As anticipation mounts for Captain America: Civil War, let’s look at its predecessor and what many view as the best standalone Marvel Cinematic Universe film in The Winter Soldier.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier stars Chris Evans as the title character/Steve Rogers, who’s facing a cout d’état by H.Y.D.R.A., which infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. following the events of the first film. With S.H.I.E.L.D. fighting for its very survival, Cap is finding out how far high up the conspiracy goes.
Joining Cap are Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Sharon Carter/Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp).
At the center of the coup is The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who is discovered to be Cap’s former best friend in Bucky Barnes, who was brainwashed by H.Y.D.R.A. to carry out their will including taking out Fury.
The amount of twists, turns and action rival of the intense Bourne films, but the writing, characters, and plot are superior. Replacing Red Skull as H.Y.D.R.A. figurehead is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who is a senior leader within S.H.I.E.L.D. and member of the World Security Council and triggers the coup. The veteran presence of Redford and his relentless and ruthless nature lends serious credibility to the film’s success given his intensity at the role.
It’s an entertaining film as a standalone with or without its Marvel connections, and that’s a testament to the Russo brothers, Anthony, and Joe as well as the writing duo of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who were retained from the first film. The Russo brothers did a tremendous job playing into the strengths of the characters. For Evans in particular, they took Cap into places never imagined before. The world may have changed around Cap, but Cap won’t let the world change him. The Russos managed to make an otherwise bland boy scout into the most interesting character.
The secret to Cap’s success is how firm he holds to his principles and how straight he plays it. He’s incapable of corruption because he always believes in doing what’s right even in spite of order collapsing around him. Cap’s the ultimate model for a second chance, and you see that resonate with each scene he has with Bucky. He knows whatever Bucky did under H.Y.D.R.A. control wasn’t of his own mind and volition, yet he’ll go on his biggest crusade to save him no matter how dire the circumstances because Cap knows there are traces of Bucky’s old self in there.
Cap’s tried and true nature of “your word is your bond” not only goes to his former best friend in Bucky but also his long lost love interest, Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell). Peggy thought she lost him when Cap dove his plane into the icy ocean in the previous film. Given Cap’s thawing at the conclusion of the movie, Peggy’s long since retired and within her final years as they reminisce about old times, and their relationship has come to an impasse.
The notable performances aside from Evans starts with Jackson. While he’s had a presence in almost every single MCU film whether a minor role or cameo, he barely had any major involvement until The Avengers. Jackson flexes his action movie chops in a wonderfully sequenced car chase scene with an all-too-convenient escape which approaches beyond Batman levels bordering on the ridiculous. Wilson’s debut as Falcon is about as complementary to Evan’s Cap as Howard and Cheadle’s roles as Rhodey to Downey’s Iron Man. Johansson and Smulders play up to what they’re given as part of the elements to keep S.H.I.E.L.D. afloat.
The impact of the film not only directly influenced the events leading into Civil War, but it also provided the much-needed boost and success for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since the H.Y.D.R.A. coup storyline changed the show dramatically for the better.
Is it the best MCU film? I would say yes because it didn’t need to be an MCU film to be considered great. The strength of the writing, the compelling characters, far-reaching changes rendered the most powerful organization in the MCU to its knees and inherent struggle rivals. It almost parallels The Empire Strikes Back: A rising force of good that once thought to triumph over its enemy, realizing the enemy was much stronger and resourceful than they ever imagined, and concluding with an uncertain future. It’s also far superior to its predecessor. It’s the arc of a perfect second act, which makes Civil War all the more appealing on the surface.