I've gone on record many times as saying that I am actually a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I've seen all 14 MCU movies released to date, at the theater, in most cases advance showings in IMAX 3D. I DO enjoy them, contrary to what my presence on Twitter or Facebook might suggest.
When Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released in 2014, I was expecting it to be a solid sequel to The First Avenger and I was ready to see Cap in a present day situation by himself without the rest of The Avengers. Even then, as the ninth MCU movie to be made, I wasn't expecting it to become the best that the franchise had to offer......a statement that I still stand by today, now five movies and three years later.
Winter Soldier represents the pinnacle of what the MCU can be, through and through. It is the most mature, well-written and well crafted movie that Marvel Studios has created since they started the MCU in 2008. It rivals every other MCU movie that has come before or after it, and that includes Captain America: Civil War AKA "Avengers 2.5: Bucky's Lament." It's also the movie that has had the most seismic impact on the rest of the MCU's storyline with the discovery of Hydra secretly building their ranks within S.H.I.E.L.D. and leading Cap and the gang to literally lay the whole organization to waste to save the world. It's a very good spy thriller with a solid cast, one incredible twist (the Hydra reveal by Zola) and one decent but obvious twist (Bucky's reveal) and it's a testament to the Russos and everyone involved that made one of the best comic book movies of all-time, in my opinion.
So......when is Marvel Studios going to get back to making THOSE kinds of movies?
I mean look, I get it that the MCU is the more family-friendly and campy franchise and they've got to stay that way under the Disney umbrella, but clearly there's a level of filmmaking that they reached with Winter Soldier that proves that Marvel Studios is capable of so much more than "Language" and "Underoos." Since Winter Soldier, we've had Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange. None of those entries are bad movies, but none of them have the level of depth, storytelling and gravitas that Winter Soldier does. We're talking about a movie that laid complete waste to an entire season of a TV show in just over two hours. By that, I'm talking about the repercussions that Winter Soldier had on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the characters within it.
Guardians is probably the closest MCU movie to Winter Soldier's level, and a lot of that is because it was a very different story than what we had previously seen and featured brand new characters that the general audience had never been introduced to and it was a pretty solid story. Nothing too deep or introspective by any means, but still solidly entertaining. No, it doesn't have the allegories present within it concerning freedom vs. fear or using the hubris of humanity and one of it's strongest government agencies to further an evil agenda against its will, but that's kind of the point here. It feels like Marvel Studios hit this great crescendo with Winter Soldier and then just decided they were never going to do that anymore. They were going to give us dance-offs, a robotic Raymond Reddington with an army, Gordon Gekko training Brian Fantana to be a superhero, an overabundance of Tony Stark in what was supposed to be a Captain America sequel, and Sherlock/Smaug as the Sorcerer Supreme.
Don't get me wrong, ALL of that is just fine to do and it's been very entertaining to watch. I'm just sitting here wondering if Marvel Studios is ever going to give us another challenging movie that really hits home on multiple levels while still fitting in with a franchise that largely just entertains the masses. Being entertained is awesome and it's the primary goal of going to the movies, but it's always an extra win if you are entertained by a movie that manages to go the extra mile and really make an impact on you as the viewer or on the franchise itself. Think about it, of all of the MCU movies are there any that are as impactful as Winter Soldier is? Obviously they are all connected, and it's long form storytelling at the cinematic level, but none of them have been as seismic as Winter Soldier's destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. was. Some will argue Sokovia in Age of Ultron of course, because it led to the accords and was the primary motivation of Zemo in Civil War and while that is all true, we're at least four movies away from all of that meaning nothing because of Thanos' impending arrival. Even when that happens, S.H.I.E.L.D. as it was in the first eight MCU movies, is never, ever coming back.
It's not like the Russos have gone anywhere either, they directed Civil War and are directing Avengers: Infinity War. Was the reason that Civil War was so much better received than Winter Soldier really because it was a better movie? Or was it because it had The Avengers plus Spider-Man? I'm thinking the latter on that one, which again is fine and dandy, but if there's anyone out there like me that wants more of what we saw in Winter Soldier, you understand my disappointment that we don't seem to be getting it.
I really, really, really hope that this isn't all because Winter Soldier was deemed "too serious" for the MCU in general. It had plenty of the standard MCU humor and lighthearted moments and just because it dealt with a dark subject didn't make it a dark movie. They found a way to achieve that balance and since then, it feels like they've either forgotten how to do it or they just don't want to anymore. Granted, this could all be rendered moot this year with any one of the three MCU movies coming out, but considering that we have the Guardians sequel, Spider-Man's solo movie debut and a third Thor film that will feature a bit of Stephen Strange, I'm not sure we're going to get a "Winter Soldier level" movie this calendar year. In fact, I'd say the best bet for that would be the movie that comes out just before Infinity War: Black Panther. It boasts an incredibly impressive cast full of Oscar winners and Ryan Coogler, director of Creed at the helm. Provided there isn't an overabundance of other Avengers in the movie, it has the potential to be a very strong installment, maybe one that could very well rival Winter Soldier. This is all speculation at this point, but I'm hopeful for something here.
Again, while the MCU is not my favorite franchise, I have very much enjoyed watching all of the movies and this isn't meant to say that none of the rest of them are good. I just think that they caught lightning in a bottle with Winter Soldier and they shouldn't be so fearful of going back to that formula, if that is indeed the issue at all. We'll see what Marvel Studios does in the next year for sure.