Captain America: The Winter Soldier or How the Marvel Cinematic Universe Stopped Working

This is not an essay designed to bash The Winter Solider. Taken on its own merits the most recent Captain America movie is a pretty good thrill ride, ranking easily as one of the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yet, its status as part of a much larger whole is where one finds fault with Marvel’s newest juggernaut. In the company’s post-Avengers releases (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and most egregiously in Captain America: Winter Soldier) the absence of the other heroes and the spy agency SHIELD is glaring. This is a feeling that is exacerbated with each new film featuring apocalyptic levels of violence. What these releases elucidate is Marvel’s inability to balance art and commerce. The need to deliver global level threats for each film focusing on an individual hero (a need dictated by the market) damages the credibility of the very shared-universe that the studio has so painstakingly created.

Iron Man 3, the first film to follow Joss Whedon’s much celebrated Avengers, was obviously the first indicator of these problems. Shane Black’s ungainly triquel had a tall order to begin with. It needed to pare things down to focus solely on Iron Man. Simultaneously, it also needed to have the stakes and the CGI pyrotechnics necessary to not seem wimpy in comparison to The Avengers. While Black was only partially successful with this complex balancing act, the film’s climactic sequence (a gee-whiz barrage of a kidnapped President, a myriad of Iron Man suits, and a fire-breathing Guy Pearce) certainly qualifies as having been a significant threat which pushed Stark to his very limits.

Yet that, in a nutshell, is the central problem with Iron Man 3’s third act. While it is admirable that Black attempted to do something different with the franchise, such as taking Stark out of his suit for huge stretches of the time, the third act of the film reverts to typical superhero fare. This wouldn’t be a major issue if the level of chaos introduced by the indecipherable plotting of Pearce Aldrich Killian was modest or contained. Instead, the climax of Iron Man 3 revolves around the attempted, public execution of the President of the United States. With the exception of a 9/11 redux, there is no criminal act that would more quickly ignite the ire of other super powered defenders.

Because of the grave nature of the climax it is truly bizarre that Hawkeye, Black Widow and Captain America are nowhere to be found. Additionally, the massive edifice of SHIELD, whose reach and capabilities Marvel has gone to great lengths to establish, is also not a player in Iron Man 3. Sam Jackson, whose crusty, myopic Nick Fury has now become the unifying fixture of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, must have been on a very important vacation. Either that or he must not have voted for the film’s President Ellis. It’s the only way to explain him leaving Stark to his own devices. One would think he would at least have sent in a couple commandos for tactical support.

Instead, it’s actually the feckless Pepper Potts who proves to be the source of Killian’s demise. Without her it’s highly probable that Stark and Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes may have been overwhelmed. Pepper Pott’s ascendance into the role of savior is not just goofy, it also serves to more starkly highlight the lack of other elements from Marvel’s shared-universe. SHIELD’s absence in particular runs counterintuitive to the central ramifications of The Avengers and the Battle of New York.

Following the destruction of America’s greatest city, one would posit that SHIELD would almost instantaneously begin to dramatically amplify its resources and presence in supernatural affairs. In fact, the epilogue of The Avengers beats you over the head with the notion that the (silly) World Security Council is deeply unnerved by the presence of so much superpowered activity. However, the massive, sprawling spy agency barely gets a mention in the interim between Avengers and Winter Soldier – a wholly distracting fact.

Of course, some absences are more palatable than others. While it makes no sense why individuals like Captain America or Nick Fury did not offer assistance in Iron Man’s time of need; other characters, such as Hulk and especially Thor, could have potential reasons for not getting involved.

There are those who claim that the lack of any hero overlap since The Avengers is due to a compression in time, with events in different movies occurring nearly simultaneously. The most pertinent example of this revolves around the events of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World – which many have claimed possesses this quality of timeline overlap.

This theory however does not hold water, as any quick peak at the extensive timeline fleshed out here reveals that the events of the two films occur nearly a year apart from each other. A far more compelling case for why someone as powerful as Thor does not get involved in Iron Man’s affairs (and vice versa) lies in the basic premise of Thor’s godlike status. Unlike Captain America for instance, who would be acutely aware of the kidnapping and impending execution of the President of the United States, Thor is metaphysical being, capable of traveling through different worlds. It’s very probable that the death of one human (even the most powerful man on Planet Earth) might not be on his radar.

Unfortunately, the inverse scenario, which played out in Thor: The Dark World, is not plausible. While Thor can move through different realms The Dark World chooses to wage its climactic battle (which features Thor slugging it out with a celestial elf) within the confines of London – which is of course one of the world’s most famous cities. The very idea that billionaire industrialist Tony Stark wouldn’t zero in on the carnage happening across the ocean, while recognizing that the blonde fruitcake who helped him save the planet a year prior was in trouble, is a real side-splitter.

The Dark World’s final battle represents another instance where the massive governmental edifice of SHIELD (ostensibly designed to be a watcher of the watchmen) completely dropped the ball. In fact, the only evidence of governmental awareness of two super powered heavyweights going toe to toe is the appearance of two British fighter jets (who Malekith immediately takes care of). One can’t even make the claim that the battle transpired too quickly for SHIELD agents to mobilize. We’ve seen throughout the cinematic universe and in the Agents of SHIELD TV show that the organization possesses technology far superior to that in our own reality. The organization’s flying cars and gigantic helicarriers must have all been in the shop.

In Captain America: Winter Soldier this glaring omission of much of the Marvel Universe’s infrastructure is reversed. The storyline revolves around SHIELD and the other governmental entities designed to oversee The Avengers and supernatural activity in general. This focus, at least initially, feels like an encouraging step. It is one of the first references (in the post-Avengers world) to what Whedon’s film successfully highlighted. During one of the most enjoyable scenes in The Avengers it was revealed that Nick Fury was using the Tesseract to develop nuclear deterrents against superpowered beings (or visiting aliens). The plot of Winter Solider revolves around a continuation of this theme, expanding it to reveal that SHIELD is fundamentally compromised, governed by a paranoid zealot who wants to wipe out any and all suspected threats.

Winter Soldier reestablishes some semblance of continuity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe through this plot point. It’s powerfully done, with the movie conveying that there are real consequences born from superhero activity. In Cap’s latest one observes that a city can’t simply be blown to smithereens without the world being dramatically affected (a fact that one would surmise from Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World).

However, Captain America: Winter Soldier still falls prey to the problems that marred those previous films. A majority of the film eschews grandiose, heavily CGI’d action. Yet, Winter Soldier’s climactic scene involves the hostile use of SHIELD technology, which eventually threatens the lives of over 20 million people. This isn’t exactly a fatal flaw for the film as it is more congruent with how a world like the one created in the MCU could expand as the result of the previous films. Yet, the market-dictated climax again exposes the lack of a true integrated universe. None of the other super powered beings that we’ve encountered thus far show up to help Cap. This is even more egregious than any of the other post-Avengers releases due to how the SHIELD organization is the one thread that unites all of the major heroes.

One could make the (fairly weak) argument that something like Thor’s brawl with Malekith could be perceived as an isolated incident, a spastic moment of violence that was contained quickly enough by the God of Thunder. The same idea does not hold true for the events of Winter Soldier, which essentially amount to a prolonged siege upon SHIELD and its figurehead Nick Fury. What’s even more distressing about the Winter Soldier is that it’s the first post-Avengers release to directly indicate where other heroes are located during its climax.When the helicarriers take flight and begin targeting people across the globe there is one blip that pops up labeled something like “Anthony Stark.” From the look of this particular blip one would have every reason to believe that Stark is simply hanging around in New York City. One must surmise that he is either completely oblivious or completely apathetic to the cataclysmic level of violence that the two most vulnerable Avengers (Cap and Black Widow) are desperately trying to contain. And again the problem here is due to the level of violence involved and because it directly involves an organization that Stark has been connected with. It just makes no sense.

So why does any of this matter? Well, because as noted the various Marvel films all ostensibly belong to the same universe. By refusing to include more substantial references to other important characters, and stubbornly only being willing to feature Earth-shaking climaxes, the interconnectedness of that universe begins to fray. Causality, a concept so prevalent in many other franchises, is something not strongly felt within the confines of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. In both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World this problem is mainly due to the way that any real presence of SHIELD or other superheros is negated. Winter Soldier partially corrects this, featuring a SHIELD that has become overrun with paranoia (a natural response to the Battle of New York). Yet, Winter Soldier more greatly highlights the void in the superhero landscape. Its omission of other major heroes feels even more ridiculous because its plot directly involves someone and something in which all the Avengers have some stake

On a superficial level this quality is simply distracting. It takes one out of the climactic duel between the Winter Soldier and Captain aboard the helicarrier to wonder something insipid about why Tony Stark is just resting on his laurels instead of getting into the fray. But on a deeper level it cheapens Marvel’s artistic credibility, prompting one to consider the larger universe they’ve constructed as something with less weight than The Godfather, The Dark Knight or Harry Potter. Because if you want to create a larger universe for your fictional characters to exist in you have to also show how events ripple through and affect all involved (see the DC Animated Universe for how it should be done). Of course all of this can be avoided by bringing these stories down in scope (such as Cap and Black Widow’s assault on the pirates in Winter Soldier’s opening scene), but Marvel, unfortunately, has shown an unwillingness to do this with their climaxes. Not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with showing the apocalypse in each film. But if that is the route you want to go down, then you also have to parse what it means.

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