Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.
Boomer: Captain America: The Winter Soldier was very nearly a different kind of movie. Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely announced before the premier of the first Cap that they had already been hired to draft the sequel’s script, and there were three choices for direction: George Nolfi, F. Gary Gray, and sibling directorial team Anthony and Joseph Russo. Gray would certainly have been the most interesting choice, as he would have been the first person of color to helm an MCU film and have helped with Marvel’s ongoing diversity problem (as demonstrated just in the past week by the announcement that Danny Rand would be portrayed in the upcoming Netflix Iron Fist series by white Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones). To date, only two films based on Marvel properties have been directed by non-white directors, Hulk (Ang Lee) and Blade II (Guillermo del Toro), and only one has been directed by a woman, Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone. At present, Black Panther is set to break this white streak with director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), although the revolving door of directors (with Selma’s Ava Duvernay and Gray himself having been attached to production at different points) makes one wonder if there will be any more upsets between now and when production actually begins. Ultimately, Gray passed on the project in order to direct last year’s Straight Outta Compton, and the reins to the film were handed over to the Russo brothers, best known for their work on the early (good) years of NBC’s Community.
Those who are only familiar with the movies may be unaware, but S.H.I.E.L.D.’s contribution to the primary Marvel Comic universe took place largely outside of the context of superheroics. In fact, one could read comic books for several years without ever finding out that such an organization exists within that world; I certainly did. When interest in strong men and Amazons waned in the mid-Twentieth Century while the popularity of western, detective, and horror comics grew, S.H.I.E.L.D. took on prominence as a vehicle for telling stories about war and espionage, with books like Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. The idea that S.H.I.E.L.D. should play a role in the founding of a superhero team is taken wholly from the Ultimate Marvel comics, a sub-imprint launched in the early 2000s to provide an entry into the comics world for new readers whose interest in the medium came as the result of the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men films. Forsaking the moniker “Avengers,” the equivalent team in the Ultimate books was known as “The Ultimates,” featuring a line-up of heroes that were brought together by Ultimate Nick Fury, who was consciously drawn to resemble Samuel L. Jackson in the hopes that he would be interested in the role should a film adaptation ever come to fruition. Many of the ideas that made their way into the MCU found their origins in the Ultimate imprint, with some scenes in the films even shot to be evocative of similar scenes in the comics (Thor’s visit from Loki, who lies that Odin has died in the first Thor film, is probably the most direct lift). The MCU has so far managed to mix stories from both the main books and the Ultimate line with new ideas to make sure that even comic book readers can never quite predict what twists the narrative will take. For instance, in the Ultimate Universe, Black Widow is revealed to be a double agent who turns on the rest of the team; non-readers who see Winter Soldier won’t have this knowledge and thus don’t know whether Natasha can be trusted, while readers who love the MCU Romanoff will constantly be anxious, wondering if she’ll follow in her ink counterpart’s footsteps, adding an edge to the movie.
Writing duo Markus & McFeely initially wanted to do an adaptation of Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier storyline (from the mainstream Marvel books) but were hesitant to commit to that idea, unsure if they would be able to make the story fit into the MCU while also doing it justice. Ultimately, with encouragement from MCU coordinator Kevin Feige, the two drafted the script as a political conspiracy thriller that incorporated elements of that plot but that also included S.H.I.E.L.D. in a larger role than in Brubaker’s story, given the greater prominence of the agency in the film franchise. Feige was quoted as saying that stories about Cap dealing with the fearmongering and political unrest of the seventies and eighties was “a hell of a journey” for the character. Although they couldn’t do stories set in that time period due to the fact that this version of Cap was frozen during that era, they “wanted to force him to confront that kind of moral conundrum, something with that ’70s flavor.” As such, the script was written with the intention of incorporating elements from political conspiracy thrillers of that era, like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.
To cement that connection, Robert Redford, who had appeared in both of those films, was cast to portray Alexander Pierce, the man to whom Nick Fury reports. Another new face in the cast was Anthony Mackie, who plays Sam Wilson, a character from the comics codenamed the Falcon. Cap and Falcon have had a long working relationship in the comics, with the Captain America comic even being retitled Captain America and the Falcon for 88 issues from 1971 to 1978, as the two duplicated the two-buddies-travel-the-world-and-have-different-social-perspectives narrative of the groundbreaking 1970-1972 Green Lantern/Green Arrow books. Emily van Camp was eventually cast as Agent 13, a longtime Cap love interest from the comics (originally introduced as Peggy Carter’s younger sister then later retconned as her niece given the nature of comic books’ static timelines) after beating out Alison Brie, Emilia Clarke, and Imogen Poots (among others) for the role. The film also introduced Crossbones in his civilian identity as a S.H.I.E.L.D. footsoldier revealed as a Hydra interloper; in the film, he is portrayed by Frank Grillo.
The nature of the time jump at the end of Captain America meant that most of Cap’s supporting cast would not be able to reappear in this film, although there is a heartbreaking cameo by Hayley Atwell as a very old Peggy Carter, and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes plays a prominent role. Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cobie Smulders reprise their roles from other MCU features as Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill respectively. Maximiliano Hernández, who had previously appeared as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell in Thor, The Avengers, and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., also appears in the film as a turncoat, as does Garry Shandling’s senator character from Iron Man 2 (it’s a good thing that Stark managed to keep the senator’s hands off the Iron Man suit, then). Toby Jones also reprised his role as Hydra scientist Arnim Zola, both in flashback and as an electronic ghost.
So, what did you think, Brandon? Captain America got high praise from you; how does this one fare?
Brandon: I was head over heels for the first Captain America film, which played like a retroactively-perfected version of The Rocketeer. Captain Steve Rogers’ bully-hating, Nazi-punching earnestness was a much welcome antidote to the sarcastic, megalomaniacs like Deadpool & Iron Man who often test my completist patience. I was, of course, stoked to catch up with the second installment in the Captain America series not only because I found the found The First Avenger so perfectly sincere, but also because ever since this project began The Winter Soldier has been sold to me as the height of what the MCU has to offer. I don’t want to say that I was exactly disappointed by the film that was delivered after all that hype, but I will say that the burden of expectation definitely colored my experience in a negative way. From the outside looking in, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fine action film, a perfectly entertaining superhero movie that does a great job of tying the Marvel mythology in with real-life political intrigue. However, I think the film stands as a dividing line between the franchise’s die hard fans who greedily eat up the ins & outs of the Marvel lore (particularly the narrative arc of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and the more casual observers such as myself who are mostly looking for an escapist spectacle with a cool hero in a kooky costume (which is more in line with what The First Avenger delivered). Fans who love the MCU enough to devotedly follow all of its short film bonus material & televised spin-offs are likely to love The WInter Soldier. The more detached devotees will enjoy the film’s action sequences & cool cat protagonists, but perhaps with less hyperbolic rapture.
Freshly unfrozen in the modern world, Captain Steve Rogers is simultaneously dealing with the post-Battle of NYC PTSD issues that Tony Stark wrestled with in Iron Man 3 & the same kind of fish out of water awkwardness as his Norse god buddy/fellow beefcake model Thor eternally suffers. Besides having to catch up with cultural markers like Marvin Gaye & Star Wars that he missed while taking an extensive nap on ice, Rogers also has to deal with the fact that his one true love (and ABC star) Peggy Carter lived a full life without him & is now spending her last days alone in a hospital bed. Friends & colleagues pressure Rogers to ask someone less geriatric for a date, but he refuses to move on. Of course, these small personal concerns are dwarfed by an evil world domination scheme Rogers has to put to a swift end. The Nazi offshoot Hydra from the first Captain America film is apparently alive & thriving, having successfully infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. & subtly influenced all of the world’s war & unrest from behind the scenes in the decades since the second World War. Can Rogers stop the Hydra from hijacking an advanced weapons system & using a sinister algorithm to destroy every one of its potential enemies in one fell swoop before it’s too late? Of course he can. He is The Greatest Soldier in History, after all (having now graduated from comic book hero status to living museum exhibit in his own lifetime).
What’s most interesting about The Winter Soldier is the way it complicates who & what is Captain America’s enemy. Rogers joined S.H.I.E.L.D. because it was partly founded by his one true love & he finds great value in reliving his wartime specialty: rescue missions. S.H.I.E.L.D. is too powerful to trust, however, especially since its participation in a worldwide (& maybe even intergalactic) arms race is what provides the weapon that Hydra intends to use the wipe out its enemies wholesale. By showing the faults of our modern day surveillance state by attaching a gun to each camera, The Winter Soldier approaches the most biting political commentary the MCU has offered yet, especially when Rogers criticizes his S.H.I.E.L.D. overlords for “holding a gun to everyone in the world & calling it protection” (a theme that will later be repeated in Age of Ultron). I don’t think the film’s political themes are ever explored any deeper or more thoroughly than they’d be in any other high budget, explosion-heavy action film, though. For MCU die hards who’ve been following every Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode & tangentially-related S.H.I.E.L.D. mythology-related media, the film’s big reveal that the organization has been hijacked by Hydra might’ve landed with massive impact, but the betrayal never feels too significant from an outsider perspective. It’s mostly a political thriller springboard for a cool action movie with a lovable hero & some of the best fight choreography in the MCU outside the Avengers films (including increasingly inventive uses of Captain’s shield in its hand-to0-hand brutality).
It feels almost like a betrayal to nerdom at large to say I really liked this movie but didn’t love it, but that kinda points to the way Marvel Studios have spread their properties so, so very thin. In the greater, 10,000+ hour span of MCU content, The Winter Soldier is a major turning point & a fulfilling payoff for irons that have been in the fire for years. As a standalone property surviving on its on isolated merits, its a very solid picture, but far from the pinnacle of any of its various genres: political thrillers, action flicks, superhero media, etc.
Boomer: I love this movie. It’s the MCU picture that I’ve watched and rewatched the most and the one that I find the most enduring, thoughtful, and well-paced; for my money, it’s the best of them all. It’s a testament to Winter Soldier’s excellence that, despite the fact that I got dumped two hours after I walked out the theatre on that 2014 afternoon, it wasn’t ruined for me (like so, so many things were in the wake of that breakup). I can look back on that day and say, “Hey, that was one of the worst days of my life, but I also saw Winter Soldier.”
I’m not ever sure where to start with all the things that make this film work for me. I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy flick (and even some bad ones), and the tonal similarities between Winter Soldier and things like Enemy of the State, The Manchurian Candidate, and most obviously (and explicitly) Three Days of the Condor hit all the right buttons for me. It brings Black Widow into the foreground in a way that the previous films attempted with mixed success and introduces a great new hero character to the mythos in Falcon, and both Johannson and Mackie bring a lot of energy into the mix that harmonizes well with Evans’s leading man charisma. Redford is perfect in his role as the turncoat leader of the World Security Council, and the film puts a lot of work into including and subtly commenting on contemporary issues of security, privacy, and systemic violence. Evans was serviceable in his previous appearances as Cap, but he clearly understands the role better here than in the earlier outings: Cap is a man who fought a brutal war that history has painted as a righteous one, and as such is best suited to remind those around him when they are repeating the mistakes of the past.
The film draws a clear line between itself and other films of the same genre that came before, both within the text (most notably with Natasha quoting War Games) and metatextually, especially with the casting of Redford. Although his most notable contributions to political thrillers were his roles in All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, I also have a fondness for Sneakers, which shares plot elements like computer algorithms and heisty shenanigans with Winter Soldier. Of course, the movie to which I feel this film is most tonally similar isn’t your standard contemporary political thriller like your Sneakers or even your classics like The Parallax View: it’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
I’ll keep this as brief as I possibly can, given that I have a (deserved) reputation of making everything about Star Trek, despite any obstacles. The Star Trek franchise was always about creating the rhetorical space that science fiction inhabits when it’s at its best: commenting upon contemporary social mores through a lens that provides the viewer or reader with enough metaphorical distance that he or she can see the absurdity and beauty of the human experience. (Last year’s Hugo Awards were undermined by a small group of rabid people who fail to realize that this is and always has been the purpose of the genre.) As such, the classic 1960s series created by Gene Roddenberry featured groundbreaking elements like people of color and women being treated as colleagues and equals by their white and male crewmen while also exploring the relationship between different earth cultures by projecting them onto extraterrestrial confederations.
Most notably, this was demonstrated by the way in which the Klingon Empire was a clear stand-in for the Soviet Union, and this was made all the more textual in The Undiscovered Country, which opened with a Chernobyl-esque disaster that places the Federation (the society in which Kirk and Spock abide) in a position to finally hammer their swords into plowshares… or bring their enemies to their knees. In the midst of all this is Kirk, who has fought the Klingons all his life and even lost his son to them; still, the Federation believes that, just as only Nixon could go to China, only Kirk can present the Klingons with a metaphorical olive branch. Unfortunately, Kirk ends up being framed for the assassination of the Klingon Chancellor and is assigned to a Siberia-esque gulag, while Spock works out the mystery. Working from opposite ends toward the middle, the two find a peace-endangering conspiracy that has wound its way around the heart of the seemingly-utopian Federation, fueled by long-stewing grudges, cultural fascism, and speciesist (read: racist) attitudes.
The Undiscovered Country is a fantastic movie, and although it’s not the best entry in the film franchise (Wrath of Khan is the undisputed champion), it’s a viable contender for runner-up. The Winter Soldier plays out similarly with its revelation that Hydra was never destroyed, but that it was instead reborn by planting its monstrous seeds within S.H.I.E.L.D. from its conception. Like ST6, this film also features the great and historical hero who finds himself framed and caught up in political machinations, dealing with strategic espionage maneuvering which is far outside of his control but in which he has a vested personal stake. Both films take the tropes and traits of the conspiracy narrative and add them to their respective genres, elevating both films to increased notability outside of their franchises.
And Natasha! Romanoff is back, baby, taking on heavier narrative lifting here than ever before and not only rising to the challenge, but killing it. Natasha never comes off as a sidekick here, instead acting as the perfect foil to Rogers. He’s the perfect soldier, and she’s the perfect spy: the focus on the ways that their respective skills and worldviews inscribe, complement, and conflict contributes to the film’s constant momentum. Johannson nails the small moments of vulnerability and the fact that Widow is always a few steps ahead of everyone else, like she’s accustomed to always being the smartest person in the room. This is just as much a story about her as it is about Cap, despite how much of the plot is devoted to his feelings of having failed Bucky. The film also does a better job of displaying professional respect and friendship between the two than most films are able to with a male-female friendship, and their emotional arc is perfect, forsaking the easy road of creating a romantic relationship between the two.
If anything, the titular Winter Soldier is the weakest link for me here. Part of that may be that his true identity as a brainwashed Bucky is no secret to comic fans (and it kind of surprises me that it was a shock to film-goers, given how recognizable Stan’s face is even with a mask on). It provides a counterpart to Cap’s friendship with Natasha, but it’s not as emotionally satisfying to me. Cap and Bucky’s friendship was built up in the first film, but it never quite clicked for me; I’m not as invested in the two of them as the franchise wants me to be, mostly because we actually see the two of them interact with each other much less than we see Cap interact with Natasha or even Tommy Lee Jones’s General in the first film. His involvement raises the stakes for Cap personally, but not for me.
That doesn’t make me any less invested in loving this movie, however. It hits the sweet spot for many in virtually every way, and I can hardly thing of a disparaging thing to say about it. Every few months, we see a new thinkpiece being published that asks if this genre is on its way out. Although I haven’t really seen any signs of slowing or stopping at this point, I’d wager that Winter Soldier will long outlive its peers in the public consciousness even if the MCU draws to a close.
Brandon: One thing that has been super impressive over the last few MCU features is how they’ve turned around my frustration with one-line cameos & half-assed tie-ins. I think that The Avengers, while not the height of the franchise, was an entirely necessary step in bringing this whole mess of a universe into an increasingly sharp focus & The Winter Soldier in particular is a great collaborative effort that directly reflects that shift. It’s doubtful that Nick Fury or Black Widow will ever star in their own standalone vehicles, but they’re both given way more to do in The Winter Soldier than ever before. Black Widow has already had ample time to show off her badassery in previous pictures, but her extended presence is always a welcome asset. This is really Nick Fury’s big break as a major player, though, and it’s fantastic to see him elevated form a walk-through cameo in a stinger to a fully-realized character. It’s also incredible how characters like Falcon & Bucky are shoehorned in there (even if I spoiled their individual reveals for myself by watching MCU content out of order) without ever cluttering up the film’s proceedings. Again, The Winter Soldier is a well made political thriller-leaning action flick that covers a lot of ground in its massive 2 1/2 hour runtime. I’m not sure that each of its characters & themes are given enough room to properly breathe & resonate, but there’s an impressive juggling act in how many personalities & plotlines get involved in the first place and the film delivers a wealth of entertainment in its genre-based treats alone.
Boomer: The furthest-reaching repercussions of this film on the franchise is the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infected by Hydra from its very inception. For me personally, S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been a non-essential element of the MCU; sure, most of the stories would be different without their involvement, but not by much and not necessarily detrimentally. This reveal did end up creating more plotlines for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with that series finally developing into something worth following in the wake of Winter Soldier, but it also annoys me. The rest of the MCU must now pay lip service to this development constantly, with references to Hydra showing up in shows and films that don’t really relate to S.H.I.E.L.D., if as nothing more than a bogeyman. Other than films where it wouldn’t make sense (such as Guardians of the Galaxy), all the villains relate back to Hydra now, if only tangentially. It makes me like past, unrelated villains like Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah Stane more in retrospect, since they weren’t required to tie in as heavily. It’s not that I feel the franchise is hamstrung by this revelation, but I find it weakens a plot when everything has to tie back into one evil mastermind or organization, limiting storytelling possibilities.
Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Captain America 2 – The Winter Soldier (2013)
-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.