The main issue with the post-Avengers movies that people have is that, surely, any threat in Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World should have warranted a call to at least one of the other Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, if not all of them. One could easily say “Sure, Thor could handle this, and Iron Man has enough suits to handle that, but it probably would have been a lot easier if they didn’t have to.” With The Winter Soldier, we get the advantage of it being a solo movie AND a team movie AND a movie that furthers the greater Marvel Universe AND changes the game of everything. It’s most certainly NOT a placeholder until The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
MINOR SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT, PLEASE BE ADVISED
Let’s address the solo movie factor first. For me, the heart of all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been Steve Rogers, a/k/a Captain America, played by Chris Evans. Of all the Avengers lead-up films, Captain America: The First Avenger was the one I was most surprised and delighted by. Despite his incredible new abilities of strength, speed, and stamina, Rogers remained an Average Joe who wanted to do the right thing and serve his country. He is the everyman superhero, and the one most people can relate to. Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy with an ego the size of Pittsburgh, Bruce Banner is essentially a monster trapped in the body of a normal human some of the time, and Thor is a damn god! While they’re all great characters, and all certainly “good guys,” they’re more aloof and unreachable than Steve. Even Black Widow and Hawkeye, with their years of covert operations and clandestine workings for S.H.I.E.L.D., put them at arm’s length as far as relatability.
While The Avengers is certainly a team movie, and one where everybody surprisingly gets quite a lot to do, if we look at it as the second Captain America movie, then we have a definite arc for Steve Rogers, going from good soldier fighting a just war, to being thrown into a leadership position with superhumans and fighting aliens and gods, and then finally coming to this movie where he feels the most alone, and even through his work doing dirty deeds for S.H.I.E.L.D., he doesn’t find the people he works with as much of a “team,” since none of them are on the same page and each have their separate missions, which Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) explains in The Winter Soldier‘s first act. Cap is looking for someone he can connect with, and while he has a few candidates, he still feels like he doesn’t belong in the world he’s inhabiting. It’s very telling that, of all the Avengers, he’s the one who joined up with S.H.I.E.L.D. outright, whether from a sense of duty or just lack of anything else.
This brings us to the second point – the team aspect of this film. People can complain about why Iron Man didn’t get involved or why the Hulk wasn’t somewhere, but this was an internal S.H.I.E.L.D. problem and it needed the right people to stop the sinister plot. Steve is forced to team up with Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), whom he doesn’t trust and doesn’t know how to just be herself, in order to get to the bottom of things. She’s very aloof at the beginning, but it’s because of Steve that she’s able to be truly heroic. They go from coworkers to partners to friends in a very natural way. In Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Steve finds a kindred spirit, someone who knows what it’s like on the frontlines of a war, and not behind a shroud of secrecy. When things go wrong, Sam is the only one Steve can turn to, the way Steve was the only one Fury could turn to. These three are certainly the main focus of the film, but we also get Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp), who join the fracas and become important figures as well.
Who else would they need for this mission? They’re taking down corrupt government turncoats, and hence they only need the uncorrupted members of their government agency. Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor would simply not have been able to do more than just smash, destroy, and electrocute things. They’re almost too powerful for a job of this magnitude. An invasion by wormhole aliens? Sure. A secret conspiracy and the possible death of millions stemming from Washington, D.C.? We got who we needed. In fact, I don’t even care about more Avengers movies (though that’s not true and I’m way excited for Whedon’s next); if every Marvel movie from here on was just Cap, Widow, Falcon, Hill, and Fury, I’d be the happiest of campers. They work incredibly well, we get the character dynamics we need, and we still have the central figure of Captain America to whom we can attach ourselves.
Cap’s past comes back to haunt him, and that not only affects him personally, but becomes vital to the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe from here on out. The Winter Soldier being who he is pains Steve greatly but it also adds a depth to what other unfortunate and exploited super people there are out there. This ties in directly to themes that have been present this season on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the character of Deathlok, going from a good family man to a half-machine killer. Hydra’s continued presence also makes things more interesting, especially given the mid-credits sequence from this film (no spoilers here).
Speaking of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this movie is perhaps the only one so far that I’m okay with them referencing (and having to, frankly) on the series. Up to now, every time the television show has referenced the film series and things that happened in it, it felt like they couldn’t make the show work without making people remember all the big movies they’ve seen. The couple of Thor crossovers already this year have felt slightly out of place and a bit of a ratings grab. However, The Winter Soldier has and will have direct ramifications on the series, in a good way. Agent Sitwell, who’s been in several of the films, has been featured prominently recently on the show and is a major player in this film as well, tying everything in naturally and not in a forced way at all. I don’t know why, but the movies referencing the show makes me excited while the show referencing the movies makes my eyes roll. Regardless.
Since The Avengers, every film and TV show has been referencing “the Battle of New York” that was the climax of that film; everybody is reeling from it still and has put their trust even further in S.H.I.E.L.D., but after the events in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, everything has changed. I imagine from here out, there will be references to “The D.C. Incident,” which actually will be of greater importance than the previous one. If there is nowhere that’s safe, and everyone’s on the run, then it’ll make our heroes struggles in Age of Ultron all the more difficult.
By making the movie about its characters, and about the idea of far-reaching conspiracies and clandestine behavior, Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds in a way that no movie in the Marvel Universe has yet. It’s a superhero movie with huge effects and action sequences, but it’s also perhaps the most important with regard to its characters and its world on a small scale. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were fun, but they did feel like wheel-spinning, and now this one finally feels like the movie Marvel should have been making all along. It’s fitting how the Captain America movies are the continuity movies and the story-advancing movies; he’s the one who’s most of the world, and yet the one who feels the most out of place. He is our hero.