From here, a lot of these films start to… blur together a bit. Not that they are indistinguishable, as such, but I forget which aspects of the overarching Avengers narrative happens when. Because in some ways this film seems more like an Avengers than a standalone Captain America film.
You can watch the Iron Man films almost independently of the franchise. Yes, the third one has some reliance on the audience knowing what happened in New York… but it does have flashback that give you some sense of what happened. The first two Thor movies don’t require knowledge of the rest of the franchise, really; again, really only in understanding Selvig, I would argue. And you also don’t need to know about Thor or Iron Man to understand the first Avengers film.
But here… without a sense of what SHIELD is, without a sense of the role Fury plays and how disillusioned Steve started to be in the first Avengers… you’re a bit lost. And going forward: without a knowledge of who Bucky is, and the world-shaking events of this film, the rest of the Avengers movies don’t really make sense.
None of which is necessarily a problem. It’s just interesting to note.
Additionally, this feels a bit less of a standalone Captain America and more… well, not quite an ensemble; but certainly Natasha is significant, as is Sam Wilson (YAY SAM). Maybe Rhodey manages this in the third Iron Man, but not before; and there’s no equivalent in the first two Thor flicks.
This is also the film where things start to get grittier. Yes Coulson was sad; yes the first Captain America is a war movie – but while it’s not quite a full-on WW2 movie in the classic style, it’s pretty close. This, though: it’s starting to feel like a grim, gritted teeth, relentless punch-em-up film that I don’t really like. It doesn’t quite get there; there are redeeming features that lighten the atmosphere a bit, and demonstrate alternatives to just straight-up fistfights. But not that many. This film feels too long not because of the narrative but because the fights Just. Go. On. Yes, they’re well choreographed; yes, they signal just how serious all of this is; yes, to see Steve equally or over-matched is distressing. But really. Cut a few minutes from every fight and it would be a tighter film.
Were we spoiled for the Winter Soldier’s identity from the trailers? Probably; I can imagine those who make decisions wanting the presumed emotional drawcard. That moment you first see his face properly, shadowed, in Pierce’s kitchen, is splendidly dramatic. And I do like Sebastian Stan. I also really like Robert Redford – like Ben Mendelsohn, playing against type brilliantly. I remember being deeply shocked when I realised what was going on.
The first Avengers changes the world by making aliens and superheroes something everyone knows about. Winter Soldier changes the world by removing the SHIELD security blanket, and threatening the integrity of that patriotic rock, Steve Rogers. No film in the franchise chronologically after this can ignore that.