Although for decades he was shoved aside, forgotten or hazily remembered as “grandpa’s favorite superhero” – essentially making him the Werther’s of comic book headliners – Captain America means something. You don’t wrap your superhero – the first Avenger – in the literal American flag if he doesn’t.
While it may be a bit obvious to anybody who’s been paying attention for the past decade, it never-the-less warrants saying. Captain America is the Superman of the MCU. He might not be the fastest or the strongest or the most powerful – in fact, a well-placed knife blade or gunshot will absolutely down the star-spangled Avenger same as you or me – but he is heart of the franchise. He is the moral constant around which everything else is oriented. He is everything that every one of us should aspire to be: not the perfect soldier, but a good man.
As I mentioned in the last two MCU retrospectives, Marvel’s Phase 2 was about proving that the Marvel Cinematic Universe was more than just the money-shot team-ups capping off each new movie production cycle. If The Avengers proved that the franchise was worth more than the sum of its parts, then everything which came after it aimed to remind us that those individual franchises – those individual characters – were why we all showed up in the first place.
Iron Man 3 deconstructed the Avengers that kicked this entire mega-franchise off in the first place: proving that it was the man that we all cared about, not just all his cool toys. Thor: The Dark World tore the Norse god from the physical trappings that had until now defined his place in the cosmos. And Captain America: The Winter Soldier turned Captain Rogers on his head – throwing him in the middle of a decades-long conspiracy that put his arch nemeses – literal, not figurative, Nazis – in control of the United State of America.
Amusingly, the movie was taken to task when it came out for that plot point: that Nazis had infiltrated the US government, that they were hiding in plain sight and had been for decades, that a neo-fascist regime could have taken root in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” when common sense dictated that they were wiped off the map in 1945. Less than a half-decade later, between the rise of the so-called Alt-Right and the fascist attacks in Charlottesville, it uncomfortably reflects the ideologies that have been eating away at the American psyche since the end of the second world war.
And no, there were not “very fine people on both sides.” There were Nazis on the one hand and vibranium shield closing in from the other.
In a rare turn for sequels, The Winter Soldier succeeds at surpassing its predecessor: maintaining The First Avenger’s virtues while culling the chaff. Hayley Atwell is just as convincing (and far better utilized) as a frail old woman as she is as a capable young agent. Anthony Mackie gives a remarkable breakout performance as smartly-written Falcon. Samuel L. Jackson is badass enough as Nick Fury that it’s easy to forget that he was pushing sixty-six years-old when he shot the part. Chris Evans continues to channel The Greatest Generation’s determined idealism into Steve Rogers while Scarlett Johansson plays the femme fetale superspy with such remarkable skill that her every moment on screen is a direct indictment of Marvel not yet giving her a solo feature
Upon initially reviewing the film, I talked at length about how this film solved Marvel’s “villain problem,” but in retrospect that seems like it ignored half the movies in the MCU at this point to make that claim. Loki was the first to solve that problem, and he appeared as the villain in three movies prior to The Winter Soldier. The First Avenger saw Cap squaring off against one of the all-time comic book greats, the Red Skull, at the height of the fighting in World War II. Iron Man 3 kicked Phase 2 off with The Mandarin, who remains one of the most fascinating characters in the entire MCU.
The obvious candidate in The Winter Soldier is the title character, Bucky Barnes: America’s longest-serving prisoner of war. Chilling and tragic in equal measure, he strikes the perfect, razor’s edge balance between sympathetic supporting character that needs to be helped and vicious attack dog that needs to be put down. But even then there are options: particularly the smartly-used Armin Zola (who somehow avoided his cartoon corniness as a living super computer) and the coldly calculating Secretary Pierce.
If not for competition from more recent Marvel movies – notably Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther – I would say that The Winter Soldier was the undisputed top-dog in the franchise. And while there might be a few contenders to throne as of late, to say nothing of Infinity War once the public actually gets in to see it, the film is a resounding high note both within its franchise and its genre. It is Marvel’s Dark Knight, and earns every painfully dark turn that it makes along the way.