After the fun, but mostly forgettable Thor: The Dark World, Marvel Studios brought forth what a lot of people consider to be its best film yet. In a lot of ways, this is the MCU’s equivalent to The Dark Knight and Logan. It stands on its own as something special. But let’s start with the movie’s development.
In a way, development for The Winter Soldier began as early as 2005, with the first major story arc in Ed Brubaker’s run re-introducing Bucky Barnes as a brainwashed Soviet assassin. It’s often referred to as one of the best Captain America stories ever made, and at the very least, it’s probably the best Captain America story from the comics since the turn of the century. It’s pretty much a straight espionage story that happens to star superheroes, and espionage is something that writer Brubaker does consistently well.
Before Captain America: The First Avenger released, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely announced that Marvel already hired them to write its sequel, but that it probably wouldn’t release until 2014. By March of 2012, Marvel narrowed the possible directors to three candidates, before ultimately choosing brothers Anthony and Joseph Russo. The writers chose to adapt the Winter Soldier story pretty much right away. However, it took them six months to convince themselves that they could do it. While preparing to write Winter Soldier, they watched a number of political thrillers, including The Parallax View and Marathon Man. They said those movies helped them figure out how to convey Captain America’s trust issues with SHIELD.
Markus said, “If you put that 1940’s man in the present day geo-politics everything is going to seem like a conspiracy. It’s just going to seem dirty and unhanded and shifty, and people won’t be telling the truth.” He referred to Three Days of the Condor as the main source of the script structure, with Winter Soldier mirroring the plot point of the main protagonist being chased by a threat they only discover about half-way through the film. They also felt this approach mirrored the way Stan Lee reinvented Captain America in the 60’s and 70’s, with how the Captain dealt with events like the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige described the Winter Soldier movie as a political thriller.
They also decided early on that Steve Rogers would be paired with Black Widow and Nick Fury, a pairing that would work in the movie’s favour. It also makes sense for Steve, considering that unlike Iron Man and Thor, he didn’t really have anywhere else to go after The Avengers. The writers also considered including Hawkeye, but they couldn’t figure out how to work him in without giving him some of Black Widow’s moments. Adding to that, they would also need to work around Jeremy Renner’s busy schedule at the time, and that just didn’t work out.
Although the movie does make use of CGI, especially in the climax with three automated helicarrier gunships, the movie relies more on practical effects than digital rework. They also aimed for realistic stunts and kinetic fight scenes. Most of the fight scenes were staged for months, with the freeway fight being a bit last minute specifically to highlight the characters’ struggle to survive. The Russo brothers mentioned The Heat as a reference to the longer action scenes, hoping to make it feel more visceral and dangerous. They also mentioned the vault heist from the first Mission Impossible as a reference to some of the tighter action scenes, like the elevator fight and the assassination attempt on Nick Fury’s life, where “very likeable characters are put in impossible situations that the audience is put on the edge on how they’d escape.”
350 different version soft the movie were made, to accompany the different formats and international localizations. All of these versions were completed in 17 days, as opposed to the normal 3-4 weeks. One such example of localized changes was Captain America’s list of things to check out at the start of the film. The first five items on the list were different depending on the region the movie was being shown.
Captain America released in 32 markets on March 26, 2014, and about a week later in North America. It set the record for most IMAX screens worldwide for an April release, at 668. It ended up earning $714 million worldwide on a $177 million budget, making an easy profit. The movie was received well critically, receiving a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7.6/10. Variety magazine praised the movie’s use of cliffhanger moments and action, but how it also contained a lot of great character moments. Entertaining Weekly’s review stated that it’s “the first superhero film since the terrorist-infected The Dark Knight that plugs you right into what’s happening now.” The reviews from Los Angeles Times and The New York Times weren’t as positive, both calling it uninspired.
As for myself, I’ve already made it clear how I feel about this movie. There are other movies in the Cinematic Universe that are very good, but this one stands above the rest. In an age where political conspiracies seem to be getting more and more frequent, this movie is just as relevant today as when it released 5 years ago. The nature of the film’s main plot twists shifted the direction of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its ripples eventually leading to the shattering of the Avengers team. Yet at the same time, it’s a deeply personal story for Steve Rogers, as he finds out that not only did his best friend survive his apparent death during the Second World War, but he’s been brainwashed into a dangerous assassin working for the very threat he believed to have stopped back in the 1940’s. It’s that mixed emotion of hope and dread that really sets this movie apart from the rest of the MCU.
And while you could say some of those things also work well in the Russo brothers’ other MCU releases so far, this one works better because it focuses on a smaller cast, making for a tighter movie. It expands on Black Widow’s character much further than any of her other appearances. It balances out the movie’s darker themes with a smart and often subtle sense of humour. It’s loaded with memorable fight scenes, whether it be the previously mentioned claustrophobic elevator fight, the opening battle on a hijacked military boat, or the stealthier sequences. Pretty much everything about this movie works not only as an individual element, but it all comes together to one cohesive whole.
All of the performances are great too. Chris Evans was already good as Captain America in his first two appearances, but he’s clearly grown comfortable in the role here. He oozes with conviction to his beliefs, whether it be his own personal code of honour, or in trying to help his friend rediscover himself. Scarlett Johannson is great as Black Widow, showing a wider range of emotions in this movie than either of her previous appearances. Anthony Mackie Is charismatic as the newly introduced Sam Wilson/Falcon, and you can easily understand why he and Steve Rogers quickly become friends. Samuel L. Jackson is clearly having fun portraying SHIELD super-spy Nick Fury, and it’s hard not to have fun with him. And last but not least, Sebastian Shaw reprises his role as Bucky Barnes, finding that perfect balance between raw intensity, focus, and confusion when his memories start to return.
Next up is Guardians of the Galaxy, another brilliant 2014 release for the MCU. After that, it’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, and my opinion on that movie has changed quite a bit over the years. Then we wrap up Phase 2 with Ant Man.