As Avengers Endgame arrives to close to 11 years of Marvel storytelling (even if it isn’t quite closing off the MCU’s Phase 3), we take a look at the film that remains a benchmark for the MCU.
“Call in the asset”
THE MARVEL UNIVERSE HAS A HEALTHY FUTURE AHEAD OF IT ON THE BIG AND SMALL SCREEN SCREEN. BUT ENDGAME, NOT LEAST IN NAME, PROMISES TO COMPLETE THE CYCLE THAT BEGAN IN 2008. It’s strange too look back to the stuttering beginnings of what was then the Disney-free Marvel Studios, long before they could command three theatre releases a year. It wasn’t too ago. That the MCU arrived from nowhere with what appeared to be a difficult hand and a surprisingly cautious opening act.
Marvel just about had a grip on the big screen Incredible Hulk (then unaware, like the rest of us that Big, Green and on the Big Screen struggled in isolation), but no other key players with that level of popular fame. Its first family, the Fantastic Four along with key rogue Dr Doom, were parked over at the Fox lot along with the consistent victors of comic book sales at the time, the X-Men. Professor X’s gang had been making a dent at the box office since 1999, even if they fell short in their third outing. Superhero poster-boy Spiderman was ripping up receipts over at Sony, even if, again, the third instalment of Sam Raimi’s trilogy had demonstrated the dangers of overloading comic book adaptations.
But like Tony Stark trapped in a desert, Marvel improvised. And like Tony Stark, they nailed it. The properties that followed Iron Man into the MCU didn’t have a given right to sequels, but the phenomenal performance of that first film in 2008 had Captain America and Thor following within three years and Joss Whedon masterfully forging a team, with a little help from Nick Fury, within four.
Building to success
Until The Avengers, Phase 1 wasn’t commanding the outstanding box office the MCU enjoys today. Excluding that billion-breaking team up, it averaged a $458m worldwide haul compared to the $885m average pulled in by the first five films of Phase 3. In short, Marvel built something from very little, with the confidence and determination to create a shared universe which reflected the interlinked comic book life of a superhero in a way no studio had attempted before. What they had and what they wanted to do with them required more risk.
The very different Phase 2 showed how that risk was a crucial component of Marvel’s strategy. Phase plans required new properties to join existing properties, through shared characters and standalone debuts, which hopefully meant creating household names from the broadly unknown. Even though Thor had opened up the Rainbow Bridge, the space opera shenanigans of Guardians of the Galaxy were a gambit. Most importantly, Marvel Studios was quickly snapped up by Hollywood giant Disney. That turned the issues and risks that accompanied the formation of the studio five or so years before on their head, as if Thanos had snapped his fingers.
Challenging diminishing returns
Moving away from their proven origins, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man (even if his second film proved a mythically overladen early warning shot) carried different pressures into their sequels. New properties would now be built on their shoulders as Studio’s eyes were set on universe building. Released second in the phase, Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World immediately stumbled by choosing a darker and underwhelming direction, but Iron Man 3 was a divisive triumph in the hands of Shane Black. It was the first Marvel standalone film to break the billion barrier on the back of Avengers, even if it was their most divisive film to date. It wasn’t surprising that the stable centrepoint of the MCU, Captain Steve Rogers, managed to combine risk, arc-propulsion, and a visible confidence in his new Disney-stable in a way that defined what the MCU could and would be.
For what it achieved and the legacy it set, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (TWS) hasn’t been beaten yet. It influenced the whole universe on and off screen and here’s why The Winter Soldier remains the MCU’s best…
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
“Grandad loved people but he didn’t trust them very much”
Much of Marvel’s success comes from internal checks and balances that limited repetition and guaranteed a certain distinction. For all the criticism that the early phases pitched like-for-like villains against heroes, that was a problem inherited from the page. While not taking it to an experimental extreme, a masterstroke was ensuring that each film tapped on the window of a different genre, ensuring an undulating texture throughout the MCU, even if directors were appointed for their cooperation with universe building as much as a singular vision.
At the end of Phase 2, Ant Man lent on the heist genre. In Phase 3, Doctor Strange would bring horror to the Marvel-mix. The First Avenger had been a period piece. Its sequel may have brought things right up to a futuristic present, but it was rooted in political and conspiracy thrillers, mainly of the 1970s. That brilliant choice enhances the material in a pivotal film, introducing edge-of-your-seat intrigue, but most importantly letting Captain Steve Rogers shine at its heart.
The potential complication of new and returning villains and allies becomes a strength in a script that fuels conspiracy riddled with misdirection and a lack of trust.
At the time, franchise supremo Kevin Feige pointed out that the MCU timeline excluded their Cap the disorientation of the swinging ’60s, the darkness of the Watergate Era or the tough right of Reagan’s 1980s that his comic book counterpart experienced. He told Empire, “We wanted to force him to confront that kind of moral conundrum, something with that ’70s flavor. And in our film that takes the form of SHIELD”
After the slight Kryptonian appearance of SHIELD’s executive council in 2012’s Avengers, TWS solidifies the government bureaucracy behind the gigantic organisation including Alexander Pierce at the top of the Triskelion. But the film doesn’t dwell on menace. There are no furtive glances from Rumlow (the future Crossbones) and no real aspersions on Secretary Pierce until his unambiguous night-time meeting with the Winter Soldier, with its heavy nod to Watergate-era meetings. At the climax, the data-dump of Hydra and Shield secrets acknowledges the WikiLeaks era of the film and shows that there’s plenty of material to mine in the modern day.
Even better, most of this thriller happens in daylight. The scenes in the Triskelion, including the infamous lift set piece, have an oppressive backdrop of bright white and blue skies. The real beacon is Rogers, as he moves from “this isn’t right” to fugitive, his relationships with Fury, Black Widow and the 21st century revolving around him.
Man out of Time
“The real success is allowing Cap to convey the values of his time to the modern day just as the past rushes up to catch up with him.”
The Avengers did more than enhance MCU characters when it forged them into a dysfunctional team. It carried the initial leg work of bringing Cap into the 21st century and defining his role in it, through Joss Whedon’s sharp script. That gave TWS valuable breathing space to catch up on the First Avenger two years later. It also marked the return of Cap to the pen-custody of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who would continue to shape the overall arc of the character, including the creation of the Agent Carter television show. They are very much the fathers of this incarnation of the character, and they have to take much of the credit for his success.
Captain America’s gleaming light isn’t as dull as it could be, thanks to a murky plot that highlights his fundamental character as much as it keeps his relationships moving forward at every level. “All the guys from my barbershop quartet are dead” and “secure the engine room, then find me a date” banter leads to the bedside of an aged Peggy Carter, then on to his neighbour, who happens to be Peggy’s niece and a nice bit of misdirection for followers of the comics.
Fury and Pierce’s tussle mirrors, or rather inverts, Cap’s relationship with Bucky Barnes, while they also represent mentor and chain of command archetypes at points. Acts like reclaiming his old uniform from an exhibit that demonstrates he’s an icon and curio as much as a man is carefully sewn into the narrative (Spike cameo: I am so fired”) as he unravels a classic ‘you are not alone’ story line – one that manages to have its cake and eats it: sacrifice and ambiguity.
Small touches like Cap’s notebook, where he lists the things he needs to catch up on are humorous and emotive. It captures the scale, large and small. Some entries apt, like Falcon’s suggestion of Marvin Gaye’s Troubleman soundtrack (1970s, of course); some are just worth it, like Thai food; some are a little more, well, Moon Landing and Berlin Wall sized.
TWS’s real success is allowing Cap to convey the values of his time to the modern day just as the past, in the form of Hydra, rushes up to catch up with him. But he’s no boy lost in time – after the notebook, the opening mission establishes his supreme leadership and strategic abilities, as well as that formidable attacking force. Some of that Cap sheen would be lost in the horror of Zukovia and a hasty Civil War. But that’s not at error here, this is his peak.
The SHIELD problem
“Getting a little tired of being Fury’s janitor”
You can tell the concept of SHIELD is a problem from the number of shared universes that tried to emulate it. Some have proved more successful than others, but from Universal’s shelved Dark Universe and the Jekyll-run Prodigium to Monarch at the centre of Legendary’s MonsterVerse, they’ve been presented as a cloying necessity. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby set SHIELD up as a central pillar of Marvel Comics in 1965. Four decades later Marvel’s Ultimate comic imprint saw Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch define a lot of what the Avengers could be on screen, including a prescient Nick Fury based on Samuel L Jackson, even if their Captain America was a right-wing throwback. When the Division arrived on film, it was caught between Men in Black parody on one hand and all-powerful organisation that threatened to cut Marvel’s valuable ties to reality on the other.
At the start of Phase 2, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD emerged on ABC and cemented some of the weaknesses. The show was one-part a derivative Joss Whedon team, ten-parts dull bureaucracy, lacking the X-Files timing or pastiche that would serve them better in 90s-throwback Captain Marvel. Until TWS that is. The catastrophic events of the film not only create one of the series all-time great climaxes but unravelled SHIELD to the point of framing the organisation’s appearance ever since Nick Fury’s popped up in the Iron Man post-credit appearance as an elaborate ruse.
SHIELD had to go, and even better that it’s Cap who points it out. At stake here is the future of the MCU and Cap saves it with a literal clearing of the cache.
The Phase structure
“The 21st century is a digital book – Zola taught Hydra how to read it”.
The disintegration of SHIELD had immediate repercussions for the MCU and the phase that followed. Agents of SHIELD was saved by a stunning tie-in season close that transformed it into one of the twistiest shows on the small screen. The Earth-centric side of the big screen MCU jumped forward a step, bolstered by newly layered history and setting the scene for Civil War and personally explosive drama as bureaucracy retreated to a higher level. A Deus ex machina had been removed (although no one told Ultron). TWS is the pivotal Marvel film and interestingly considering its position right in the middle of the Infinity Stone arc, those fabled stones don’t make an appearance beyond the mid-credit scene.
Either side of TWS, Thor and the Guardians overdid the Stones, so this respite gives a refreshing boost to Hydra’s plans and Zola’s predictive data algorithm. Mention of “Stephen Strange” was a future echo and a sign of intent at the time – he would float into the Sanctum Sanctorum two and a half years later. The destruction of SHIELD and the threat of the future that Hydra’s Project Insight comes so close to ending invests the audience in supporting the MCU’s survival, not just a two-hour film. That’s real confidence from a lynchpin film.
It’s astonishing how little direct adaptation has fuelled the comic book boom. While all printed sources require literal adaptation to work in motion, the many years of continuous narrative in comic books has made it less likely that one specific story or arc will make it to the screen. With many established characters, origin stories from the golden or silver age of the medium (up to the 1970s) will have been rewritten many times by different creators. In the case of big hitters like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, they have moved into myth. As such, most comic book films have opted to slotted in traits and scenes from their source material rather than directly adapting. It’s more astonishing that this approach has failed than adaptors haven’t chosen a simpler approach. The Avengers for instance, could only reference the comic book origins that had a lot to do with Loki, but little to do with SHIELD.
The MCU changed as it moved away from origins. Iron Man 3 had borrowed heavily from Warren Ellis 2005 Extremis arc, elements of which would further spark onto the small screen in Agents of SHIELD. TWS borrowed from Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier story line, picking up a natural narrative development from the first film, albeit modifying elements that were bedded into Marvel mythology. Interestingly that meant radically reducing the role of the Cosmic Cube.
The Action Set-pieces
For all the parts that come to work in TWS, from Chris Evans’ stirling performance to the writers who really know their Captain, most praise must fall on to the Russo brothers. Their impact with TWS was devastating, in a good way. It secured them the job of closing the Avengers arc, including Avengers 2.5, Civil War. But why? Well, just take a look at the set-pieces, which we’ll list as:
- THE END OF SHIELD.
Emphasis all ours. Each set piece, in this well-paced film, are pitch perfect. During the boat raid, the vibranium shield pings, the action is brutal and perfectly designed to showcase the super soldier at work. The Russos had the good sense to cast former MMA pro Georges St-Pierre as Cap’s antagonist to ram that home. The famous lift sequence deservedly sticks in the mind. Set against that blue sky, the claustrophobic masterclass demonstrates three things: Don’t be afraid to shoot from the back; Don’t underestimate Captain America and; A super soldier never switches off.
It’s on the road and in climactic, epic, final battle that the Russos’ style is clear. Punchy and direct, their fluid fluid camera waves around, ready to snap with the action. The smoke, the cuts – it’s all very tactile. But there’s also the exquisite sound design. The bullets, the vibranium – they absolutely zing off the screen. There’s a rhythm that’s utterly captivating and thrilling mixed with crisp, clear and rugged cinematography. Each sequence has a threat behind it. For Fury, after taking a pounding, there’s the chilling introduction of the the Winter Soldier himself. And at this point in the franchise, six years in, it’s really not unbelievable that Fury could die. Coming at the 75 minute mark, the major road set-piece remains the pinnacle of the MCU: the ultimate Marvel moment. It sums up what the Russos brought to Marvel perfectly. They found a way to make the Marvel universe not so much work in a believable universe, but make it burst from the screen. No other director quite managed that.
The risks of overloading a comic book film have been well recorded, particularly in the abrupt demise of the 90s Batman franchise. MCU films had a mission to build but they used that to, more often than not, find news ways to incorporate characters. Sam Wilson’s introduction is playful, but their shared military experience connects the two across the decades. Drifting from ability and hubris to a fugitive in her own right, Black Widow’s addition – crucially not a romantic interest – is more effective than in Iron Man 2 or Avengers.
Disney’s acquisition of Marvel lifted expectations, but it also oiled the wheels that allowed the MCU to achieve its goal of becoming the world’s largest franchise. Risks like Guardians of the Galaxy were mitigated, but there was also the weight to secure high-level actors, talent and budget. In the first wave of this, came the extraordinary addition of Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce. Not only the kind of Hollywood heavyweight blockbuster’s long for, but one of the major players in the 1970’s political thriller All The President’s Men.
“Peace isn’t an achievement, it’s a responsibility.
As the cliche goes, a man is a measure of his enemies. TWS tells a once-in-the-MCU story of the man out of time having the past rush to overtake him. Captain Rogers is ready-made to defy a world of clandestine orders and moral ambiguity, but all the better when the real foe is proved to be the Nazi off-shoot that sealed his fate during WWII. That could backfire into an awkward repainting of the whites and blacks of the first film. But this Hydra was born in response to the War. As Zola puts it, a ‘beautiful parasite’, where modern life requires humanity to accept Hydra. Astonishingly Hydra, for all their pantomime, isn’t overblown – even when Zola reappears as a sardonic computer intelligence. The hook of the quantum surge in threat analysis and justice before the deed is top notch. And on the 70s side, Redford is an unexpectedly superb choice as the villain.
“Your work has been a gift to mankind…You shaped the century. And I need you to do it again. Society is at a tipping point between order and chaos”
As for Bucky Barnes, well we all knew he wouldn’t stay villain for too long…
“Admit it, it’s better this way”
The Winter Soldier rewards repeat viewings by impressing more and more. That’s especially true as 11 years of storytelling come to a close. It manages to heighten almost every part of the MCU it touches and is unrivalled in setting the tone for the Phase and a half that followed. It does have flaws, the majority of them SHIELD related. Restricting Maria Hill to an ‘Oracle’ role is a mistake, but it’s astonishing how much it got right. And that five years later, it still shines like a gleam from Cap’s shield. If not the SHIELD it left broken, and in a far better place.
As an underused Baron Wolfgang von Strucker puts it mid-credits, “it’s not a world of spies anymore, not even a world of heroes. This is the age of miracles, Doctor. There is nothing more horrifying than a miracle. “
Take a look back at our dip into the MCU‘s Phase 2 at the time with Marvel: Phase 2 – One of our Tanks is Missing.