For five whole years, I stopped watching Marvel movies entirely. When I look back, this strikes me as a bit odd. While I certainly was tired of comic book movies and found the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe concept to be distastefully mercenary, the last Marvel movie I watched before deciding I had had enough was Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I watched it in theaters, and I liked it a lot — so much so that I considered it to pretty easily be the best of the MCU films I had seen (i.e., all of them except for Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World). Then I proceeded to not watch another Marvel movie for five years. It wasn’t until the hype train around Avengers: Endgame gained serious momentum that I decided to watch some of the movies released in between like Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). It was, I figured, the bare minimum required for getting myself up to speed. After watching all three, I went to see Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame.
I enjoyed all of those, but none quite lived up to my memory of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a superhero film with slam-bang action scenes so lively and intense they recall the best fight sequences and car chases from the Bourne films. The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) come to mind specifically here, particularly in the way the action is edited so kinetically and paired with pounding, string-driven music. In fact, considering how disappointing The Bourne Legacy (2012) and Jason Bourne (2016) apparently turned out to be — I haven’t seen either one, so I can’t comment on their supposedly lackluster quality — it’s safe to say The Winter Soldier is probably the best Bourne movie post-Ultimatum we’ll ever get. While The Winter Soldier certainly isn’t as gritty and realistic as Supremacy or Ultimatum, it does borrow enough of that sensibility to get away with coming across as somewhat more grounded even though some elements of the film are undeniably over the top.
However, consider this: compared to the other Avengers who have been given their own films thus far, Captain America (Chris Evans) is easily the least over the top of them. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)? Totally ridiculous. Thor (Chris Hemsworth)? He’s a god-like figure from outer space who can fly. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.)? He can fly and shoot beams at people when he puts on his suit. Captain America’s powers are pretty minor by comparison: he’s a super soldier, yes, but he’s more like an Olympic athlete on steroids with a shield than a superhero. Playing his sidekick in The Winter Soldier is fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), who in April 2020 will receive a movie of her own called Black Widow but in Iron Man 2 (2010), The Avengers (2012) and here in The Winter Soldier doesn’t really display any superpowers of her own. She’s a highly effective spy whose fighting skills are supreme to the point that it’s a bit over the top, but they aren’t exactly superpowers.
As the villain, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is similarly drawn: he’s Steve Rogers’s equal in more ways than one. Obviously, he’s Steve’s former best friend, so there’s that angle, but after his capture and rehabilitation by the Russians into their version of a super soldier, he’s pretty much exactly like Captain America in terms of what he can do. Steve’s fast and strong; Bucky’s fast and strong. Steve carries a shield with his left arm; Bucky’s entire left arm is a bionic arm. Both have enhanced powers, to be sure, but not to the point of total ridiculousness. And then there’s Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a military veteran who uses his pararescue background to become the Falcon, who can fly thanks to advanced wing technology. Unrealistic, yes, but enabled strictly by technology that isn’t that outlandish within the context of the rest of the movie. This is a long way of saying that throughout Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you never see anything that is so over the top it requires a larger than usual suspension of disbelief.
2011‘s Captain America: The First Avenger is very good for what is, but it’s pretty ludicrous. The villain is a guy that, when he takes Hugo Weaving‘s face off, has a red skull. The tesseract thing that Red Skull is after is obviously totally absurd and fantastical and in no way based in reality. As I pointed out in my review, it’s basically an Indiana Jones movie, which works fine for that story, especially since it takes place during World War II. The Winter Soldier basically dispenses with these histrionics and opts for an approach that’s played significantly more straight, even though there are plenty of lighter moments to be sure. Taking over for First Avenger director Joe Johnston are Russo brothers Anthony and Joe, who have since gone on to become the MCU’s Directing A-Team. After directing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they then directed Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.
Worldwide, these four movies have grossed close to $7 billion, putting these guys in the very upper echelon of commercially successful directors. What’s somewhat baffling about this extraordinary success is that the Russo brothers, prior to helming The Winter Soldier, didn’t have a background in action movies at all. In fact, they mostly worked in TV, most prominently directing episodes of comedies like Arrested Development and Community. The two feature films they had directed prior to Winter Soldier were comedies as well — and not very good ones. There’s really nothing in their previous body of work that would suggest they were about to make this kind of jump. Regardless, they do a phenomenal job with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The action scenes are expertly staged and terrifically edited — I really am shocked that The Winter Soldier was not nominated for the Best Film Editing Oscar, incidentally.
What’s more, the writing is significantly tighter and stronger than usual for the MCU; virtually everything works. The only thing that arguably doesn’t is the resurgence of Hydra and its infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D., which seems a bit farfetched to me, at least the way it’s portrayed on screen. It doesn’t seem plausible, even by comic book movie logic, that pretty much all of the S.H.I.E.L.D. employees can switch sides without anyone noticing. Of course, during a mid-movie explanation, we learn that Hydra infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. from the moment it formed during World War II, but if that’s true, why did it take seven decades for Hydra to actually come out into the open (with S.H.I.E.L.D. remaining functional the entire time)? Why not unleash nuclear war during the Cold War?
I suppose what Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) actually attempts to do with his Project Insight — using data-mining to target threats to Hydra and eliminate them using the satellite-guided guns of the so-called “Helicarriers” — is to find a way to cruelly kill people but still preserve the beaches of Hawaii and Miami for when he’s on PTO. Though the movie goes over it kind of quickly in an early scene where S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows Rogers the Helicarriers as they’re nearing completion, this exchange really is pretty fascinating and worthy of dystopian science fiction:
FURY: These new long range precision guns can eliminate a thousand hostiles a minute. The satellites can read a terrorist’s DNA before he steps outside his spider hole. We’re gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.
ROGERS: I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.
FURY: We can’t afford to wait that long.
ROGERS: Who’s “we”?
FURY: After New York, I convinced the World Security Council we needed a quantum surge in threat analysis. For once we’re way ahead of the curve.
ROGERS: By holding a gun at everyone on Earth and calling it protection.
FURY: You know, I read those SSR files. Greatest generation? You guys did some nasty stuff.
ROGERS: Yeah, we compromised. Sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so the people could be free. This isn’t freedom, this is fear.
FURY: S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. And it’s getting damn near past time for you to get with that program, Cap.
ROGERS: Don’t hold your breath.
It’s a spin on what has already been explored in Steven Spielberg‘s 2002 film Minority Report, to be sure, but it still feels quite fresh in its application here. If anything, what’s explored in The Winter Soldier feels even more relevant now than it did in 2014, since as time marches on here the methods for collecting data and using machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze and predict the behavior of the citizenry will surely increase in power and scope. What the movie proposes is really kind of ingenious in how scary it is: the same organization collecting all of the data on citizens and predicting their behavior — and specifically targeting those who are having thoughts hostile to said organization — has weapons aimed at all times at all the citizens and can eliminate them whenever they start to turn hostile. It’s a fascist’s dream. (Of course, George Orwell wrote 1984 — which famously included the “thought police” — in response to fascism.)
The movie works so well and is so engrossing in its own right that the Winter Soldier doesn’t even make an appearance until maybe 45 minutes in during the attack on Fury. The big reveal about the Winter Soldier actually being Bucky also doesn’t come until maybe 80-90 minutes in toward the end of the second act. One of the reasons the reveal works is because it adds another layer to a story that’s already clicking really well; it doesn’t advance the plot so much as continue to develop the character of Steve Rogers further. “The Winter Soldier is Steve’s former best friend” is always going to seem more interesting than “the Winter Soldier is someone Steve doesn’t even know.” Plus, “Steve has to stop the Winter Soldier and also save him and make him remember who he really is” is always going to seem more interesting than “Steve has to stop the Winter Soldier.” It’s harder to lose by setting things up like this, and I wish superhero films would find a way to utilize this approach more often.
So why is Agent Romanoff in the movie? Many would certainly argue that she doesn’t actually need to be there, of course, since she isn’t particularly connected to the story (other than having encountered the Winter Soldier in the past). Her importance to the movie is a bit more subtle: in my review of The First Avenger, I wrote about Peggy Carter’s (Hayley Atwell) role as a foil to Steve, and Romanoff is there to basically fill in for Peggy this time around. (Hence why she’s always inquiring about Steve’s love life.) Not that Romanoff is necessarily an option for Steve since they don’t seem to be compatible in that way, but she’s really there to remind the audience that lane is open to Steve — that the romantic piece of his character still exists and that he’s still dimensional and human.
The script is pretty neatly woven from top to bottom, I’d say. Even the little touches are good, such as Steve saying “on your left” to Sam multiple times during the opening jogging scene and then saying it again when he wakes up in the hospital to find Sam sitting by his right side. There aren’t really any false notes or awkward moments to speak of, though something I find myself wanting a little more of is Alexander Pierce’s history. How did he come to join Hydra? What was that like? What has the journey been like to get Hydra where it is inside S.H.I.E.L.D.? We receive some of this information during the reveal in the secret bunker in New Jersey, but through the eyes of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), who now exists in some kind of computer form and provides a 30,000-feet-level version. We are never really shown Pierce’s role in what Zola tells us about Hydra. Seems like this could have benefited the movie a little.
In the end though, it’s hard to complain about much of anything about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It certainly sets the standard for standalone (i.e., non-Avengers) chapters in the MCU, and if we’re being totally honest here, it’s even better than all of the Avengers movies too. There was some concern at the time that given the relative disappointment Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, perhaps Marvel wouldn’t be able to make standalone films that were any good and that only the Avengers films would really be worth watching. Well, The Winter Soldier certainly calmed those fears. Budgeted at a pretty insane $170 million, the film has all of the requisite high production values: car chases, explosions, hand-to-hand fight scenes, Helicarriers crashing into buildings — all of the action you could ever want is there, and it’s all great.
But the surprisingly solid script is what truly elevates the movie to a classic of contemporary action cinema. The Winter Soldier is decidedly escapist, no doubt, but it’s full of twists and turns and there are enough thought-provoking elements about giving the government unlimited power of surveillance (in a “who watches the Watchmen?” kind of way) to make this easily the most mature entry in the MCU canon. What’s more, with the absolutely bonkers attack on Fury, the stakes actually feel high in a way that feels personal; the resurgence of Hydra and what they plan to do isn’t just some abstract idea, it has consequences for the characters we care about almost immediately. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and PIXAR’s pair of Incredibles movies, superhero films just don’t get any better than this. Considering how constantly Marvel churns out new material (both inside the MCU and out), The Winter Soldier really is remarkably refined. You don’t even need to watch any of the previous MCU movies to enjoy it.
If you are interested in how The Winter Soldier looks and sounds in 4K, I would recommend reading Blu-ray.com’s review of the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release. Some technical specs: The Winter Soldier was shot in either 2.8K or 5K resolution, depending on the scene, and then was ultimately finished on a 2K digital intermediate. What this means is the extra resolution above 2K used to shoot the scenes is downscaled to 2K for the finished film and is basically lost forever. To create a 4K master of a film like The Winter Soldier that was finished at 2K, all they can do is take that same 2K image and upscale it to 4K resolution. (Movies finished on film can just be scanned at 4K resolution to create a native 4K master. Digitally completed movies are forever locked into the resolution in which they’re finished.) So The Winter Soldier does look better in 4K than in 2K (i.e., 1080p Blu-ray), but it isn’t a mind-blowing upgrade.