One of the early criticisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was that the boundations of shared storytelling would eventually weigh down the independence of movies. We’d hear filmmakers having a certain vision for the characters they nurtured, only to be confined by the franchise limitations imposed upon them. Joe Johnston couldn’t make another World War II centered movie around Steve Rogers because the character had to wind up frozen in ice so he could wake up just in time to be a part of The Avengers. Similarly, Kenneth Branagh couldn’t isolate Thor from earth permanently just because he was required in the fight against Loki, his adoptive brother, in Joss Whedon’s team-up ensemble.
In some ways, I see 2014 as the year that broke that notion to some extent. Despite being chained by the stretches of this common narrative propelling all stories, the directors of both 2014 MCU movies were able to do some remarkable things with their slew of characters in the franchise handed over to them. It’s no wonder then that both of 2014 movies feel unique to their director’s visions and have that directorial stamp that’s found missing in parts of other movies (not entirely, mind you). There are still challenges, stumbles but inspite of two attempts, directors Anthony and Joe Russo manage to take Steve Rogers and his alter-ego Captain America to uncharted territory, whie making a film that’s accessible to kids and adults alike.
Colloquially dubbed the Russo Brothers (a moniker they’ve since embraced), Anthony and Joe are really the movie’s real finds. As also are writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, though the duo were working with Marvel since the first Captain America. It’s in The Winter Soldier however, that their script really shines, all the nuances come to the fold and result in a plot that pays off past setups satisfyingly while introducing new threads of its own. Whether its the identity of the Winter Soldier, Arnim Zola’s menacing cameo or even the connection to the larger MCU and the Starks hinted at through newspaper cuttings, this Captain America sequel makes its shared universe narrative a strength and runs with it, 13 miles in 30 minutes.
Attempting different genres within the larger superhero movie trope, the writing-directing team are inspired by political thrillers, and develop The Winter Soldier as one. Conspiracy theories abound, and threats are a lot more grounded and plausible than those in other movies. Its topicality is also an interesting subject of discussion, coming on the heels of Edward Snowen’s disclosure about NSA surveillance, essentially what S.H.I.E.L.D. intends to do by launching three weaponized Helicarriers into the sky. Dubbed Project Insight, this initiative intends to wipe out threats before they have a chance to become one, through use of sophisticated algorithms that will narrow them down based on their life history, phone records and even SAT scores.
This is where some of the movie’s more dramatically compelling situations arise, with a lot of them found in dialogue as opposed to action. The opening discussions between Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers touch on some of these more sensisitive topics ranging from compartmentalization to security to privacy issues. With their differening takes on life, having lived in different eras, both stay true to their respective characters and offer compelling arguments for either side on the viability of Insight. Rogers, having lived in a far more simpler time where things were relatively black and white (no pun intended) is used to looking at the world that way. Consequently, he believes in punishing after the crime is committed. Fury, having seen the kind of things S.H.I.E.L.D. has had to deal with, more so after the Battle of New York, is strongly in favor of a proactive stance. The duo bounce off ideas delightfully and it’s a joy to witness the strong writing of perspectives at play here.
Of course Fury does listen to Rogers and gets an inkling of something shady behind the scenes when information is concealed from him as he hides it from others. Enter Alexander Pierce, Secretary of S.H.I.E.L.D. Internal Security who is to Fury as Fury is to Rogers. Their relationship reeks partly of friendship, partly mentorship and goes haywire when Pierce suspects Fury of covering up his tracks by sending a sub-unit within S.H.I.E.L.D. on covert ops missions. Robert Redford plays Pierce effortlessly, unfazed in the company of MCU regulars, with an air of uncertainty surrounding his intentions. His character is rooted in a firm belief in his actions and we even get a hint of the life he shared once with Fury.
Those are actually the two things The Winter Soldier does tactfully well. The first of these is introducing new characters with their own backstories. Anthony Mackie’s Falcon is not just another “sidekick” but a former para-rescueman dealing with the loss of his comrade Riley to a mission gone wrong. He now counsels ex-soldiers and helps them confront the horrors they deal with. Pierce is a man so strongly believing in harmony, he declined the Nobel Peace Prize and inspired Fury to work with him to build a better world. Bucky Barnes who makes his return goes through his own horrifying journey of cryofreezes and memory resets to become the cold-hearted assassin. Even Arnim Zola gets a moment or two to narrate his backstory and what brought him to the point in the film. Add to that the writers giving Fury a chance to tell his own personal story and you got yourselves some strong character work.
The second thing it does well is foster inter-character relationships resulting in some poignant exchanges and interpersonal dynamics. The strongest is between Rogers and Romanoff who find themselves inexplicably allied in their jobs, working for S.H.I.E.L.D.. Rogers also finds himself taking a liking to Sam Wilson, who he forges a new friendship with, even as he strives to rescue his decades-old friend Bucky Barnes from the trappings of HYDRA brainwashing. Pierce and Fury’s relationship suggests years of friendship built up working alongside each other as rivals. And a rather teary-eyed moment also sheds some light into Rogers’ relationship with his World War flame Peggy Carter, who now struggles remembering her man out of time.
What’s also important and noteworthy about The Winter Soldier was how much it deconstructed some essential elements that were a core part of the Captain America mythos. I’m largely referring to the twin organizations – S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA – two sides of the same coin. Not only is S.H.I.E.L.D. dismantled almost entirely, even HYDRA is pretty much done with by the time the movie’s plot has wrapped up in the sense that this is the last time we mostly see of HYDRA taking centerstage in an MCU plot. And Rogers is displaced in time but finds his calling fighting as a soldier for a different kin of an organization, which is the approach to Captain America that would be followed for a while until future movies did some serious damage.
Even so, The Winter Soldier is not light on action, and features some of the most hard-hitting, kinetic action sequences seen on film. The opening sequence with the Lemurian Star packs a powerful punch, with Cap’s hits landing like giant thuds. The hand-to-hand combat is supreme and just builds on superbly from one set-piece to the next; the film is quite relentless in depicting its action and the quick-cuts, shaky camerawork and the high-octane energy reflects in those one-on-one fights. And a splendid car chase some 30 minutes into the movie gives Fury more badassery to dole out than in all his movies thus far combined, let alone the fact that it’s impeccably executed and keeps you on the edge of your seat. While the colors are muted, there are some aesthetically pleasing shots by cinematographer Ben Davis and Henry Jackson’s music propels this to Dark Knight levels of awesomeness as far as the score goes. Jackman is truly a revelation and balances his tunes, especially Cap’s themes between the emotional memorable moments or the soaring, rising highs. Jackman’s Captain America theme builds on Alan Silvestri’s legacy and is good enough to enter the Smithsonian hall of fame.
The resulting mix of all these fine points is a movie that was widely received by critics and audiences alike. Despite releasing on an April timeframe, with Marvel eschewing the traditional May summer opening season for exploring new release dates, The Winter Soldier made to the tune of $714 million worldwide, more than double of what The First Avenger grossed. Too bad Marvel stopped doing its traditional One-Shots with the release of The Winter Soldier‘s Blu-Ray release. That minor gripe aside, the movie elevated a strong hero with a fledgling franchise into someone whose next movie could stand toe-to-toe contending for one of the most sought out events in cinematic history. The Russos did justice to Captain America’s anachronism with some subtle things such as Steve’s internationally changing notebook thrown in for good measure.
2014 was indeed a good year for Marvel. But unbeknownst to them, they were about to knock the socks off and sweep everyone off their feet.