I’ll get it out of the way, right away: The Winter Soldier is the strongest outing from the MCU to date. It’s technically better than the Avengers, although that’s not a totally fair comparison: without all the heavy lifting required to bring the team together, this movie gets to narrow it’s focus to one man, Captain America. His morals, his inherent goodness, keeps this movie on a tight track.
Why was it so great then, when the second Thor was so mediocre? If the Avengers is the greatest superhero ensemble film, then Winter Soldier is, so far at least, the greatest superhero sequel. But why?
Honestly, I have no idea, and I literally just watched it. But I do know, from a life of geekdom that sequels are a tricky business. And they’re even trickier in the MCU where the movie has to wear so many different hats: it has to be a direct sequel to it’s previous film, it has to be a spiritual sequel to whatever big event film preceded it – the Avengers in this case – and it has to – always, always – set up future films and conflicts in a way that doesn’t detract from the story being told. Honestly, looking at the amount of boxes that needed to be ticked, I have no idea how it was accomplished. Particularly from a pair of guys best known for their work on Community. It’s so weird.
I’ve noticed a pattern with a lot of these movies, where certain elements will work (usually the cast) and other elements won’t quite pull it off (often times the story). In Winter Soldier, there’s just none of that, it’s a machine firing on all cylinders. The story is superb. It grows the world we’ve been setting up for 9 movies now, it’s relevant to real-world issues (wikileaks, drone warfare, etc), and like Iron Man 3, allows our hero to be heroic.
The story works both on the epic scale (planetary takeover by Hydra) and on the intensely personal: Steve’s childhood best friend and war buddy – Bucky Barnes, killed in action – is the Winter Soldier promised in the sub-title; a brain-washed assassin with jacked up abilities on par with our hero’s. When Steve finally learns the truth, it tears him apart, and you can see it tear him apart; it’s written plain as day on that stupid, puppy-dog, Captain America face:
Do you see the shininess in the eyes, there? That’s called acting. And while Chris Evans does the bulk of it in this movie (only fair in a Captain America film) every single other member of the cast -large or small – is completely believable in their role. Sometimes, as in the case of Scarlett Johansen, it will inform and expand a character we’ve already met, but the noobs pull their weight, too. I loved Falcon from his first scene, and thought Robert Redford was a brilliant choice for a corrupt politician. It was also the most we’ve ever seen of Nick Fury, and he too, kills it. Nick Fury is a total badass in this movie, and it was awesome to see.
And then there’s Bucky, the Winter Soldier himself:
As a brain-washed assassin for most of the film, Bucky doesn’t actually have much of a character – he’s more like a mindless force of destruction, like the disaster in a disaster movie. He’s terrifying, he’s great. As he begins to remember himself, however, we see the torment of those memories, and a lost, puppy-dog confusion. It’s only for a few scenes (and one of those a post credits scene), so this a character I very much am looking forward to seeing develop in the next film.
Also, look at this bad ass shield move from Cap:
So what else elevates this above other movies in the genre, and indeed, the MCU itself?
Well, I was hoping to get away without talking about this until I did Guardians next – because it will be especially relevant there – but the score of Winter Soldier is stellar. Just really, really good, and that’s not something you could ever say about any Marvel movie previous. Certainly the themes (for Thor and Captain America at least) were decent enough, and gave the flavor of the character they were supposed to represent, but they were also forgettable. If I don’t leave the movie theater humming music under my breath then something’s wrong; music sticks in my brain in a way I can’t even help. Everywhere else Marvel has shown boldness and vision – from actors to directors to the existence of the MCU to begin with – but, to put it simply, the soundtracks sucked. Not here. And it makes such a huge difference. Music hacks the brain in such unique and unusual ways, evoking emotions and pulling us deeper into a story – done well, at least. Done poorly it has the opposite effect, although Marvel movies have generally split the difference so far. It’s been a non-entity, which, while inoffensive, has held the movies back from greatness. It was a treat to find myself actually noticing the music for a change, is what I’m saying.
What else can I say? This movie was great. Have you seen it? My one quibble, and it’s so minor that I hesitate to bring it up; but I’ve gotta pad out the wordcount somehow, so here goes: I feel like Winter Soldier makes Iron Man 3 a weaker film in retrospect. Because, seriously, where the hell was Cap during that movie? At the beginning of this film we see that he’s become basically an errand boy for S.H.I.E.L.D., so did those guys not care about the Mandarin blowing up targets in the U.S., and then hacking broadcast networks to brag about it? That he was threatening the President on live TV? Like, I get that they’re international and I both respect and appreciate a fictional organization that isn’t completely U.S. centric, but… guys. C’mon. Destabilizing the United States is globally dangerous, and it’s impossible for me to believe that S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t care about that, or that Captain America was indifferent. I mean, it’s right there in the name: AMERICA.
This is the only downside to a post-Avengers MCU; now that all these heroes know and respect each other, it becomes harder to suspend disbelief when they fail to call one another for help in their solo ventures. I mean, I guess Thor gets a pass because the cell reception on Asgard is terrible, but otherwise… nu-uh. Doesn’t make sense, outside of the fact that these actors are contracted for a certain number of movies and they don’t want to blow their wad just to explain why Captain America is ignoring the worst series of terror attacks in U.S. history. So here’s what you do, Marvel, here’s how you fix this: hop in the time machine and go back to 2011 when you were developing Iron Man 3. And then, instead of wasting Chris Evans in a humorous (but ultimately useless) cameo in Thor 2, you use him in a 30 second throwaway scene that explains this minor inconsistency and lets me sleep at night. I like my sleep.
Ultimately, however, you know it: Winter Soldier is pretty well next to perfect. 10 stars and stripes out of 10. There’s some weird clandestine-y spy-shit in the beginning that went over my head, but honestly, you don’t need to understand who was behind the hijacking of the Lemurian Star, or who actually hired Batroc the Leaper. All you need to know it’s that it’s shady AF and Cap is not a fan, and that’s it. After that we’re swept away by events and the next thing you know Hydra’s taking over and we’ve got a movie. (For the record – and I did look this up – Nick Fury hired Batroc to hijack the ship to give him an excuse to send Black Widow on board so she could steal the files pointing to a Hydra conspiracy. Thanks Wikipedia!)