We are coming down the backstretch now, and we get to ride the gravy train the whole way home, because over the next two days, we get to celebrate the 2014 era of Marvel films. I don’t know if a year like this will ever be recreated. It all started with The Winter Soldier. From there you get a shaky installment in the shaky franchise of Amazing Spider-Man. I’ll be honest, I forget all the criticisms while Spidey is throwing that manhole cover at Rhino. But, I get it. It’s fun to shit on Sony. Shortly thereafter, we get Days of Future Past, showing that Fox isn’t really making any mistakes any more, and finally the year wraps up with Guardians of the Galaxy, but I won’t waste any of your time today on what I will fanboy about tomorrow. The fact remains, The Winter Soldier competes for the best of these four movies, and this could not have been better news for the character that everyone hated until this movie.
Maybe this hatred stemmed from Chris Evan’s well-documented readiness to move onto other things after Avengers. You don’t do that to a fanbase that you are contractually obligated to work with four more times, and come out unscathed. Maybe the disdain is because he doesn’t have Thor’s hair, Tony’s wit, or Bruce’s anger management issues, and this at times causes him to sink into the background. My prevailing theory is that the root of this hatred is his costume in Avengers, which was an unforgivable competitor with the bat-nipples of Joel Schumacher’s erotic fantasy for worst superhero costume of all time. But, hey what do I know?
I’ll tell you what I know. This movie nails it. I don’t know which part to compliment first. The Russo brothers as directors was the first genius move. I’m not really sure who thought it would be a good idea. Up to this point, all they had done was a lot of TV shows. Now, don’t get me wrong, anyone who directed the pilots of both Arrested Development and Community — two of the best sitcoms of all time — has my respect and undying love. They just don’t seem like the first names on a list of potential directors for the political thriller which Kevin Feige has often labeled this movie. For some reason, it works though. The content of the movie, immediately magnified by the NSA leaks that occurred around the time of this movie’s release, is much more serious than that of other Marvel projects. Despite this seriousness, the Russo brothers do not bog us down in political mumbo jumbo but rather alleviate some of that intensity with well-placed cameos and humor.
Also, the choice of characters in this film is perfect. Evans’ and Johansson’s characters are perfect opposites that play off each other very well. However, each of them are established characters, and the inclusion of Fury and Hill gave us plenty of foundation that allows us to skip a good bit of exposition. However, there is a slough of new players that ensure that this movie is not Avengers 1.5. Bucky’s return was not particularly shocking for anyone with a little bit of knowledge of the Winter Solider’s history in comics. There is the inclusion of many other classic comic characters in The Winter Soldier as well, primarily the perfect Arnim Zola and Crossbones. The fact that these characters can be such an impressive force within this movie while still not being the major villains is a juggling feat that was thought impossible after Spider-Man 3. Zola meets his end after appearing in a form that does the only justice that his character could get on the silver screen.
And, Crossbones pulls the whole “I’m not actually dead” thing that this movie loves so much, and he is a force that we will see next year in Civil War.
You would think with all of the different characters in this movie, Captain America would begin to fall right back into that background (here on out referred to as Captain’s happy place). This simply doesn’t occur, as he gives his best performance of this franchise, capturing the two elements of a Captain America performance that have been missing from his character since his introduction. We have seen before that he is a man of unbreakable moral resolve, relentlessly pursuing justice within the law. We have also seen that he is a man stuck out of his time, having to constantly overcome a world that did not wait for him to change with it. These are the two essential ingredients for a successful Captain America, and at last they are both used in this film, and all of the conflict of the movie stems from the fact that the just system that he once fought with has not resisted that change that makes him so uncomfortable.
When this juxtaposition of goals occurs, we witness a crisis within Rogers’ character that not only will allow him to become the perfect leader for the Avengers in Age of Ultron, but it will also lead to a clash between him and Stark in the upcoming movie that will send the universe hurtling towards Civil War. The importance of this movie within the universe cannot be understated. It has only been outdone by Avengers in terms of setting up future franchises, but it does not feel like a movie made to create future tension. This movie has a sense of finality to it that is missing from many other Marvel movies. Are we curious to see what else happens to Bucky? Absolutely. But the final scene of him dragging Cap to shore serves as a pretty nice resolution there. Fury goes underground. Black Widow is going to always be shady, but good just when you need her to be. Cap and Falcon are going to continue to fight evil until they run out of wings and shields. It all has a sense of flow to the end that is a really great conclusion.
I do not mean to imply that this movie is without issues, because there are various. But, they really don’t matter. This movie confirms that Marvel is going to continue to take those risks attempted with Iron Man 3. They are allowing each of their characters to develop a voice that makes the movies seem much less serialized and tedious. This is a political thriller in the vein of a Bourne flick. Guardians of the Galaxy handles the space opera genre with grace. Later this year, we are going to get Ant-Man, which will be a superhero take on old 1970’s heist movies. Thor seems to be moving to a medieval war feel, but we are still pretty unsure about that one. Regardless, this is the first movie that proves that superhero does not have to be the defining genre of these movies. They now have the ability to reach into other spaces and make excellent commentaries and stories all the same. This is a true triumph for Marvel, and the shift in the universe that will be amplified in Age of Ultron finds its mark in The Winter Soldier, a tall order for a franchise with an admittedly weak first attempt. Cap doesn’t cave under the pressure, and provides us with an excellent addition to our franchise.