited into S.H.I.E.L.D., and worked to reshape and regrow HYDRA as a sleeper operation inside S.H.I.E.L.D. They still plan world domination, and after the war taught them that they couldn’t take away people’s freedom by force, they spent the next several decades manipulating events so that they would give it up willingly. One of their key agents has been the Winter Soldier, and their leader is Alexander Pierce.

I have very mixed feelings about this twist. One the one hand, it is absolutely awesome. We’ve been dealing with S.H.I.E.L.D. from the very beginning, way back in Iron Man, and they’d been a presence in six of the eight Marvel Cinematic Universe films prior to The Winter Soldier. The revelation that, this entire time, HYDRA have been hiding not only right under their noses, but beneath their very skin, cast the entire MCU in a totally different light. It’s an Earth-shattering revelation, and it’s handled brilliantly. On the other hand, it rather cheapens the interesting questions the film was raising in its opening act. The moral ambiguity and fear tactics of S.H.I.E.L.D. are meant to make Captain America question whether everything he and his friends fought and died for in World War 2 was worth it after all, and the shift from that to the absolutism of “Oh, it was all Nazi double-agents all along” is very jarring. It’s not a deal-breaker, and it leads to a sensational climax, but it’s a shame that the political thriller was rather lost at this point as we necessarily move back into acts of superhero derring-do.

After surviving a HYDRA missile strike on the bunker which destroys Zola, Cap and Black Widow get back to D.C. and enlist the help of Sam Wilson to strike back at HYDRA. They kidnap HYDRA mole Jasper Sitwell, a recurring character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who’s been knocking around since Thor, and interrogate him by throwing him off a roof and having Falcon catch him. Sitwell spills the details, before being killed by Winter Soldier. This leads to a shootout in the streets of Washington D.C. It’s this type of action sequence which really sets the Captain America films apart from the others in the MCU – this is grounded, violent and intense, and it’s brilliantly choreographed and staged. Cap gets into a hand-to-hand confrontation with Winter Soldier, and manages to knock his mask off during the fight. And Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan).

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Now anyone who knows their comic history will know that Bucky Barnes was Captain America’s sidekick back in the 40s, when Cap was fighting the Nazis in World War 2. Created to be Cap’s Robin, I would question the wisdom and responsibility of taking a child sidekick into an active warzone, but Bucky has always been popular. In the story which brought Cap into the present day, Bucky was killed in action, and historically he was always one of the few dead characters who would never be brought back, alongside Bruce Wayne’s parents Thomas and Martha and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. Bringing him back as a brainwashed assassin for a former Soviet colonel was a masterstroke for Ed Brubaker’s first storyline on the comic, and Bucky’s return has been largely well-handled since. Interestingly, he returned at roughly the same time as Batman’s deceased teenage sidekick, Jason Todd (the second Robin) as Red Hood. Also originally brought back as a villain, Todd has grappled with his morality and position as an antihero in the same way as Bucky. Comic book death can be a revolving door, but Bucky and Jason are examples of bringing the dead back for a good reason, and moving them beyond their deaths as better, more interesting characters.

While Cap and his team escape from HYDRA, we get a few broken flashbacks to what’s happened to Bucky over the last 70 years. Recovered from his fall from the train in The First Avenger, less one arm, he’s brought to Arnim Zola, who replaces his arm and goes about the process of breaking his mind and turning him into a weapon. It’s even revealed earlier, during the Zola scene, that Bucky assassinated President Kennedy. He’s now being run by Pierce, who demands that he kill Captain America and Black Widow so they can’t stop Project Insight, which is revealed to be a HYDRA plot to kill 20,000,000 imminent threats to them so they can rule the world.

Cap and crew are rescued by Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) and brought to a still-alive Nick Fury. They work through their plan to sabotage and destroy the helicarriers and Project Insight, and launch their attack on HYDRA. They infiltrate the Triskelion and unveil HYDRA to the remaining loyal agents, sparking a civil war within the building. This final action sequence is a perfect capstone to everything that has gone before it, taking place inside and above the building and the helicarriers, taking in shootouts, cannons, Falcon’s wing suit and a brutal battle between Cap and Bucky over the skies of D.C. Wrongs are righted, Fury kills Pierce and in the end, Bucky saves Steve’s life. S.H.I.E.L.D. is disbanded, Fury goes to Europe to hunt HYDRA cells and Cap and Falcon start looking for Bucky to try and bring him back to the world.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. It’s got the best action, the best story, it’s the most thought-provoking, the most intelligent, the most emotional and the most heartfelt. It’s a truly spectacular film. I’m a died-in-the-wool DC, Batman and Christopher Nolan fan when it comes right down to it, so when I say this, I don’t say it lightly – Captain America: The Winter Soldier is nearly as good as The Dark Knight. Superb.

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Captain America will return in Avengers: Age of Ultron. With these two delightful souls, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), more likely to just be called Pietro and Wanda Maximoff in the film due to the complicated rights issues with Fox. They seem to be the creations of Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschman), with the help of the Loki Pokey Stick from Avengers Assemble. All very intriguing.

Brad

Brad

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