The Story Geeks blogger Anthony Holdier responds with an additional perspective to the same topic discussed in this week’s podcast – what’s the best Marvel Cinematic Universe film? Want to share your own take? Join the conversation in The Story Geeks Facebook group!
Let me be perfectly clear: this is not an argument for which MCU movie is the most rewatchable (that’s either Guardians 1 or Thor: Ragnarok), which film had the best individual scenes (either Avengers or Infinity War), which one has the best characters (Ant-Man or Black Panther), or that make me most excited for the sequel (Captain Marvel BECAUSE I MEAN REALLY COME ON) – I’m about to make a case for which of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the best overall movie as far as movies go – in terms of writing, design, cinematography, etc.
So, let’s talk about Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
We Story Geeks love our lists, so here are a few discrete reasons to argue why TWS is the single greatest film in the MCU canon to date:
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier perfectly balances its particular narrative while fundamentally changing the MCU as a whole.
Weaving together a cinematic universe is a tricky business; on the one hand, you’d like each installment in the series to be able to stand on its own while simultaneously contributing to the metanarrative, but that is clearly something that is easier said than done.
For example, it’s easy to point to examples of movies that work as insulated stories (Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Ant-Man, arguably Iron Man 3) and it’s easy to think of ones that serve as a cog in the Marvel machine (Captain America: Civil War, all of the Avengers films), but to have one that perfectly spans the gap is rare – perhaps really it’s only been done well with TWS (though I might be persuaded to include Guardians 1 on that short list). If you had faithfully watched all of the movies up to TWS, then there were several plot points and character returns that carried added heft (in particular, Garry Shandling’s Senator Stern), but if TWS was your first foray into the MCU then you really wouldn’t be lost at all.
Particularly at this point (20+ movies into the project), the thought of not being familiar with the build-up to the next Marvel movie is basically unthinkable (good luck trying to appreciate Endgame if it’s your first taste of the MCU), but The Winter Soldier was perfectly positioned – and, more importantly, perfectly executed – to be an entry point for new fans.
And I haven’t even said anything about its classic spy-thriller storyline that finally showed off not only Cap’s brains, but Black Widow’s many talents. More on this in my next point:
2. CA: TWS sets the cinematic tone for the rest of Phase Two (and, by extension, the MCU).
Throughout the entirety of Phase One, the MCU was setting the stage for what was to come later – that meant introducing characters and making the audience care about their stories. If you think back to that first round of movies, though, they were pretty standard superhero pablum – good guy beats bad guy while learning how to be better good guy. This led up to The Avengers which WAS COMPLETELY SATISFYING (don’t misunderstand me), but still offered nothing too terribly new in the way of narrative direction or tone – until, perhaps, the first stinger with Thanos.
Phase Two started off with a hint of a different tone: Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World both demonstrated that the heroes we had come to love were going to suffer in various ways going forward – but it really wasn’t until The Winter Soldier that the full extent of that suffering was revealed. TWS took the heart of the Avengers and turned it inside out, making it explicitly clear that everything we knew up to this point was going to change. Moreover, even the characters were surprised by the surprise reveal of TWS – meaning that everything was now fair game for reinterpretation and retooling.
Most importantly, The Winter Soldier set the MCU off in a direction that was decidedly more mature. Whether we point to the gritty cinematography, the plot dripping with nuance, or the development of several characters around the twin poles of trust and betrayal (especially Steve’s relationships with Bucky, Fury, and Natasha), there was much more going on in this movie than a simple flashy beat-em-up – and this is a tone that has lasted (with a few Ant-Man related exceptions) into today. Which leads me to my last point…
3. CA: TWS proved that the MCU was truly more than a one-trick-pony for The Avengers
When fans first learned of Feige’s ambitious project to create an interwoven cinematic universe across multiple movie series, we were understandably excited. As Phase One developed, the seeds of the MCU continued to grow in exciting directions, but it wasn’t until that scene finally arrived in The Avengers that the flower actually blossomed and audiences became True Believers.
So, where could the MCU go next?
Comics fans had an inkling of what stinger after The Avengers meant, but with a complete lack of information in the MCU about what Thanos would yet be like, there was really no way to know what to expect. Thor: The Dark World hinted that there was some kind of plan behind the scenes, but it was TWS that proved – definitively – that Feige knew what he was doing. The reveal that SHIELD had been infiltrated by HYDRA all along (and that we could successfully re-interpret pieces of Phase One in that new light) demonstrated that the drivers of the MCU were far from asleep at the wheel – we just had to hang on for the ride.
Moreover, TWS was the first real instance of a Marvel movie starting to engage with more mature philosophical concepts as well. Rather than making us care about Captain America or Black Widow, TWS used the emotional capital already built up in the audiences to deliver clever messages about political overreach, loyalty to family and country, and the nature of justice – heavy concepts that far exceeded the glitzy flash of Phase One. We probably have the Russo brothers, specifically, to thank for this, but it was with TWS that, for the first time, it felt like a Marvel movie had something to say.
And, though this may be mostly a footnote, TWS also set the stage to prove once-and-for-all that the MCU #ItsAllConnected tagline was more that just a gimmick; fellow fans of the Agents of SHIELD TV show can attest to how brilliantly those writers rode the many shockwaves of the TWS twist to create one of the best pieces of Marvel television still on the air.
Are you convinced? Do you at least want to go back and re-watch The Winter Soldier? There are several movies that you could remove from the MCU canon with minimal effect on the overall picture, but TWS is absolutely not one of them. More importantly, even if its inextricability wasn’t the case, it still stands on its own as a film worth watching.
That makes it number one in my book.