Little did we know how much Captain America: The Winter Soldier would alter the map of the entire MCU. It throws a full spanner into the works in a completely organic way and it shakes up the stakes for the films that followed it, gave the writers’ room of the Agents of SHIELD TV show a near insurmountable problem to work themselves around, and managed to send my boy, Captain Steve Rogers, shooting up my Avenger rankings to near the very top. In fact, the rest of the MCU can in some way trace its way back to this film because its director duo, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, directed Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. Not bad for a director duo most known for work on irreverent TV sitcoms.

What makes The Winter Soldier tick is in its commitment to not being a superhero film. It maintains a ground-level approach to the whole thing from the start with some superheroic touches thrown in more and more until its world-savingly massive conclusion. The Winter Soldier is, at its core, a cold war spy thriller, with writer Christopher Markus citing Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man as influences for the film. There is a paranoid edge to so much of this film, with our boy Cap continuously adapting to this new modern world around him as well as working for an ever-evolving agency that he had already come to blows with during The Avengers.

Having a spy thriller halfway through Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is just the thing the franchise needed, following in the footsteps of the absolutely unique efforts of Iron Man 3 and the space adventures in Guardians of the Galaxy that succeeded it. As an aside, I’m convinced that Marvel does its sequels far better than its first instalments, with The Winter Soldier being the perfect example. Take the fundamentals of the original and transplant them into a new era. Phase Two, on rewatch, feels like Marvel at their most creative and most risk-taking, with mostly all of them paying off.

The Winter Soldier wastes no time. We have a brilliantly playful opening in which we meet Sam “Falcon” Wilson and the ever-quotable “on your left” line as Steve races around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Steve hasn’t changed. He still has the soldier mentality of getting up at the crack of dawn to train, then uses a lot of his time to learn about what he’s missed thanks to his handy notebook in which he notes recommendations from anyone and everyone.

 

 

Once all our key players are established after Scarlett Johansson’s ever-delightful Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff rocks up, we literally dive into a fantastically shot and choreographed stealth sequence in which Cap and Natasha infiltrate a cargo ship taken under control by French pirates. This was the moment I knew this was going to be different. There was something about the confidence of the entire sequence with its use of Cap’s strength and the physics of his shield told me the Russo Brothers’ knew this character. They knew what his powers were for, they knew what they should be used for, and they deploy them terrifically here.

This becomes evident throughout all of The Winter Soldier’s action sequences. The best thing about them is how they are all consistently kept at ground level, delving into moments of supreme heroism, but they’re used sparingly in favour of the tiny moments that make up Steve, Natasha, and Sam’s abilities. None of them can reverse time, control lightning, or turn into a giant green rage monster. Steve can punch really hard and has an indestructible shield, Natasha is a highly talented fighter, and Sam has a jetpack. These aren’t the Avengers. They’re soldiers with a few tricks up their sleeves. And that’s what makes this film so special.

All of what I just said is at its best in the street fight when Steve finally comes face to face with our titular villain. It’s fast, it’s frenetic, it’s raining bullets and there are more than a few punches to the face. It’s absolutely brilliant. It’s refreshing to have action scenes like this when, just two films earlier, we had 40 different AI controlled Iron Man suits wreaking havoc. The Winter Soldier is just a bunch of talented soldiers squaring off, trying every trick in their respective books to beat their foe.

What constantly remains a focus for the directors is maintaining the character focus throughout. The reveal that our villain is, in fact, Steve’s lifelong friend, Bucky Barnes, who he thought died back in World War II, would not have worked had the film not carefully reintroduced us to their relationship throughout the film. It established a firm connection back to the events of The First Avenger that, while obvious, plants the seed of who the Winter Soldier could be. Even though for the audience it may be somewhat evident, Steve’s devastation that he’s been fighting his dead friend this whole time is a heartbreaker.

 

 

Everything to do with Steve and Bucky’s relationship is given extra depth and nuance as we race towards the conclusion. Bucky’s memory is slowly returning to him and adding extra complications to the fight, all of which can be summed up in the returning line “I’m with you to the end of the line.” Even faced with certain death, with Bucky’s vibranium arm around his neck, Steve won’t quit on his friend, and squeaks out the line as his potential final breath. Even as someone who was never hugely attached to the relationship originally, this hits hard and establishes Steve and Bucky as one of the best formed relationships in the MCU, and the true heartbeat of this film.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I was never Steve Rogers’ biggest fan. I think The First Avenger is a good but not great entry into the MCU and I always found Steve to be nothing more than a good hero but not the leader I wanted him to be. The Avengers made great strides towards improving my opinion of him, but he was still behind Tony Stark, Thor, and Bruce Banner as my favourite Avengers. That all changed with The Winter Soldier.

Cap’s development as a hero is this film’s crowning achievement. Steve Rogers only knows one thing – war. The last thing he remembers before waking up was war, he was defrosted and shoved back into another war, and now he’s found himself fighting a war on every front as his web of trust unravels around him. Putting Steve in a high-stress situation where the company he worked for has been working under an altogether different guise for decades was hard work enough, but when you throw a back-from-the-dead Bucky into things, you really begin to test Steve’s mettle. The manner in which Steve approaches every confrontation is the stuff of a leader, and he finally gets his chance to show himself as the true leader of The Avengers.

I honestly feel I could talk about The Winter Soldier for pages and pages. I’ve said all I have already without mentioning the now iconic elevator fight, Robert Redford, Bucky punching Cap’s shield, Bucky’s knife flip, Nick Fury’s terrific car chase sequence, and Cap taking down an entire plane with his shield and his fists. This film is full to the brim with stellar Marvel action, and it’s all crammed into a well-written, Cold War, spy thriller. The fact this film isn’t discussed more as one of the best action films of the decade is beyond me. At the time, I thought it was the best film in the MCU. 12 films later, that hasn’t changed.

 

Directed by: Anthony & Joe Russo
Cast: Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders