9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Spider-Man: Far From Home. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Poster

I’m not saying anything new when I say that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the best movies in the Marvel universe. Most fans of the films will say the same thing. Having heard it said for years since my last viewing of the film, I’d kind of internalised it as “oh yeah, that’s one of the good ones”. But I was honestly kind of surprised at just how much better it is than the films I’ve watched so far in this series.

Taking inspiration from 1970s political conspiracy thrillers, the writers – Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, who also wrote Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor: The Dark World – and directors Joe and Anthony Russo set out to explore what it’s like for the good soldier Steve Rogers, fresh from the black-and-white conflict of WWII Europe, to now have to deal with the murkier territory of modern politics. Now working as an asset for S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap is struggling with the idea that the people he works with may not tell him everything he needs to know, and he may not always know who he is fighting or why.

Add into that the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D. is working on a program to police the world with giant helicarriers that can identify and eliminate targets anywhere on the planet, and then an attack on Nick Fury from whom he receives the message “S.H.I.E.L.D. compromised”, and Steve Rogers is left with no one to trust. Cue Captain America on the run, having to rely on Natasha’s espionage skills to figure out what’s really going on in S.H.I.E.L.D.

The Winter Soldier is not just the best Captain America film, it’s also the film that makes the best use of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury. Natasha Romanov finally has a personality beyond “I need to make up for all the bad things I’ve done” – she’s funny, smart, and she deeply cares about the people she’s close to. For Fury’s part, after being the guy in the shadows who brings in heroes to deal with problems, he finally gets involved in the action as we see him endure a brutal attack and car chase leading to his apparent death.

Speaking of that car chase, the action in this movie is superb. Cap’s attack on the ship in the opening & his faceoff with Batroc, the attempt on Nick Fury’s life, the elevator fight, the highway fight with the Winter Soldier – if nothing else you can watch this for the fights and be satisfied. It’s ridiculous to call a film where a man called Falcon straps a pair of jet-powered wings to his back and flies around “realistic”, but there’s a level of groundedness to the hand-to-hand combat, an attempt to keep the feel of humans at the peak of their ability rather than unstoppable demigods.

The revelation in this film that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated from its founding by Hydra agents is a big shakeup of the Marvel Universe, but one which only really played out in the often-ignored TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It led to the Avengers working as an independent organisation funded directly by Tony Stark, but that’s not something that’s ever explored in the movies. Hydra is apparently dealt with once and for all in the opening of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and we don’t really hear of them again. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stopped crossing over with the movies a few seasons in, and by season 6 seems to be ignoring movie continuity entirely. It’s a shame, because a resurgent Hydra would have made an interesting ongoing enemy for the heroes. Maybe the new Falcon and the Winter Soldier TV show will give us some of that.

Obviously Marcus, McFeely, and the Russos went on to make bigger and bigger films in the Marvel Universe after the success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but they never quite hit the same highs they did here. I suspect it’s a problem of throwing such a large number of characters into the stories – this film was an ensemble, but it was nowhere near on the level of Civil War or the Avengers films, and it’s hard to deal with such a large cast of characters in a satisfying way. Avengers: Endgame is probably where they came closest, and that’s because it was a direct sequel, and one where the cast was cut down significantly for most of the film. These big crossover events are not the easiest thing to work with, and they honestly did an impressive job pulling everything together, but at this point I’m much more interested to see what these creators do outside of the MCU when they can maybe keep things a bit tighter.

I also hope the MCU can give us more films like The Winter Soldier in the future. They’ve made some good films since,and in particular the Spider-Man films have been reaching similar levels of quality, but I’d like a bit more of that action thriller stuff. Here’s hoping Black Widow delivers.

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6. The Avengers (2012)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

The Avengers (2012) Poster

After five films setting up the universe and introducing the characters, it was time for the team-up film. This was the experiment, the test to see if the cinematic universe would work and fans invested in the previous films would turn up for the crossover. Spoiler: It worked.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon wrote and directed the film, a sensible choice given his reputation for being good with ensemble casts on TV, and having a similar tone in his work to what Marvel had begun to establish. At the film’s release his hiring was pretty widely praised, though it’s since been tarnished both by his lacklustre follow-up film and revelations about his personal conduct with actresses on his shows. Regardless, he turned in a solid movie that still sits among the top tier of Marvel Studios’ work.

But a top tier Marvel movie tends to be more of a B+ than an A, and it’s not without its faults. The first half of the movie is a mixed bag. The opening scenes feel more like a TV show than a blockbuster movie, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki at the beginning is lacking that dramatic flair that made him so popular. There’s some good dialogue and jokes for Tony Stark, Nick Fury, Bruce Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo) and Steve Rogers, but when Thor arrives his stilted cod-medieval speech has been dialled up far beyond what it was in his first film, and Hemsworth struggles to deliver it convincingly.

Black Widow’s characterisation is pretty one-note. One of the biggest sources of backlash against Whedon following Age of Ultron was the way he wrote Natasha, having her compare herself to the Hulk as a monster, and specifically linking that to the fact she had been sterilised as part of her spy training. That take on her is already evident in Whedon’s work in this film, where she’s fairly detached from other people, and her biggest driving motive is making up for the “red in her ledger”, from the people she hurt before Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) spared her and brought her in to S.H.I.E.L.D. She has a close relationship with Clint that seems more built out of guilt and blood debt than affection. Whedon also puts Natasha up against Bruce Banner and Hulk multiple times in the movie, first sending her to recruit Banner in India, then being the one trapped with him on the helicarrier when he loses control. It’s clear in hindsight that this was another play on the idea she sees herself as even more of a monster than Hulk, having had full control of herself when she did whatever it was that makes her feel so guilty – and also gives him plenty of opportunities to make her scared and vulnerable, something that none of the other characters have to go through. You could do something interesting if you dive into that kind of characterisation deeply, but here it’s not really explored, just present.

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The characters that are meant to form our big super-team spend a lot of this film bickering pointlessly. Thor’s arrival to claim Loki turns into an excuse to have him, Iron Man and Captain America punch each other, and then on the helicarrier they all get into arguments for little more reason than that the screenplay wanted them to not come together until after they’d lost someone (specifically, Agent Coulson, returning from the Iron Man films and Thor). Captain America’s famous rant against Tony Stark, that he isn’t the type to “make the sacrifice play”, doesn’t hold up given Cap – having been briefed on all the members of the team – knows Tony regularly puts himself into danger wearing his suit with no superpowers of his own (we don’t see Tony start to use drones and remotely-powered suits until Iron Man 3). Of course he then goes on to sacrifice himself by flying a missile through a portal into deep space, not the first or last time he’d risk everything to protect people. Having the characters mistrust Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. makes sense, but these personal rivalries are only there to force a second-act low point that could have worked just as well without them.

Hawkeye gets the shaft (ha) in this one. He’s mind-controlled by Loki and doesn’t get the chance to have a personality until well past the halfway mark where there isn’t time to really do anything with him. It’s not something any of the later films remedied, as we continually find out things about him – he spared Natasha’s life when he was meant to kill her; he’s secretly a family man; when his family died he became a merciless assassin – but we don’t actually get to know him at all. I still believe that Jeremy Renner is capable of playing a decent Barton as a down-to-earth, more comedic character if given the right material, and I can only hope the upcoming Hawkeye TV series takes inspiration from the excellent Matt Fraction and David Aja comics and gives us that side of the character, though having a family doesn’t really fit that version of him.

But on the more positive side, the film gets more fun as it goes on. Loki gets to be his flamboyant egomaniac self from Stuttgart onward, although his “mewling quim” line to Black Widow remains a terrible decision that seems to have come from the idea of “villain = sexist”, ignoring that Loki was raised by Frigga and grew up with Lady Sif and has no reason to think of women as weak or incapable.

The action scenes from the helicarrier to the final battle are well executed. The Battle of New York makes a good set piece; it has a strong sense of location, we get a lot of perspectives of the people on the ground – something notably lacking in later films – and showcases all our characters. Every one of the main heroes gets to take a shot at Loki (literally, in Hawkeye’s case) and demonstrate why they’re here. And Hiddleston is great at being a character you love to see get punched, particularly when it’s by the Hulk.

Ruffalo is an excellent Bruce Banner, bringing an interesting nervous energy to the role, that of someone who seems laid back but is constantly holding himself in check, which fits in well with his iconic moment from the final battle.

Hulk transforms
“I’m always angry”

It’s a shame that Hulk gets sidelined so much in the MCU, only appearing in team films and Thor Ragnarok (which takes enough pieces from Planet Hulk, one of his best comic storylines, that it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a real adaptation of it in the current MCU), apparently all because Universal still has some sort of hold on Hulk’s distribution rights.

The Chitauri invaders are a pretty boring enemy for the most part – a bunch of identical mindless drones; literally so, judging by how they all collapse when their mothership is destroyed – but keeping things centred on Loki and the Avengers instead of developing these aliens is clearly the right choice here.

An odder choice is the decision to obscure who was responsible for this invasion. The film opens with Loki being told by a strange alien – called only The Other – that he will be provided an army to conquer Earth if he retrieves the Tesseract, and we see The Other again later in the film, when he chastises Loki for not making enough progress. We only find out who this person is working for in the end credits, where it’s revealed – to those who recognise his face from the comics, at least – that he works for Thanos. I’m not sure what including this throwaway character really added to the film, other than allowing them to make Thanos into the mid-credits stinger. They could have easily had Thanos be the one giving Loki his instructions, and I don’t think it would have made any difference to the film at all – it would be essentially the same role he fills in Guardians of the Galaxy. Of course if they’d used Thanos as a character in The Avengers they might not have cast Josh Brolin for the part, and who knows how the MCU would have turned out in that case.

The film ends with the Avengers all going their separate ways – Thor to an entirely different planet – with Nick Fury assuring us that when the world needs them they’ll get together again. He doesn’t seem to have any real evidence to support this assertion, but that’s par for the course for the MCU’s Nick Fury, who seems to run on faith more than information, an odd trait for the head of a spy organisation. Still, he has to be right or Marvel wouldn’t have an opportunity to make all the money in the world, and isn’t that the goal of every corporation?

The Avengers brought to a close Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There had been some mixed successes in these first six films, but they’d proven that they could introduce a bunch of characters in individual films then have them come together for a big crossover event, and now it was just to be seen where they would take things next and what new elements they could introduce. In terms of what came after, The Avengers now looks like a pretty small film, but you kind of have to start small(ish) and build from there, and that’s what Marvel – particularly Kevin Feige, who has been the driving force behind Marvel Studios over the last dozen years or so – was doing.

5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) Poster
Now we’ve come to my favourite film of Marvel’s phase one. Which was also the second worst-performing at the box office; I guess people weren’t as interested in a WWII period film about a cheesy super patriot.

It’s a shame, that, because Captain America really is the best Marvel had done up to that point. The casting of former Human Torch Chris Evans in the lead role turned out to be a brilliant decision, which I guess is something of a theme in this series: Downey, Hemsworth, Evans – all the leads that would continue on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have proven to be very well suited to their roles. Evans plays Steve Rogers perfectly – the ordinary, decent guy who hates bullies and refuses to give in even when outmatched. Even when Rogers is turned into a super soldier through a government experiment, he doesn’t lose that core part of his character, and that’s what makes him Captain America.

Steve Rogers goes from the little guy who is repeatedly turned down when volunteering for military service, to a science experiment no one has much use for except as a publicity stunt to sell war bonds (in the first of the film’s excellent montage sequences). He’s eager for any opportunity to contribute to the war, but also frustrated at not being able to do more, seeing himself as little more than a dancing monkey. Finally, while visiting soldiers in the field he hears that his closest friend, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), is missing behind enemy lines – and the army has no intention of trying to rescue him or any of his squadron. As we’d see repeatedly in the Captain America films, Bucky is the one person Steve will do pretty much anything for, so of course he has to single-handedly infiltrate the Hydra base and rescue everyone.

Steve’s friendship with Bucky is the most important relationship in his life. Steve and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) may have feelings for each other, but they never get a chance to become close; Bucky on the other hand is at Cap’s side from the rescue, through all of Cap’s missions in Europe, right up until his apparent death when he falls from the train carrying Hydra scientist Dr. Armin Zola (Toby Jones).

It’s a shame they never really got to flesh out Captain America’s exploits during WWII; the montage we get is great, and shows us that Cap and Bucky save each other’s lives more than once in the years they’re fighting with the other Invaders (which is what the movie calls the Howling Commandos from Marvel comics), but it would have been interesting to get something like a spinoff TV series set during the war. As it is, the Invaders come out a little underdeveloped. It’s easy to compare The First Avenger to DC’s Wonder Woman, an origin story set during WWI with a similar multi-ethnic group of companions who accompany the hero through the fight, but in the later film we take a lot of time to get to know the individuals in the group. This film doesn’t have the time for it. I could only tell you the name of one of them, and that might just be because I’ve heard of Dum Dum Dugan from the comics.

One character we do get the time to know is Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull, leader of Hydra – the Nazi Party’s secretive weapons research wing, now gone rogue – and portrayed by Hugo Weaving. He’s a classic black-and-white villain, a charismatic leader who thinks Adolf Hitler isn’t ambitious enough and wants to wipe out every major city in the world to demonstrate his power. I wish we’d gotten more of the Red Skull in the MCU; he’s not the most complex character but he’s been a staple of Captain America stories since the character’s inception. Also, Hugo Weaving is pretty compelling in the role, and it’d be fun to see more of him. (Weaving did not return for the Red Skull’s cameos in Infinity War or Endgame.) It’s possible they’ll find some way to bring him back in the future – nobody is dead forever in comics, not even Gwen Stacy these days – but right now the MCU doesn’t even have Steve Rogers for him to face off against.

Red Skull is the classic Marvel villain trope: a product of the same experiment that created the hero, he possesses the same enhanced strength as Rogers, and usually this kind of setup leads to a big CGI fight where characters with identical powers punch each other (see: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Ant-Man, and Black Panther), but while the two do come to blows in the finale, the way it’s done fits with the low-key, war film style of the rest of the film and doesn’t become overlong or gratuitous. There may be superweapons that can vaporise a man instantly, and a bulletproof shield Cap can throw and have bounce back to his hand, but beyond this the combat in the film is handled in a pretty grounded way. The idea of Captain America is not of someone who can do things that are impossible, but of one who is at the peak of what the human body can achieve.

The thing is, the most interesting part of Captain America’s character doesn’t come into play until the film’s ending: he is frozen in ice for seventy years, rediscovered and revived in 2011, becoming a man out of time, a relic of the past who has to continue on despite everyone he knew having lived entire lives, grown old and died while he was missing. The First Avenger doesn’t get to explore this, and it would be left to later films to delve into this part of him – unfortunately they never really got that deep into it, mostly just deriving humour from his lack of knowledge of pop culture references and eventually hitting the reset button on his character in Endgame when he chooses to go back to where he started, picking up a relationship with Peggy that hadn’t even begun before he was frozen. I’ll probably talk about that more when I get to that film.

I feel like this has been a fairly shallow post, and that I’ve not really had a lot to say about the film, which bothers me since I took so long to write it. It’s a solid film; it’s fun, the action is exciting, the performances are good. The plot may be straightforward, but he’s a pretty straightforward character, and it ends with a sacrifice that turns into a tragic twist.

It’s one of Marvel’s best films, and its writers – Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – would go on to write two more Captain America films and two Avengers films. I’ve talked about Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark setting the tone for the Marvel universe, but these two writers have had a strong hand in the direction of the MCU in its later phases, particularly in collaboration with directors Joe and Anthony Russo from Captain America: The Winter Soldier onward. Captain America: The First Avenger may have been a mild disappointment financially, but it was a success creatively, and the work of this film’s writers and director Joe Johnston (in his only work for Marvel to date) gave us a strong start for a character who’s since gone from success to success.