Marvel’s Best Twist Threw the Status Quo Out the Window

Ten years later, Captain America: The Winter Soldier still holds a special place in the MCU's history.

Chris Evans poses as Steve Rogers on a 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' poster
Marvel Studios
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Coming off the game-changing success of The Avengers in 2012, Marvel Studios could have easily spent the next few years playing it safe. The studio, for the most part, did the exact opposite of that. 2013's Iron Man 3 subverted fans' expectations so aggressively that it rubbed many the wrong way, while 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy brought the Marvel Cinematic Universe into cosmic territory for the first time and introduced a kind of surreal humor that had previously been missing from the franchise. Even 2013's Thor: The Dark World, for all of its many flaws, ends with Tom Hiddleston's Loki sitting on the throne of Asgard instead of his adoptive father, Odin.

However, none of the MCU's Phase Two movies upended things more successfully than Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A superhero movie crossed with an espionage thriller, The Winter Soldier blew viewers away when it hit theaters in April 2014 — delivering pulse-pounding action sequences and shockingly quiet moments of introspection all while shaking the very foundation of the MCU in a way that no other film had up to that point. Now, 10 years later, not only has the sequel's positive reputation grown since its original release, but its importance to the MCU has also never seemed clearer.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) experiences a life-changing identity crisis in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Marvel Studios

2011's Captain America: The First Avenger is a fairly straightforward, uncomplicated portrait of WWII-era patriotism, romance, and heroism. It's a decidedly simple movie, and that's part of its charm. Captain America: The Winter Soldier builds directly on the melancholy nature of The First Avenger's final time jump, though. When the film begins, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) truly feels like a soldier out of time. He's a good man who missed out on his chance to be with the love of his life, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and is stuck trying to catch up on all the decades of history he's missed. As The Winter Soldier's first act establishes, he doesn't have a life outside his S.H.I.E.L.D. missions.

Steve is very much still a man for his country when viewers meet him at the start of the 2014 blockbuster. That's what makes the second-act reveal that S.H.I.E.L.D. was long ago secretly infiltrated by HYDRA such a brilliant twist. It forces Steve to fight the very thing he's built his entire identity around after waking up from his frozen, 70-year sleep. He's suddenly forced to abandon the kind of unquestioning loyalty to the American government that both partly made him such a special soldier in the first place and allowed him to maintain a straight face even as he began wielding a star-spangled shield and wearing a matching costume.

The film takes Steve's identity crisis as far as it can when it eventually brings him face-to-face with his childhood best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), whom he'd long believed to be dead. Bucky is presented as Steve's worst possible self in The Winter Soldier — an obedient operative who follows all of his governmental superiors' orders without question. He's everything HYDRA wants Steve Rogers to be, and that discovery is what ultimately hardens Steve's resolve enough to go through with fully bringing S.H.I.E.L.D. down in The Winter Soldier's third act. His journey throughout the film is one of disillusionment and rediscovery. He loses his once-unbreakable sense of nationalism but finds his own, unyielding humanity and sense of self again.

It's a stunning character arc, one that works beautifully in The Winter Soldier itself and paves the way for all of Steve's individualistic, anti-government actions in 2016's Captain America: Civil War. That film sees the Avengers split in two between those who agree with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that the team needs to subject itself to a level of governmental oversight and those who, like Steve, don't feel comfortable letting the world's most powerful politicians make their decisions for them. Before Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve's distrust of the world's forces of power in Civil War wouldn't have made sense, but they do solely because of the events of that film.

Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is brought back in shockingly brutal fashion in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Marvel Studios

Steve Rogers and Tony Stark's fight in Captain America: Civil War has major consequences in both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. One could even argue, in fact, that the Avengers' initial loss to Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Infinity War — and, therefore, the entire third act of the MCU's Infinity Saga — rests entirely on viewers believing that Steve Rogers would ever become so distrustful of governmental powers that he would go so far as to fight his fellow superheroes over the Sokovia Accords. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the film that makes that possible.

In case all of that wasn't enough, the film also removed, for all intents and purposes, S.H.I.E.L.D. as an active force in the MCU. That might not seem like much of a big deal right now, but it was in 2014. The governmental agency played a fundamental role in the construction of the MCU and the formation of the Avengers. By revealing it to be corrupt and ending with its public downfall, The Winter Soldier effectively toppled one of the cornerstones of its franchise's fictional universe. It proved that Marvel wasn't as afraid of changing the very landscape of the MCU as some fans might have previously believed. In doing so, it injected new life into the MCU at the exact right time, forever changed the status quo of the franchise, and laid the foundation for so much that would come after it.

When it was released in 2014, many were consequently quick to call The Winter Soldier the best MCU film to date. A decade later, the film still holds that title for many fans, and it's not hard to see why.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is streaming now on Disney+.

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