‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is still the best Marvel movie — 10 years later

Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Is superhero fatigue real? The popular buzzword has been frequently used to describe Marvel’s recent offerings. From “Iron Man” to “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Marvel was virtually bulletproof, with multiple billion-dollar hits and a stranglehold on pop culture. 

Yet, cracks in the Marvel armor have shown post-pandemic. “The Eternals” and “The Marvels” flopped, behind-the-scenes VFX drama plagued “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” and outside “Loki,” Marvel’s Disney Plus offerings have been underwhelming. For the first time in 15 years, Marvel hit the pause button at the end of 2023 to regroup and determine a new direction for the future.

Ten years ago, Marvel was still in its infancy stages after releasing only one “Avengers” film and a few sequels to “Iron Man” and “Thor.” In 2014, Steve Rogers headlined his first sequel in the MCU, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” After the events in “The Avengers,” Rogers (Chris Evans) is still adjusting to modern society while living in Washington D.C. With S.H.I.E.L.D. compromised, Rogers teams with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to unearth a conspiracy that threatens the safety of humanity. Standing in Captain America’s way is the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a deadly assassin who happens to be a familiar face in Rogers’s past life.

Upon its release on April 4, 2014, “The Winter Soldier” immediately felt different from previous Marvel films. By proving it could stand on its own in a crowded superhero genre, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” became Marvel’s best movie, a title it still holds today.

A ‘70s thriller disguised as a superhero movie

The best superhero movies focus more on character and story than comic book elements. Look at “The Dark Knight,” one of the gold standards for superhero movies. On its surface, “The Dark Knight” is a superhero story. It pits Batman, the caped crusader, against the Joker, an anarchist who dresses like a clown. However, “The Dark Knight” is more interested in exploring themes — morality, identity, and grief — than it is in watching Bruce wear the Batsuit. It’s a “Heat"-inspired cat-and-mouse thriller disguised as a Batman entry.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” follows a similar playbook. “The Winter Soldier” is a political espionage thriller inside a Marvel movie. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo explained in an interview with Total Film that they modeled “The Winter Soldier” after the iconic ‘70s thrillers “The French Connection” and “Three Days of the Condor.” The Russos are more interested in Steve Rogers's moral compass and his journey to find his place in a corrupt world than watching him throw a shield at a bad guy.

That’s not to say throwing a shield is a bad thing; it’s the opposite. The action scenes in “The Winter Soldier” are invigorating, edge-of-your-seat thrill rides. Since it’s a Marvel movie, there are thousands of VFX shots. Yet, “The Winter Soldier” is not bogged down by bad, unnecessary CGI. Its commitment to practical effects and stuntwork results in some of the MCU’s best action sequences, with the boat mission and highway chase standouts. 

 A unique chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Marvel’s biggest strength is its cinematic universe. Kevin Feige’s ability to connect each movie and TV show to create one cohesive story is genius. The Infinity Saga is expert storytelling at its finest. 

However, this connectivity is also Marvel’s biggest weakness. One of the major critiques of the last three years is that 90% of the projects in Phases Four and Five exist solely to expand the Multiverse Saga. When Marvel emphasizes growing the universe over telling a self-contained story, the projects are less effective (“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”) and more forgettable (“Secret Invasion”). 

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is the perfect mix of a self-contained story with connectivity to the MCU. While watching previous MCU films helps with character names and plot points, it is not a requirement, especially with “The Winter Soldier.” There is minimal homework required. Within minutes, audiences that do not know the MCU can figure out the characters’ motivations and relationships through their actions and emotions.

Is the moment when Bucky reveals himself as The Winter Soldier more effective for fans who watched “Captain America: The First Avenger?” Sure. However, watching a confused Steve call out to Bucky when he sees his face for the first time is enough to let the audience know that these two know each other. You don’t need to read an essay about the Infinity Stones to figure that out.

Sebastian Stan in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

(Image credit: Alamy)

Maybe "The Office's" Andy Bernard was right when he wished there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve left them. I look back at “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and yearn for another espionage thriller with style and structure, one whose sole purpose is not to be a stepping stone for a connected universe. 

Marvel will inevitably bounce back, especially with “Deadpool & Wolverine,” “The Fantastic Four,” and “The X-Men” on the horizon. Until then, let’s enjoy the good old days and reminisce about Marvel’s best movie.

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Dan Girolamo

Dan is a talented content creator who specializes in pop culture, entertainment, and sports. His entertainment interviews have been featured on Digital Trends, where he has spoken with various actors and entertainers, including Brendan Fraser, Alison Brie, and James Cameron. Additionally, Dan is a sportswriter with The Sports Daily, breaking down the top news in the NFL and NBA while providing picks and predictions for each league. Other bylines include ComingSoon.net, Unafraid Show, Fansided, and WatchMojo. When he’s not working, Dan enjoys rooting for his favorite New York sports teams and watching the latest movie from Christopher Nolan or Martin Scorsese.