Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.
2014 was arguably one of the most important, influential years for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Two films were released that year, ones which were decidedly dissimilar in tone and approach, yet paved the way for the franchise’s priorities and sensibilities all the way up to Avengers: Endgame. With Guardians of the Galaxy, Kevin Feige et al. learned that committing full-bore to oddball sci-fi comedy featuring talking raccoons and trees wasn’t the alienating risk it could have been. And with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel proved it could crib from more, let’s say, visceral and mature genres of filmmaking and (at least in part) interrogate the series’ own politics.
Guardians of the Galaxy appealed to the giddy space-nerd tween in all of us; Winter Soldier showed that the MCU was also willing to grow up a bit.
What do you do with a man like Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in the 21st century? In his debut entry, The First Avenger, he was a superlative example of the values of his time, a avatar for good old-fashioned American exceptionalism (without, of course, the morally creaky holdovers of racism and toxic masculinity). He’s a mighty warrior who knows what it’s like to be the little guy. He “doesn’t like bullies”. But what happens when the American security apparatus you work for is the bully?
Joe and Anthony Russo, who before this were known for directing episodes of sitcoms like Community and Arrested Development and the Owen Wilson comedy You, Me, & Dupree, were an interesting choice to take on a dark, harrowing twist on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Then again, like James Gunn that same year, they’ve also proven the genius of Feige’s formula — take unlikely directors with a specific perspective and let them play around in a $100 million sandbox.
Here, they take the Joe Johnston-style Boy Scout and dump him in the middle of a gritty (for the MCU) conspiracy thriller so indebted to Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men that they stunt-cast Robert Redford as the villain. The dramatic tension, and the way it changes Steve, makes for some of the most complicated politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Winter Soldier showed that the MCU was also willing to grow up a bit.
Now, it must be said that all art is political; even if you don’t think your favorite film or TV show, however escapist in nature, is making a political statement, it is, whether intentionally or no. Phase One of the MCU doesn’t preach to the camera, but its very nature implicitly touches on everything from the military-industrial complex’s influence in foreign conflicts (Iron Man) to the perils of imperialism (Thor) to the morality of war (The First Avenger).
But Phase Two started looking inward for its political subjects — where Iron Man 3 interrogated Tony Stark’s capitalistic narcissism and his psychological dependence on his suits, Winter Soldier puts the unflinching moral certitude of a man like Steve Rogers through the complex sociopolitical wringer of a post-9/11 America. Here, its politics are front and center, and ripe for the picking.
To their credit, the Russo brothers (along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) dive into this with all the nuance a $100 million tentpole that still needs to play nice with the US military can be afforded. If the Battle of New York in The Avengers is the MCU’s 9/11, SHIELD’s Project Insight — a trio of automated helicarriers designed to algorithmically ascertain any potential threat and eliminate it — is America’s hawkish foreign and domestic policy in its wake. And it ain’t a good thing; this isn’t the America Rogers grew up in, his discomfort with the whole affair a big, winking sign that America has lost its way. “This isn’t freedom; this is fear,” Steve warns Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
Now, to err on the side of not giving The Winter Soldier too much credit, the film doesn’t go as far as it should in its political introspection. In a perfect world, SHIELD would be the true bad guy, a draconian security apparatus revealed to have lost its way, requiring a complete systemic rebuild. Instead, we learn that the evil Nazi group HYDRA had secretly infiltrated SHIELD and were truly behind all the really bad stuff, so we don’t have to feel guilty about watching Cap and crew gun down their own countrymen.
It’s an easy way out of asking the hard questions — does our military supremacy really offer a net good to the world? Do we really know what’s best for everyone, and is it our right to impose it? — which keeps The Winter Soldier frustratingly out of greatness’ reach. I mean, the fact that SHIELD was able to go along with the secret Nazi plan to thought-police the world without ever realizing there were secret Nazis around them is maybe a strong case for SHIELD’s utter incompetence. (One wonders if they would have followed through had they not had an ABC show to maintain.)
In the end, it’s the exact kind of ‘bad apples’ argument people make about police brutality or ICE: it’s not the organization that needs fixing, we just need better people to run it.
Apart from this major misstep, though, Winter Soldier feels like a more grown-up MCU, both in performance and in presentation. Evans has hardly been better as Rogers, imbuing him with a bittersweet sense of melancholy at the past he lost, and a dogged determination to resist the bitter cynicism of the world he was unfrozen into.
The supporting players are also a treat: the Cap-Black Widow dynamic is a lovely one on which to hang a spy thriller, and Scarlett Johansson finally gets to show some much-needed personality for Natasha, one that isn’t filtered through the empty Joss Whedon snark machine. Anthony Mackie‘s Falcon debuts here, and he’s a warm, reliable presence whose chemistry with Johansson and Evans sealed his fate as a soon-to-be Avenger. Fury’s particular brand of sly paranoia gets center stage in the first act of the film, and he gets a killer chase scene early on (though the optics of watching a black man get chased through the streets and shot at by police is maybe more jarring than they intended).
But Winter Soldier also innovates in its action, opting for Bourne-style handheld camerawork and visceral, fast-paced fisticuffs that have absolutely informed Marvel’s action playbook from here on. Highway chases feel like Heat turned up to 11, and characters move more like The Raid than the lumbering punch-outs of superhero films past. It’s a smart move for someone like Cap, who just has muscles, gumption and a gimmicky shield. He can’t fly, and he can’t shoot energy blasts at people — he’s a soldier through and through, so why not turn him into a mix of Solid Snake and Tony Jaa?
And then there’s good old Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who’s never been more effective (or effective at all, frankly) than here. At moments, he feels vestigial, borne of a need to inject a blatantly comic-booky antagonist into what otherwise plays its grim politics straight. But he’s a delightful vehicle for some of the best action in the franchise, and also works as a mirror to Steve: another man out of time, working for the other side, fully committed to the moral compromise a post-9/11 world seemingly requires.
And yet, Rogers’ innate goodness, his belief in people to do the right thing, his love (in whatever form you want to read it) for his friend, wins out. Even in the bleak, concrete-grey world of Winter Soldier, a glimmer of old-fashioned values (personified by Cap swapping his navy-blue, minimalist uniform for the bright kitschy WWII getup) may be just what this world needed.
While other entries in the MCU has certainly stood out in their own ways, there’s undoubtedly a Marvel before Winter Soldier and a Marvel after it. The Winter Soldier solidified the Russo brothers’ combination of wry humor and tactile, introspective filmmaking as the right kind of tonal course correction for the series, proving that Marvel’s brand of goofiness can still occasionally ground itself in some kind of emotional, political pathos. Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy proved that same year that you can kick back and giggle at a talking tree while ironically playing ’70s yacht rock hits. But Winter Soldier also allowed you to think about the American security apparatus while watching big muscley men punch each other while giving each other long, manly glares.