‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (2014) Review

Set two years after the Battle of New York, Captain America: The Winter Soldier continues the story of World War II super soldier Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) as he tries to find his way through the modern world. Not only is it a strong sequel, but it is considered by fans and critics alike to be one of the best films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

After the events of Marvel’s The Avengers, Captain America maintains his working relationship with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), as a SHIELD operative. The film’s basic plot follows Cap as he discovers that SHIELD has been infiltrated by the remnants of Hydra, the fascist terrorist organization led by the Red Skull during World War II. The Allies assumed that Hydra had been defeated with the fall of Nazi Germany. We find out, however, that they merely changed their tactics. Their experiences during the war taught Hydra that humanity would never surrender its freedom willingly. As a result, they began to covertly sow conflict, chaos, and discord throughout the decades following Germany’s defeat. In creating an unstable world, they felt they could manipulate people into trading their freedom for security.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds on several levels. First, it works as a sequel to the first Cap film.  Though the story references characters and events in The First Avenger, the plot is self-contained. Any backstory the viewer needs is told in the form of one or two brief flashbacks and an in-story historical display about Captain America at the Smithsonian. One of the key elements of the plot is that a mysterious and legendary assassin, the titular Winter Soldier, turns out to be Cap’s best friend from childhood: Bucky Barnes. Barnes was also the only member of the Howling Commandos to fall in action during the war. Because he was presumed dead, discovery and the relationship between Rogers and Barnes provides the emotional center of the film.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier also works because it effectively incorporates issues currently faced by America. “Timely” is a word that is overused these days to describe film and television that tackles subjects that are remotely political or cultural in nature. In the case of The Winter Soldier, it’s accurate.

The means by which Hydra/SHIELD plans to take out its enemies is through a trio of satellite-linked helicarriers that will roam the world’s skies, preemptively assassinating any potential threats. Kind of sounds like the drone assassination program begun in the Bush years and expanded by Obama, doesn’t it? The conversations among the characters also bring to mind things like the Patriot Act and the NSA spying scandal. When the disembodied consciousness of former Hydra scientist Arnim Zola reveals his Project: Insight algorithm that will help Hydra identify potential threats, it brings to mind the ways Facebook and other social media entities track their users’ information, web habits, and behavior as consumers.

In fact, the creatives behind the film have mentioned some of these very things as being inspirations behind the film’s content.  Here is co-director Anthony Russo, quoted in an article that appeared in Film Journal International:

“We were all reading the articles that were coming out questioning drone strikes, pre-emptive strikes, civil liberties — [Barack] Obama talking about who they would kill… We wanted to put all of that into the film…”

In addition to raising current political issues, this serves to contrast the present that Steve Rogers woke up in with the world that he knew as a kid and young adult. Imagine going to sleep in the black and white world of “democracy vs. fascism” and waking up in the post-9/11 weirdness of today.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier also does a good job of translating characters and situations from the comics to film.  Whereas the MCU portrayal of the other members of Marvel’s “big three” has deviated at least somewhat from their characterization in the source material, Captain America is pretty much the same person on the page and on film. He is the same brave, moral, stalwart hero.

Winter Soldier demonstrates that, like the Cap of the comics, this Steve Rogers will never take the side of the American government when it overreaches or acts in an unethical way. The Captain America of the films is darn near a libertarian when he speaks to Nick Fury about the immorality of preemptive strikes and the invasion of people’s privacy. “This isn’t freedom, this is fear. We are holding a gun to every citizen’s head and calling it security,” he says.

None of this is a surprise to those who know the Steve Rogers of the comics and it was great to see this aspect of his personality put on the big screen. The portrayal of Cap’s character is spot-on right down to the speech he gives over the intercom of SHIELD headquarters when he and his friends begin their mission to sabotage Project: Insight. If Captain America has a super-power, it is the ability to inspire people.

The film, just like its predecessor The First Avenger, proves that Cap is always willing to lay his life on the line when it’s required. In the climactic battle between Rogers and The Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes, once the mission is accomplished and the helicarriers are destroyed, Rogers stops fighting. In an attempt to save his friend, he gives up. He would rather die himself than kill Bucky. In an emotional call back that echoes the words of Bucky after the funeral of Steve’s mother, he says, “I’m with you till the end of the line.” He then falls into the Potomac as the helicarrier breaks apart. It works, though. Bucky remembers enough to pull Steve from the water and deposit him on the riverbank before he escapes.

Not only does the film portray Captain America accurately, but it also incorporates characters and themes from the comics. The Winter Soldier is a loose adaptation of material from the acclaimed run by Ed Brubaker. One of Cap’s best friends from the modern-day, Sam Wilson/The Falcon, is introduced. The Falcon has since gone on to become an Avenger, just like in the comics.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier adds further depth to the friendship between Steve Rogers and Black Widow. Their time spent together as fugitives serves to enrich their relationship as well as the story. They have a chemistry that beats anything between the “science bros” of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner.

Finally, with the exception of the last act’s mission to destroy the SHIELD helicarriers, this film chooses to use stunt work and practical effects to construct effective action sequences. There are plenty of effects shots, but they aren’t front and center. The raid on the hijacked cargo ship that starts the film, the elevator fight, and escape, the action sequence when the Winter Soldier ambushes Cap, Black Widow, and the Falcon as they drive down the freeway are all immaculately choreographed and wonderfully realized set pieces that are legitimately thrilling. Marvel proves here that they don’t need alien invasions and space ships to take an audience’s breath away.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is easily a top-tier entry in the MCU canon for all these reasons. This film firmly establishes Steve Rogers as the beating heart of the Avengers and solidifies him as a fan favorite. With the possible exception of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers is likely the most important character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This film takes the solid start that The First Avenger and Marvel’s The Avengers provided Captain America and enshrines him as a vital part of Marvel’s record-breaking franchise.