Look, I can end this all in one sentence: You need to watch every Marvel movie before Avengers: Endgame. At least the ones produced by Marvel Studios. (Sorry, Elektra fans.) As the culmination of eleven years and 22 movies, Endgame is a kiss in the mirror for Marvel to admire itself, to bask in how it changed the business of blockbuster filmmaking, and to commemorate its rise where others crashed and burned. Every movie it released in the last decade counts, and you can’t miss any of it.
A Turning Point
Released in the spring of 2014, Captain America: The Winter Soldier wasn’t a movie release like Iron Man (2008) and The Avengers (2012), but over time, it’s become one of the most influential in the Marvel franchise.
Through an unusual choice in directors, Joe and Anthony Russo came from the oddball world of TV sitcoms, The Winter Soldier was a creative breakthrough that cemented Marvel’s willingness to be flexible with what we expected out of the term “superhero movie.”
Set after The Avengers (2012), the film follows Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), working as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and undertaking dangerous missions in the modern world. When a mysterious assassin emerges from the shadows, Rogers must work with allies old and new to stop him and expose a conspiracy that’s hiding in plain sight.
While previous Marvel films like Thor (2011) and the first “Cap,” Captain America: The First Avenger (also 2011) flirted with other genres, The Winter Soldier was more fully-fleshed out as an espionage thriller with echoes of ‘70s and ‘80s action noir. In the Blu-ray commentary, the Russos said they consider the film to be theirs and Marvel’s take on Three Days of the Condor. During production, they nicknamed it “Three Days of Captain America.” Casting Robert Redford as their antagonist was no accident.
But as retro as The Winter Soldier felt, the movie was unequivocally about modernity. Far more than The Avengers, the film reoriented Captain America — a greatest generation war hero frozen and thawed in a post-9/11, post-recession America — as he navigated the gray waters of Obama-era surveillance, civil liberties, and weaponization of information.
Cap would need this dose of reality to prepare him for the rogue robots, space aliens, Wakanda, talking raccoons, and Infinity Stones that laid ahead.
Warning: Minor spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead, but nothing that will ruin your moviegoing experience.
The Russo Brothers
I have my criticisms with Joe and Anthony Russo. I think their camera framing is reliably awkward and their approach to realism and immersion in superhero cinema by using handheld is a tired concept. But as storytellers, these two have done the job of a hundred men.
The Winter Soldier is the only Marvel Russos film with less than five main characters. Each one afterward, from Civil War (2016) to Endgame (2019), have pushed forward what we imagine to be the pinnacle of scale. Their first movie is the Russos working with far more realistic expectations, and there’s a little sense in Endgame that the Russos might miss that earlier time in their careers.
More than once, Endgame makes pointed references to The Winter Soldier. The film’s opening mission has Cap in his navy stealth suit. Through time travel, we again see Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Alexander Pierce and Maximiliano Hernandez as the buffoonish Agent Sitwell. There’s also the brief return of Rumlow (Frank Grillo), which chills the spine because we know about his future transformation into Crossbones. And yes, the memorable elevator scene gets an unbelievably cool nod. Captain America’s final moments only mean anything because of the characters we meet in The Winter Soldier.
Avengers: Endgame is a movie that belongs to all the Marvel heroes, though arguably most of all Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., who gives the performance of his lifetime). But Captain America, the character who the Russos first explored and through his perspective became acquainted with the Marvel Universe, has an equally significant arc throughout Endgame. The final shot speaks to the Russos’ attachment for Captain America, one that only makes sense after having seen one of his finest hours yet.
Avengers: Endgame hits theaters on April 26.