This weekend the latest Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, dominated the box office by pulling $96.2 million domestically and over $300 million worldwide. The movie is a mixture of comic book film and political thriller, with an overarching theme of conflicting visions of America's future. Captain America has always been an interesting character for Marvel Comics in that, among all of its characters, Steve Rogers is usually considered the moral center whom all the other heroes find as their rock in difficult times. Add to that the character's American symbolism, bringing with it all sorts of characteristics that makes his position unique, a situation is created that allows the writers to comment on contemporary American culture. And that's exactly what's been done here.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have crafted a very entertaining action-film that shakes up things for the Marvel Universe going forward, but the movie is also explicitly meant to comment on civil liberties issues, drone strikes, the president's kill list and data mining.
More after the jump.
Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Timely Comics in 1941, the story of Marvel's Captain America is built upon many familiar superhero tropes. Steve Rogers is a frail young man who's changed by World War II-era super-science. After being rejected as unsuitable for enlistment in the Army, Rogers is given the chance to be a test subject of a Super-Soldier Serum that gives him peak human abilities and is then armed with a nearly indestructible shield. After helping defeat the Axis powers, Rogers is lost and awakens many years later to a changed world. His status as a "man from another time" gives the character an outsider's perspective.
He genuinely believes that people, when given the chance, will be good—and more often than not they are, if for no other reason than that they don't want to disappoint him.
The Winter Soldier takes the comic book elements discussed above, adds it to the previous cinematic Avengers story up to this point, and merges it with themes out of 1970s political thrillers like The Odessa File and Three Days of the Condor. The script, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, uses elements from Ed Brubaker's "Winter Soldier" story from the comic book and roots the story in Steve Rogers' (Chris Evans) disillusionment with what he's supposed to be fighting for, and questioning the orders he's given by S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Captain America is working for an organization that doesn't trust him with the truth, believes he needs to be "compartmentalized" from the not-so-legal or moral missions of people on his team like the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Decisions are being made by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and others of S.H.I.E.L.D. who are preparing to take things to another level by putting together a plan to "neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen." After an attempt is made on Nick Fury's life, Rogers is told to "trust no one" and discovers there's corruption deep within S.H.I.E.L.D. that connects to the operations of a secret black ops agent named the Winter Soldier.
"S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be." —Nick FuryDirectors Anthony and Joe Russo (whose previous experience has been in TV with Arrested Development and Community) have deliberately accentuated many of the concerns about government that have made headlines over the past year or so. In our world, the temptation to surrender privacy and transparency for security can be rationalized out to extraordinary lengths. In a world with green rage monsters, crazy Asgardians with mind-controlling scepters, and aliens invading New York City through a wormhole, the pressure to defend the homeland at any and all costs would be even more tempting.
"This isn't freedom. This is fear." —Captain America
The fact that the Russos were able to get those ideas and concerns across while introducing and juggling so many characters that get screen-time, like Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson, Frank Grillo's Brock Rumlow and Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill, is impressive. And the film latches onto one of the great strengths of the comic book—that the Avengers, and most of the Marvel Universe, is one big dysfunctional family whose members bounce off of each other. The dynamics of those interactions are what sell the lighter moments in between the action sequences.
And speaking of the action sequences, there are at least five of them in the film that are expertly choreographed, with the Russos having cited The Raid: Redemption as inspiration. All in all, the result is an entertaining two-hour ride.
- The Absence of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Iron Man 3 Explained?: When Iron Man 3 was released, there were many that pointed out that a glaring plot hole in the movie is the fact that the United States is under a massive threat from The Mandarin and A.I.M., yet no one from S.H.I.E.L.D. nor any of the other Avengers are involved. Given that at the end of The Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't exist anymore and its members have been scattered, that may mean that the events of Iron Man 3 occur after The Winter Soldier. Also, Redford's Alexander Pierce asks Nick Fury to get Iron Man to show up at his niece's birthday party. Since Tony Stark destroys all of the Iron Man armors and had the arc reactor removed from his chest at the end of Iron Man 3, that would seem to indicate The Winter Soldier occurs some time before it. Plus, the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D., the impact of HYDRA's corruption of it and its actions against the Stark family (the implied murder of Howard Stark and Tony's mother) would seem to make sense as being part of Tony's depression in Iron Man 3.
- Corrupted Centers of Power and Changed People: In all three of the post-Avengers phase two films, either institutions that were trusted are revealed to be actually corrupt to their core (HYDRA existing within S.H.I.E.L.D. and Loki now sitting on the throne of Asgard) or the situations of the heroes are drastically altered from the status quo. Most superhero films are variations of the same formula, but Marvel has seriously altered the circumstances in their films. Tony Stark is no longer Iron Man, both the Black Widow and Nick Fury don't have the protection of S.H.I.E.L.D. and are searching for new covers as they try to begin their new quests, and Captain America is responsible for dumping every S.H.I.E.L.D. secret on the internet and doesn't seem to be that popular in Washington at the moment.
- Hail HYDRA: The biggest reveal of the movie is that not only does HYDRA still exist, but it has been part of S.H.I.E.L.D. since its origin. Starting as a conspiracy of former Nazis saved by Operation Paperclip, HYDRA grew like a parasite within S.H.I.E.L.D. and has used S.H.I.E.L.D. to direct global events since the end of World War II with the goal of creating a world susceptible to HYDRA's version of order. One of the biggest wham lines of the movie is when Arnim Zola basically argues the Nazis won, and that Captain America's sacrifices were for nothing. But some reviewers have wondered whether or not that takes some of the bite out of the commentary. If all the bad things of the past 70 years were HYDRA's doing, then the moral crises weren't situations where "we" went wrong, it was "dastardly Nazis" who deceived us. On the other hand, "just following orders" has never been a good defense. And the movie doesn't shy away from the idea that there's not much more than a wafer-thin difference between what S.H.I.E.L.D. wants and what HYDRA is attempting to achieve—only the extent of the tactics to get there differentiate the two. In fact, during the film's ending, Pierce tells Nick Fury that HYDRA wants an ordered world too and the Project Insight plan is S.H.I.E.L.D.'s policies taken out to their natural conclusion.
- Not Exactly Winning: At the end of The Winter Soldier, HYDRA has achieved something its comic book counterpart could have only dreamed of winning: the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. And while Cap saves millions of people, he doesn't necessarily "win," as he and the people he cares about only survive to fight an entity that still exists another day. The "rot" within S.H.I.E.L.D. is too far gone to save it, and the only thing left to protect the world are the Avengers.
- Zola's "Body" and The Clairvoyant: One of the strangest but most faithful bits of continuity is Arnim Zola's form in the film. The character has survived the death of his physical body and still helps direct HYDRA's actions from within a 1970s-era computer system. It is Zola who develops the algorithm that predicts future actions and determines the targets for HYDRA's kill list. In the comic book, the character has uploaded his mind into a robot that has a huge screen on its torso and a single camera lens for a head. In the movie, Zola (Toby Jones) exist in a huge bank of reel-to-reel computers, has a huge monitor display for interaction and sees through a single camera that sits atop the system. Whether Zola truly destroyed himself in the attempt to kill Cap and Black Widow is an open question, since Zola might be The Clairvoyant who's been the unknown enemy of Agent Coulson and his team on ABC's Agents of Shield. The Clairvoyant is something or someone deep within S.H.I.E.L.D., and given what's happened in this film and so far on Agents of Shield, the allegiance of Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows) is also an open question.
- The Falcon and the Action Sequences: Anthony Mackie's Falcon is a mish-mash of both the 616 Marvel incarnation and the character's Ultimate Universe version. The character's uniform and military background are consistent with the Ultimate Universe, while Sam Wilson being a counselor at the V.A. is a nod to him being a social worker in his origin within 616. However, unlike the 616 version, this Falcon is not telepathic with birds and doesn't have a falcon sidekick named Redwing. The action sequences between Cap, the Winter Soldier, Black Widow, Falcon, etc., have a kinetic style and visceral intensity. There have been eight different directors with the nine Marvel films, and all of them have brought a different aesthetic to these films.
- Still Waiting On That Dance: The first hint in the film that things are wrong within S.H.I.E.L.D. comes during the conversation between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter in the present day. Steve says that one of the reasons he stays at S.H.I.E.L.D. despite his disillusionment with it tactics is that Peggy was one of its founders with Howard Stark. However, she tells Steve that "compromises" were made with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s policies. Although not explicitly stated, this version of Peggy Carter seems to suffer the same fate as the comic book version, with both afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. The connections to Steve's past, and how they've been ripped away from him, not only setting up his perspective as an outsider judging the new world, but it also effectively sets up the dynamics of the relationship between him and Bucky that dominate the finale of the film.
- Book of Ezekiel, Chapter 25, Verse 17: Nick Fury chooses not to reveal that he faked his death so he can go to Europe and hunt HYDRA. At the end of The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson and Nick Fury meet to discuss their next moves at the site of Nick Fury's fake grave. The tombstone for that grave is an Easter egg reference to another Samuel L. Jackson film.
- The Triskelion: The headquarters of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a massive facility called the Triskelion. In its comic book form, the Triskelion first appeared in the Ultimate Universe and was based in New York City. In Marvel's film universe, it exists as a facility on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. and is a subtle early clue to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s corruption. In the opening shots that pan across it, the Triskelion is shown to be directly across the Potomac from the Watergate Hotel.
- Project Insight: HYDRA's plan in The Winter Soldier is a lot of present-day controversial policies currently in use turned up to 11. The three Helicarriers are loitering drones that use S.H.I.E.L.D.'s NSA-esque eavesdropping technology to target potential threats on a kill list. According to an interview co-director Joe Russo gave with Mother Jones, the question the movie presents is where is the line? "If there are 100 people we can kill to make us safer, do we do it? What if we find out there's 1,000? What if we find out there's 10,000? What if it's a million? At what point do you stop?" Robert Redford's Alexander Pierce tells Nick Fury that he can give him a world with order and without threats, but he just needs to kill 20 million and that's not so bad in the grand scheme of things with 7 billion people.
- One of the Names On HYDRA's List: Tony Stark, the newly rebuilt and renamed Avengers Tower, Bruce Banner, President Ellis and others are either mentioned or shown as being targets of Project Insight. However, one of the names also mentioned was Stephen Strange, who is also known as Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme of the Marvel Universe. Strange is a member of The Defenders, which is about to be adapted into a miniseries on Netflix. And there have been recent rumors that Marvel is interested in making a Doctor Strange film and may want Johnny Depp for the role.
- The Winter Soldier and the Future of Captain America: Most of the character's background from the Brubaker "Winter Soldier" comic book story, including his relationship with the Black Widow, is cut in this adaption. However, the relationship between Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and Steve Rogers is the same in the story, as well as Rogers refusing to kill or harm his old friend and doing everything possible, including submitting to being beaten almost to "the end of the line," to break his brainwashing. The second post-credits sequence shows Bucky standing at the Smithsonian's Captain America exhibit trying to remember his past, and Steve and Sam are out there looking for him. One other note about Bucky is that he becomes Captain America in the comic book after Steve Rogers is (sorta) killed, and almost all of the characters involved in that death are present in this film, raising the question of whether that might be the direction Marvel goes for Captain America 3? Bucky/Winter Soldier is shown catching and throwing Cap's Shield proficiently multiple times during the film. Frank Grillo's Brock Rumlow is the real name of Crossbones, with the ending of this film showing him still alive but horribly scarred like his comic book counterpart. Steve Rogers' S.H.I.E.L.D. agent neighbor (Emily VanCamp) who was pretending to be a nurse is Agent 13/Sharon Carter. In the comic book, Sharon is the niece of Peggy Carter and Cap's love interest in modern times. Whether that will be changed in the film continuity is unknown.
- Senator Stern of Pennsylvania: Gary Shandling's Senator Stern from Iron Man 2 makes another appearance in The Winter Soldier. In Iron Man 2, even though the character is presented as a bureaucratic jerk, his insistence that Tony Stark turn over the Iron Man armor doesn't come off as crazy or all that unreasonable given how much of a drunk asshole Stark can be. And if Elon Musk built a highly advanced weapons system, flew it to Afghanistan and started blowing shit up, I think there would probably be some congressional hearings about it. However, this movie reveals Senator Stern to be a member of HYDRA. So the entire issue of whether or not Tony's armor should be in the possession of the United States government takes on a different light, since it was most likely a ploy for HYDRA to get their hands on Stark's repulsor beam and arc reactor technology. The actions of HYDRA also put S.H.I.E.L.D.'s plan in The Avengers to develop new versions of HYDRA's weapons in a much different light as well.
- Ultron and the Twins: The end of The Winter Soldier introduces Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) and reveals the existence of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. In a post-credits sequence directed by Joss Whedon, Strucker and HYDRA are in possession of Loki's scepter, which may or may not have the Mind Gem that a certain giant, blue mad Titan might want back at some point, as well as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch locked in cages. Both characters are referred to as "miracles." This might be because of copyright and licensing deals made with Fox, with Fox controlling the film rights to the X-Men, and leaving Marvel/Disney unable to refer to them as "mutants." It also means Marvel can't refer to their parentage either. (i.e. they're Magneto's children.) However, Marvel Studios can use characterizations that originate in the Avengers comic books, where Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch were part of a major reinvention of the Avengers called "Cap's Kooky Quartet." And conversely Fox is unable to refer to any of the Avengers storylines while using Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Also, given they were introduced with Baron Strucker, there's some speculation that Whedon may shift their parentage from Magneto to Strucker and their storyline will take on aspects of the Fenris. There's also the question of how exactly Ultron comes into existence. Whedon has already stated that unlike Marvel 616, Hank Pym (aka Ant-Man) will not be directly responsible for Ultron's creation. And some of the early promotional material implies that Tony Stark may be the responsible party. Also, The Vision will make an appearance in Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron and will be played by Paul Bettany. Up until this point, Bettany has been the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. (aka Tony Stark's AI). Some other speculation has wondered whether S.H.I.E.L.D. would create Ultron, but since S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't exist anymore that might mean that HYDRA could be the responsible party. Could Ultron be something that grows out of Zola's algorithm?