The latest Captain America marks one of Marvel’s few missteps in building its fictional universe.
WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS
Marvel Studios has been justly celebrated for its ability to integrate all its films into a coherent shared universe, especially considering how big a gamble it was that non-comic readers would buy into the idea. For the most part, Marvel has been very good at balancing the world-building with the needs of the individual films, but with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it seems to have overly favoured the world-building side of the equation in the case of the titular villain.
The Winter Soldier could have been removed from the film entirely without meaningfully changing how it all plays out
Essentially, the Winter Soldier has almost nothing to do in the film that bears his name, amounting to little more than a hired gun for the real villain, Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce. He’s the equivalent of the right-hand uber-henchman in any number of martial arts films, who’s there so that the hero has someone as strong as him to fight in the finale, but who has very little relevance to the actual plot. The Winter Soldier could probably have been removed from the second Captain America instalment entirely without meaningfully changing how it all plays out, which might not have been so much of a problem if his name hadn’t been the subtitle.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is really about how S.H.I.E.L.D. has been taken over by the Nazi mad science division H.Y.D.R.A., and the Winter Soldier only really amounts to another of their (literally, for most of the film) faceless goons. He’s not the villain: Pierce handles the bulk of the villainous heavy lifting, and does it well, even if the fact that he doesn’t turn out to be the Red Skull is a missed opportunity. The only things that set the Winter Soldier apart – until the reveal that he’s actually Bucky Barnes – are his bionic arm and super-strength. It’s odd that such a potentially interesting character seems to only be here to set up the story for Captain America 3, in which it seems very clear that he’ll have a much bigger role to play.
Even stranger is that there are sequel hooks and teasers spread throughout the film, which work very well indeed. The development of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, paired with the way the film ends, would lead very naturally into a solo movie for her (if Marvel ever gets around to making one), and the brief mention of Stephen Strange lets us know the significant fact that magic exists in this universe without being at all intrusive.
The Winter Soldier’s presence doesn’t hurt the film, but it never feels like he’s necessary
Considering that Captain America 2 introduces both the Winter Soldier and Crossbones, it seems likely that Marvel is building up to an adaptation of The Death of Captain America, in which Crossbones murders Cap, and Bucky takes up the shield in his memory. Almost all of these world-building details fit naturally into the story, and while the Soldier himself integrates well, the fact that he was such a big part of the marketing just seems out of place. His presence doesn’t hurt the film, but it never feels like he’s necessary.
Perhaps sidelining the Winter Soldier somewhat was a good idea – introducing him, revealing his identity, and then dealing with the ramifications of that might have been too much for one film, especially given the need to fit the rest of the plot in as well. It just might have worked better had the film been subtitled The Return of H.Y.D.R.A., recognising the fact that Captain America 3 is the one which, presumably, will actually be about the Winter Soldier. As it is, the title is, and the marketing has been, pretty misleading.
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None of this is to suggest that Captain America 2 is even remotely a bad film. Frankly, its few flaws stand out all the more because of how excellent the rest of it is: it’s Marvel’s best since The Avengers, with a pleasantly old-fashioned spy/conspiracy thriller vibe and a refreshing feeling of relevance in its indirect observations about drone warfare and the PRISM scandal. It’s just a pity that it stumbles in its attempts to set up further films featuring the Winter Soldier, of which many seem to be planned (since Sebastian Stan has signed a nine picture contract).
The ending and the post-credits tease leave no doubt that he’s going to have a lot to do in the Captain’s next adventure, and it would be no surprise to see Bucky become Captain America himself in the future. It’s just a bit of a shame: The First Avenger sacrificed its ending to better lead in to The Avengers, and The Winter Soldier has sacrificed one of its most interesting characters to set up Captain America 3. Even with the flaws, both Captain Americas have been Marvel’s best solo films, so hopefully the studio won’t compromise Cap’s third – and possibly Chris Evans’s last – in order to carry on building the universe.
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All images: Marvel