At the time of its release in 2014, The Winter Soldier was the most devastating thing to happen in the lore of the MCU. The events within the plot would shape the cinematic universe going forward and add an extra layer to the films that came before it. Whilst this is a Captain America film, it is intrinsically tied to the larger story of the MCU, as all 3 Captain America films are. He was the very first Avenger and many heroes/villains have come from governments/organisations attempting to replicate the serum that courses through his blood. Aside from being one of the most important stories in this franchise, The Winter Soldier was also one of the most profitable, making around $700million on a budget of about $170million. By the time this film arrived, it was almost a given that any film in the MCU would make bank, and this continued to solidify that statement as fact.
The plot follows Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) as they find themselves on the run from SHIELD and a mysterious assassin known as The Winter Soldier. Along the way, they meet Sam Wilson (Falcon) and must face some harsh truths about the organisation they once thought to be safe. SHIELD has secretly been host to HYDRA agents and, in an attempt to expose the truth, both organisations must fall. The film wastes no time in establishing the stakes by killing SHIELD Director Nick Fury and having a STRIKE team attempt to kill Cap. Of course Fury survives (after all, no death is permanent except Uncle Ben) but for a solid chunk of the runtime none of the characters are aware of this. When his survival is finally revealed it doesn’t change the mission because there is too much at stake. It provides an excellent shift in dynamics between Fury and Cap, with Fury finally giving Cap his full trust and Cap finally feeling like he’s being trusted.
All of the relationships in The Winter Soldier are handled well, especially the friendship between Steve and Natasha, which is a core element of the plot and (thankfully) is never played as romantic. It’s clear that Nat has been shaken to her core by the revelations about SHIELD and is terrified that she is no longer the hero she thought she was. The faith that Steve places in her is clearly something that she experiences very rarely, and with her reciprocation, you get one of the best friendships in the MCU. Meanwhile, Sam is an excellent person to round out the trio. His military service and loss of a close friend gives him an instant connection with Steve, and he trusts Nat because Steve does. Sam is willing to take orders, but it’s clear that he won’t do so if it conflicts with his moral compass and, to top it off, he’s a super fun character.
The small spanner in the works, and one of many plot twists spoiled in the advertising, is the reveal that The Winter Soldier is Cap’s best friend Bucky Barnes, who supposedly died in 1945 after falling over a cliff from a moving train. It transpires that he fell into a river, which broke his fall, but he was picked up by Soviet Scientists and had his mind erased before being given a metal arm and getting cryogenically frozen between top secret missions. This is a traumatic experience for him once his memory begins to return, and the film never shies away from that. We are shown his mind being wiped and the rage of confusion as it grows inside him until he can’t bear it anymore. There are several tragic and sympathetic figures in the MCU, but I think that James Buchanan Barnes may be at the top of that list.
The large spanner in the works, and a selling point for the film, is that HYDRA has embedded itself inside SHIELD. A couple of key players are shown to have been HYDRA all along such as Agent Casper Sitwell (from Thor) and Senator Stern (from Iron Man 2). The infiltration really does go all the way to the top, and there’s no knowing who can be trusted. To truly solve the problem, both organisations need to collapse, which will have a lasting impact going forward. Without SHIELD to protect them, The Avengers will finally be held accountable by the government, and will see their popularity start to falter. This is where the age of liability begins.
There’s so much happening in terms of the larger MCU continuity that I’d consider The Winter Soldier essential viewing in an MCU marathon. It marks a drastic change in circumstance and introduces characters, as well as destroying an organisation that has been ever present thus far. For once, in an Earth-based installment, there are no Infinity Stones, and they really aren’t needed because the stakes are big enough on their own. We won’t see ramifications this massive until Captain America: Civil War, and we won’t see a main Avenger in a non-ensemble film until Thor: Ragnarok. The main question that this film raises is where the other Avengers are, considering how devastating this event is, and you can keep wondering because it’s never explained. I suppose none of the other Avengers actually work for SHIELD, so they don’t need to step in, and they do eventually team up again to deal with the aftermath in Age of Ultron, but it might have been polite to check in. If this is my biggest issue with the film, I think that’s a pretty good sign.
This may be an MCU film, but it’s an espionage film through and through. It keeps the conflict focused on our main characters despite the conflict itself being massive. Each of our longtime characters get to progress their arc, and that includes Black Widow who gets to demonstrate that she’s a brutal spy with deep insecurities. I’m a little nostalgic for this era of the MCU, if I’m honest. It felt like there was more agreement back then.