CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER: Peace is Not An Achievement, But a Responsibility

Chris Evans as Captain America

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – The 9th Marvel Cinematic Universe Film – Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo – Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, Toby Jones, Garry Shandling, Maximiliano Hernández, Georges St-Pierre, Chin Han, Jenny Agutter, Alan Dale, Bernard White, Danny Pudi, Gary Sinise, Thomas Kretschmann, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Stan Lee.

THE WINTER SOLDIER is the most confident film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to date. It moves with a quiet confidence, content to let the story lead and the explosions follow, as it pushes the MCU one step further from the superhero center.

This is not to say that the second CAPTAIN AMERICA solo movie in the MCU is a dramatically different movie from the eight films that came before it, but that Marvel Studios clearly recognizes the need to let the characters grow in their own directions, knowing that AVENGERS sits at the core of their universe, ready to deliver the most traditionally superheroic experience when it’s needed. The Phase 1 movies established not only the origins of our main players, but also what a Marvel movie was going to be. Phase 1 was about building cohesion. With those concepts established and paid off in AVENGERS, Marvel is using Phase 2 to demonstrate how the characters and films can be different from one another: Tony Stark carries the weight of the world, Thor carries the weight of his brother, and now Steve Rogers carries the weight of the organization that brought them all together.

It was not all that long ago that seeing Tony Stark pop up in THE INCREDIBLE HULK or Hawkeye fire some arrows in THOR brought with it a fan boyish thrill – the “I can’t believe this is happening” reaction. With THE DARK WORLD and WINTER SOLDIER, we’ve moved past universe building to universe deepening. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) are all back, and not just to step out of the shadows for a single scene. While Maria Hill is still more function than person, Widow and Fury are given plenty of room to grow alongside Captain America (Chris Evans) and newcomer Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), the Falcon.

Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Marvel has chosen wisely in assembling characters to give us a film with plenty of throwback resonance to the old 1970s political and espionage thrillers. That’s not to suggest WINTER SOLDIER is wholly Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with costumes, but that it does manage to grapple with our contemporary concerns over terrorism, government power, identity, privacy, and the sometimes delicate balance between public safety and personal liberties. In pushing the film in the direction of a corrupted SHIELD, it forces Steve Rogers to move past the “man out of time” persona. WINTER SOLDIER gives us a bit of this at the start, but it wisely uses this sense of disconnectedness to establish a friendship with Sam Wilson (who has also lost a friend in combat) and problematize his relationships with Fury and Widow.

Steve easily banters with Widow (and Scarlett Johansson continues to get better with each appearance – they have to make a BLACK WIDOW movie at this point, yes?), who is but one babysitter Nick Fury and SHIELD have on the “man out of time” case. Widow chides him for being a fossil in one scene and then pushes him to go on a date in the next, assuring that Steve knows what his problem is and that there’s a solution for it. Steve assures her, just before jumping out of a moving jet without a parachute, that he doesn’t have the time to ask anyone out, yet the next time he sees his attractive neighbor, Sharon (Emily VanCamp), he offers her the use of his washer and dryer in exchange for a cup of coffee. She turns him down, and we’re quick to find out that she’s a SHIELD agent assigned to keep an eye on him.

The roles that Widow and Agent 13 play early in the story help to transition Steve’s disconnectedness away from jokes about barbershop quartets and towards a general sense of distrust in the present. The one woman he can turn to is his former crush, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), now aged, bedridden, and suffering from lapses in memory. One moment, she’s reminiscing with Steve and in the next she looks at him as if she’s just seen him for the first time since his deep freeze.

The film’s first act isolates Steve from those around him. It does not do this in an overly dramatic way, but through the accumulation of small moments: on a mission to rescue hostages, Steve discovers the Black Widow has a separate objective to recover data, which furthers his mistrust of both Fury and Natasha. The revelation that his neighbor is a SHIELD agent adds to this sense of unease over Fury (who’s nice enough to show up in Steve’s apartment after getting shot up by the Winter Soldier), but more directly allows his growing concerns over SHIELD’s role in the world to hit home. Toss in World Security Council member Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) to give Steve another governmental suit to distrust and the confrontation in an elevator full of HYDRA-loyal SHIELD operatives plays as the physical manifestation of Steve’s inner turmoil.

The rest of the movie is about Steve figuring out who he can trust and then those people building back Steve’s trust. It’s a really smart move from the filmmakers – at the start of the film, Steve is the object of SHIELD’s attention (through the personages of Fury, Widow, and Agent 13), but once he’s on the run (Pierce declares him a fugitive), the looking glass is turned inside out and it’s Steve who’s doing the observing and judging, and the others who need to pass his tests.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow

That Steve mistrusts Fury and Widow, only to eventually have that trust restored, is indicative of our current age of violated privacy. When the government treats us (and allows us to be treated) as nothing more than an object, as a collection of data, it’s easier to accept the violation of personal freedoms and liberties in the name of security. If you’re not doing anything illegal, the saying goes, you have nothing to fear from the government watching.


When preemption trumps reaction on a global scale, a sense of mistrust is created. Of course, when preemption is always denied at the bequest of reaction, people die. The question, however, is not whether we should exclusively kneel at the altar of one or the other, but in knowing when and where to bow one’s head. That comes down to people, to knowing and trusting the people in positions of authority. In the film, SHIELD symbolizes the risks of big government, of secret agencies operating without proper oversight, and it wants to make the case that SHIELD is nothing more than the other side of the HYDRA coin. Steve’s price for saving the world from HYDRA SHIELD infiltration is that all of SHIELD is torn down. In the film, this destruction is captured in the gloriously destructive images of three SHIELD Helicarriers shooting each other out of the sky. One ship crashes into the Triskelion (SHIELD’s headquarters), and we see Agent 13 and Maria Hill forced into new jobs.

The former goes to work for the CIA and the latter for Stark Enterprises.

Right. Because those organizations are free from all forms of corruption.

WINTER SOLDIER’s misstep is attempting to put a violent bow on the idea that SHIELD is the bad guy, that the world will somehow be safer without the organization; this idea of is either the film’s MacGuffin or a sign of Steve’s political naiveté. I think Steve’s insistence to destroy the organization that brought him into the modern world comes across as a childish need for revenge, at worst, or a hopelessly idealistic attempt to make the world better, at best. Or maybe it’s both. When he and Widow are on the run, they find a secret SHIELD facility from the days after World War II, when SHIELD was born in the aftermath of the Strategic Scientific Reserve by people like Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and Peggy Carter. In the basement of this facility, they find Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), a HYDRA agent that was recruited into SHIELD during Operation Paperclip, a very real program that saw the Office of Strategic Services recruiting Nazi scientists into the American military complex.

Zola’s body died but his brain lives on in these ancient computers beneath the New Jersey dirt. It’s Zola who tells Cap and Widow that he and other HYDRA loyalists have spent the last seventy years infiltrating all levels of SHIELD, and I think it’s this sense of defeat for Cap that fuels his insistence on seeing SHIELD destroyed. He thought he had stopped HYDRA, but all he had actually done was send it underground where it took root and resurfaced inside the house that was created to destroy threats like HYDRA. (And as we see in a mid-credits scene with Baron Strucker and the imprisoned Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, HYDRA is still operational and dangerous and hiding just beneath the surface.) Organizations are better at looking out at the world instead of inwards, but that doesn’t mean SHIELD should have been destroyed, and Steve really should have known better.

Honestly, they just had a really big fight between SHIELD loyalists and traitors. It should be pretty easy to identify all the rotten folk in Denmark after that.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that Steve thought SHIELD was so rotten that it was better to dismantle the organization completely, that the short term victory of saving the world from a HYDRA-infested SHIELD was worth the long term loss of creating a more dangerous world. I like this interpretation better because it offers a richer conception of Steve’s character. If his intent was that the short term victory was better than the long term risk, what he’s actually doing is copying the HYDRA playbook. Thanks to Captain America, HYDRA was defeated in World War II, and as a result, they were forced underground, where they rebuilt themselves into a greater threat. That’s exactly what Steve, Sam, Tasha, and Fury do at the end of the film – with SHIELD destroyed, they’re going underground to regroup and come back even stronger: Fury is headed to Europe, Widow is leaving to rebuild a new identity, and Steve and Sam are going to go after Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

Anthony Mackie as Falcon

Until the fall of SHIELD, WINTER SOLDIER does a solid job of highlighting how complicated the world is right now – there are no easy answers. The uncrossable line isn’t always easy to see. Options of black and white aren’t likely to be successful. The world is now gray. It was always gray, of course, but in an analog world it was easier to paint the globe in two binary colors and let the fantasy of pure good and pure evil carry the day.

Steve is learning to live and operate in that world of gray, but that doesn’t mean he likes it, or is comfortable with it. The soldier in him tells him to put his head down and finish the next mission. When Fury tells Cap, “I guess you’re giving the orders now,” Cap’s integration to the gray is brought to a new height. It’s the difference between a soldier who completes the mission and the officer that plans and orders it. Steve decides that his first mission way from SHIELD is tracking down the Winter Soldier, but it’s also about finding the man inside the Winter Soldier identity: Bucky Barnes.

It’s noteworthy, too, that while Widow and Fury are comfortable going off on their own, Steve takes Sam, the one guy who has never had cause to mistrust, along with him.

For those of us who are familiar with the comics, there was no secret about who the Winter Soldier was and what Steve’s reaction would be. I wonder if the film sold that enough for the non-comics audience. I think the set-up was there, but the revelation was lacking something for me. I’m never going to bash on a film for treating its audience with intelligence, but I do think Steve seeing Bucky beneath the Soldier’s mask could have been punched up a bit to really drive that home.

Going after Bucky works on both the professional and personal levels and illustrates Cap’s worldview better than anything else in his three cinematic appearances. Freed of SHIELD’s listening devices and babysitter operatives, Steve Rogers decides to go after his troubled friend. In a film so focused on trust, it’s fitting that the man he trusted first and was betrayed by last is his target.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is a smart, engaging, espionage flick. I still can only sort of believe they got Robert Redford to come in and walk around the Marvel Universe. It’s a great move, as Redford’s presence gives the film a gravitas it needs. That Redford, the All-American actor, is a HYDRA agent is actually more important to the film than the fact that Alexander Pierce is a traitor. Marvel has firmly figured out how to effortlessly work in characters like Batroc (Georges St-Pierre) and Sharon Carter, make a secondary character’s betrayal (Jasper Sitwell) hit with a bigger impact because they’ve used him over several movies and episodes of Agents of SHIELD, and drop references to Stephen Strange and Pulp Fiction (check out Fury’s grave).

Eventually, Marvel Studios is going to make a film that sucks, but we’re not there, yet. WINTER SOLDIER is another incredible effort from the House of Ideas.

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Atomic Reactions: Marvel Comics on Film now available.

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15 thoughts on “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER: Peace is Not An Achievement, But a Responsibility

  1. My take on bringing down SHIELD was that Cap had seen where even the ‘good ones’ like Fury, Hill, and Romanov were headed, coupled with the depth and breath of the corruption in the system and chose to wipe the slate clean for whatever comes after.

    He admitted himself that the government has always kept secrets, always used spies, and always killed to maintain order. I don’t think he is under any illusions that some entity, be it SHIELD 2.0, SWORD, whoever, is going to rise up to fill the vacuum created by the destruction of SHIELD. Rather, I think he just wanted to make sure whatever that organization was it was starting fresh with a chance to be ‘clean’ and a hope that it would learn from the mistakes of it’s predecessors. That could be naive, could be hopeful, but it could also just seem like the pragmatic solution to a lifetime soldier. Sometimes the house is just too contaminated to live in anymore and you need to tear it down and build something new.

    Another thing to take into consideration when looking at things as having a nice violent bow tied on to clean it up is that it is only partially the case. The MCU films need to stand on their own, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. We see the violent tear-down of SHIELD in WINTER SOLDIER, but just five days after that film opened the story picked right up on television in Agents of SHIELD, and will no doubt get more development in the next terrestrially-based Marvel offering.

    The studio is in a position where they can give this film an appropriately ‘action movie’ ending where everything blows up and the day is saved while still going back and dealing with the consequences of those actions in a number of ways. Since the TV show has already been picked up for another season, Nick Fury is making an appearance in the season finale, and we know the show won’t be renamed Agents of Nothing, we can probably safely assume that some remnants of SHIELD will persist, probably as small cells the same way HYDRA is now operating.

    The only other thing I was going to bring up here is that I don’t think the scene with Carter and Hill moving on to new positions was supposed to imply that they were looking for ‘clean’ jobs. I think it was just there to show that they were moving on in general, and to establish where we will be seeing them both in the future. If Hill is now established as working for Stark then it won’t be a shock to see her pop up in Avengers 2, and Carter, with the CIA, puts her in a prime position to work as a government liaison for Steve and the rest of the crew.

    Just my 2-cents.


    • I was confused about Carter and Hill. I can get Agent 13 working for the CIA and that would be cool, but was Hill really applying for a job with Stark Industries, or was she just there debriefing Tony on what just happened and asking him where the hell he was for all of it?

      I’d love if Coulson turned his team into the Secret Avengers. Them not brining in the bigger SHIELD for their missions was one of several criticisms I’ve had with the show. Now, they have an excuse to go on missions without involving greater SHIELD. can’t wait to see where this goes!


    • Thanks for the comments, Eric.

      I didn’t mean to imply that Sharon and Hill thought they were going to clean jobs, but that those organizations aren’t centers of purity, and so Steve’s destruction of SHIELD actually makes the world a more dangerous place by putting everyone into the wind. 13 and Hill are good people, so they go to work for mostly-good organizations where they can make a difference.

      There’s no reason they couldn’t continue to make a difference – a better difference – with a cleaned-up SHIELD.

      All of these SHIELD loyalists have just fought for Cap and now that job is taken away (surely, Steve can’t end the existence of SHIELD by fiat, but it’s on his orders that Tasha unleashes all the inside info). It’s much easier for me to see some of them now turning to HYDRA or AIM than before.


      • Given how Fury, Natasha, Steve and Sam are all going underground in a sense, I wonder if maybe Sharon and Maria are going into the CIA and Stark in order to root out any potential corruption? Between Paul Bettany transitioning from JARVIS to the Vision and the burned-out Iron Man helmet turning into Ultron’s head in the first Age of Ultron teaser, I wonder if maybe Ultron isn’t born from some sort of combination of Zola’s AI and Starktech? Maybe Hill suspects (or Fury suspects hence sending in Hill) that Zola took root in Stark as well?


  2. I love your meta-analysis of what Marvel’s doing with their different Phases. That is something I overlooked in my review (–I was still too caught up in my fanboy love, I think.

    I’m dissapointed in your interpretation of Captain America as stuck in the old-school, with naive childish opinions about right and wrong. IMO, that is what makes him the greatest modern super-hero, and someone who I wholeheartedly would love for my children to grow up wanting to be.

    Congratz on printing your reactions, BTW. That is awesome


    • But Cap is stuck in the old school – that this is part of both his charm and his greatness does not mean he is always right. He hasn’t been in the present all that long and he’s clearly still working out the differences between what he sees as his time and our time. WINTER SOLDIER deals with Cap’s acceptance that our time is now his time, but that’s a journey not a predetermined arrival point.

      And it’s not Steve’s sense of right and wrong that’s naive – it’s his engagement with modern politics. That is, it’s his application of those ideals to the modern world. There’s little doubt that the destruction of the macro SHIELD organization has made the world a more dangerous place. To send them into splinter cells – as Eric and this past week’s ep of AGENTS indicates – robs SHIELD of the resources it needs.

      My guess is that Marvel is doing this in order to deliver the world Baron Strucker denied – that we are moving more clearly toward an “age of heroes,” absent from government control and insight. If Phase 2 is about the heroes growing away from the center (which can be seen as growing away from SHIELD), Phase 3 seems destined to be about the Avengers standing on their (relative) own, moving into the mansion or Stark Tower and working with, instead of for, the world governments.

      Thanks for the comments, Coby. Great review over on your site, too.


  3. Funny, the reaction to the big reveal that the Winter Soldier was Bucky Barnes, at least in my theater, was the woman directly in front of me gasping so loudly that the entire theater could hear. Then we all chuckled. Seemed like it worked well for that audience. Anyway, great review, as always!


    • Thanks, Trace!

      Both times I saw the film, the theater was sort of, “Meh” or “what?” But there was definitely applause at the end of the second showing, so people were definitely into it.


  4. It never occurred to me to wonder why Tony Stark didn’t stick his nose into SHIELD’s business, but I did wonder where Hawkeye was during all this. They couldn’t even have like two lines?
    Cap: Where’s Barton?
    Fury: Norovirus.

    I liked the movie a lot, but I think the title puts it off-balance. Winter Soldier is more like the sub-lot than the plot and shouldn’t be so prominently figured. It’s like they called Return of the Jedi Attack of the Ewoks. Now what are the going to call the next movie which actually focuses on Bucky?


    • Apparently, Hawkeye was going to have a small role in the film but they cut it in pre-production because there’s enough supporting characters, as is. I never get too hung up on why other people aren’t there. I figure they’re busy saving the world from the Living Laser.


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