Throughout the last eleven years, Marvel Studios has made cinematic history by creating a new form of saga: an interconnected universe on the grandest scale. Comprising of dozens of characters and properties filling twenty two films, multiple trilogies, and even branching into television and novels, the MCU has redefined what it means to create a universe in film. Perhaps Marvel Studios’ greatest achievement is their ability to maintain a high level of quality in their directors, actors, scripts and special effects. Although some would disagree about how to rank the films of the MCU, most would agree that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced a slew of good movies; some great, a few mediocre, but no bad or terrible films like some of the Marvel films before it (we’re looking at you The Amazing Spider-Man 2). However, many would also say that the MCU has been unable to create a top tier comic book movie that is on par with the likes of The Dark Knight, Logan or even Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Today we are looking at what I believe is the peak of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and what sets it apart from the other twenty one films in the saga: Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Recently I had the opportunity to rewatch the sequel to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, and after visiting the film in a few years I was floored at how well it separated itself from the rest of the MCU. The first of many films by the Russo Brothers in this universe, The Winter Soldier remains their best film, although I will say that the newly released Avengers: Endgame is their greatest achievement. But what factors set this film apart from its other counterparts? For me, the genre shift, action sequences and character and story development all create a powerful separation that puts The Winter Soldier on a pedestal above other Marvel Cinematic Universe films and more in-line with the greats of the comic book movie phenomenon.
The Genre Shift
By 2014 when this film released, the term “comic book movie” had been well established. Films of the early 2000s such as the X-Men and Spider-Man trilogies paved the way for what would eventually become a branch off of the action genre. However, when the Russo Brothers approached the character of Captain America, they wanted to try something new. Their goal was to create a 1970s political thriller using comic book characters, and they succeed on all cylinders. In an interview with Birth. Movies. Death. in 2014, the Russos discussed their influences when directing a film of this caliber, with Joe saying
It was natural in that we grew up on 70s thrillers, we grew up on action films. These were genres we loved as filmgoers. I’ve been reading comic books since I was 10 years old, and one of the first books I got was a Captain America/Falcon team-up book, so this felt like a 30 year dream come true for us.
The brothers even discussed other films from the 70s that influenced them, Joe saying “I can tell you this movie owes a big debt to Three Days of the Condor.” and the two continuing with this:
Joe: The French Connection was something we watched a hundred times. That was a huge influence on us. Blow Out.
Anthony: It was the whole paranoid conspiracy genre – All the President’s Men, The Parallax View. We were very much just absorbing – and we had absorbed it through our lives – the language of that genre. I think if you’re a fan of that genre you’ll see it being used again, and hopefully in an interesting and new way.
Similarly, The Dark Knight and Logan used the same approach. Director Christopher Nolan within the last year revealed that each of his films in The Dark Knight Trilogy have their own genre, with The Dark Knight being a “crime movie” as quoted by Total Film in the tweet below:
Christopher Nolan says each of his Bat movies is a different genre. Begins is “hero’s journey”. Dark Knight a “crime movie” comparable to Mann’s Heat. Rises is a “war film”. Genres defined by adversaries: mentor Ra’s al Ghul, terrorist Joker & “militaristic Bane” #cannes2018
— Total Film (@totalfilm) May 12, 2018
But what does a genre shift do the heighten the film? By deviating from the norm of a straight action-packed comic book film, you exceed audience expectations, offering them something different than what they expected when they enter the theater. While action is an important part of a comic book film, when a filmmaker can combine both great action set pieces and a powerful story by incorporating or highlighting a particular genre, the film ultimately becomes better.
As I just mentioned, while using a genre shift and a powerful and compelling story are important aspects of making a comic book film more distinguishable, the action needs to still be top tier. What The Winter Soldier does so well with its action is uses powerful fight choreography combined with carefully calculated special effects to create action set pieces that look unique and believable simultaneously.
Let’s first look at the opening action sequence aboard the Lemurian Star, where the Russos really shine with filming action. The majority of the fights occur between Captain America, a super soldier, and the pirates aboard the ship. Because of his enhanced strength, when Captain America hits or kicks a pirate, the villain flies through the air at a high rate of speed, which looks different than if a normal human hit or kicked them. You can see the examples of this in the video below:
The Dark Knight is able to use this as well, with having Batman be such a trained fighter that he can disarm and disable enemies at an alarming rate of speed. While that world was grounded and meant to be as realistic as possible, Batman’s ability to attack at this speed was a visual separation from realism and was more pleasing to the viewer, just like Captain America’s abilities.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the action throughout the entire film however is how the Russo’s use Captain America’s shield. As seen in the clip above, the way that Cap moves his shield is unlike anything we’ve seen prior or after in the MCU. It seemed that except for a few moments in Captain America: Civil War that the Russo’s forgot the potential they had with the shield in their future films. The use of the shield was once again another way to visually separate the film’s action by exposing a new form of quick, concise combat to the MCU that was sadly never quite replicated again.
Last, I wanted to touch on the hand-to-hand combat used in The Winter Soldier, particularly the sequence between both titular characters in the streets of Washington D.C. This sequence is still one of the MCU’s best, and highlights the dedication of the stunt team, choreographers, and actors on set. Here is it again in all of its glory:
Ultimately what separates this film from others is its ability to use realism in circumstances where powered or enhanced beings are fighting normal humans. In other comic book films where heroes with all types of abilities are shown fighting robots, aliens, or other powered beings, the filmmakers and the production seem to create an equal power struggle where the heroes are evenly matched. This makes the fight choreography appear like a normal fight, whereas The Winter Soldier makes the fighting visually different, creating a memorable fight sequence that the audience member sticks with and finds more exciting.
Character and Story Development
Connecting the film back to the plot, ultimately it is the story and character arcs that separate this piece from the rest of the MCU. While many MCU films have had very strong character arcs, character developments and character moments, no MCU film has been able to work with its characters in a way that this film did.
Beginning with Captain America himself, we have Cap at his most relatable, a man out of time trying to find his way back into society. The film uses jokes, references and above all a small love story to humanize this super soldier and make him more relatable. The first way the film does this is through his to-do list, in which Steve has many songs, films and even food items to learn about from his time in the ice. The filmmakers even made different lists for different countries, ensuring that audiences around the world would be able to relate to the man out of time. The best way for an audience to relate to a character though is through love, which Captain America experiences in one way or another throughout the film. From his tangled and up in the air relationship with Natasha Romanoff to the beginnings of what would be a brief moment of affection with Sharon Carter to his relationship with his long lost love Peggy Carter, Steve experiences three stages of love in one film, allowing audience members of all ages to relate to those feelings that Steve encounters.
One character introduced in the film is Sam Wilson, A.K.A. The Falcon. What I particularly love about this version of the character is that he is just a guy, no abilities or gifts. A veteran who helps others with PTSD, Sam shows he is a loyal soldier and a good friend, helping Cap when called upon. The Russos again talked to Birth. Movies. Death. about introducing Falcon, which they had this to say:
Joe: Part of our deconstructionist approach is to use the Ultimates version of the character. For me, when I was a kid, that interpretation of the character, the roots of the character, were a little stereotypical. We were looking for a more interesting interpretation of the character. In the MCU you have to make choices about characters in order to maximize their impact on each other.
While Sam doesn’t have a lot of character development in this film, I am always amazed at how well his character is introduced and how he is transitioned into this larger than life world. Sam is also one of the few MCU characters who does not have powers or abilities, and both the screenwriters and directors use that to their advantage in this film, with only Steve Rogers and and Bucky Barns being the only two “enhanced” characters in the entire film. It helps to keep the story grounded and stress the political thriller theme of the film.
Speaking of the themes and genre of the film, let’s look a little deeper into the plot of this film and how that plays a factor into the excellence of the film. On top of approaching the story from a political thriller standpoint, The Winter Soldier offers a twist that turns the main characters lives upside down and created ramifications that are still being seen in the MCU today. This twist is of course that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been infiltrated and controlled by Hydra since the earliest days of its creation. Not only did this create Steve Rogers distrust of the government (which would later play into Civil War), it also decommissioned S.H.I.E.L.D. and left fan favorite characters Nick Fury, Maria Hill and Black Widow on their own to fend for themselves. While a new Avengers Facility was built in place of S.H.I.E.L.D. the agency has never returned to its true form on the big screen, with the remnants of the group in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on their own and disconnected from the film characters.
Like The Dark Knight, the plot takes many plot twists and turns yet remains contained and concise while leaving the door open for future storytellers to continue the work done in the film. In the case of The Dark Knight, we have the death of many public officials, the assumed death of Jim Gordon, and the death of Rachel Dawes. By bringing the audience along for the ride during a powerful contained and concise plot, the audience can feel more in the moment, heightening the level of anticipation and emotion the filmmaker wants you to feel. The best of comic book films as well as the best of cinema execute this flawlessly.
Ultimately what groups Captain America: The Winter Soldier into one of the best comic book movies of all time is its ability to shift the genre, create a story and vision that separates itself from the competition, and still offer action and fun while taking itself seriously. While I would not put The Winter Soldier in my top five comic book films, I would put it in my top ten and it might be the only MCU film to be in my top ten. An elevated piece of cinema through and through, this film is the peak of the MCU and a reminder that breaking from the mold is the way to go.