Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon.
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes.
With a movie of this scale, I tend to fixate on what happens after the end credits roll. Not in an "I'm really looking forward to Sebastian Stan crying in the sequel!" way (although obviously that's a given), but in the sense of what impact Steve Rogers' actions will have on the rest of the world. I find it disappointing when movies just focus on the main characters and hit the reset button on the rest of the universe, as if the only people effected by a deadly supervillain/apocalypse are the hero and supporting cast. Luckily, the scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has given us a far better chance to see how the world changes and develops as a result of each new movie.
People love to point out the "Easter egg" details that link Marvel movies together, like Sitwell's offhand mention of Dr Strange. But to be honest, this type of in-universe worldbuilding is pretty easy. The MCU's real strength is the way it portrays a world with a realistic history and contemporary culture, rather than following the more familiar method of plopping a superhero into a city with no hints of influence from the outside world.
From the first Iron Man movie onwards, the existence of superheroes is something that has directly influenced everyday life in the MCU, from the legal ramifications of Tony Stark's unlicensed "prosthesis" to the way he markets himself as a celebrity hero, to his decision to move from weapons manufacturing to clean energy and robotics. By the time we reach Avengers, we've seen more than a glimpse of how the rest of the world is changing as a result. Agents of SHIELD was a stroke of genius because it shares more of the everyday nuts-and-bolts stuff that we're ever going to see in the actual movies. (Note to anyone who stopped watching after the first few episodes: AoS is so awesome now. Persevere.)
Captain America is the strongest strand in this worldbuilding web because he's the first publicly recognised superhuman in the MCU. He gives us a link between the Red Skull in the 1940s, and the present-day world of SHIELD, the Avengers, and the ever-growing pantheon of weird 21st century tech and superhuman characters. Fittingly, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the first movie to give us a truly in-depth look at the non-superheroic side of the MCU.
A typical superhero/adventure movie ends with the hero defeating the villain, plus some kind of set-up for a sequel. Just to be clear, I have zero problem with this. A simple storyline doesn't necessarily preclude good writing or interesting worldbuilding. However, one of the reasons for the popularity of this formula is the fact that big-budget filmmakers are leery of making things "too complicated" in case audiences don't show up for later sequels -- a theory that's now been obliterated by the increasingly complicated nature of the MCU. Marvel Studios loves complicated worldbuilding, and their movies are better as a result.
The events of CATWS have turned the Marvel Cinematic Universe on its head. SHIELD is not only rotten to the core, but functionally dead. The Avengers no longer have the support structure of rational, government-funded backup to help clear things up after the next alien invasion. Fury is in hiding. Natasha is now a public figure. Coulson and his team are on the run. Thanks to Natasha's Snowden-esque leak, anyone with internet access can now read everything from SHIELD's black ops missions to the Helicarrier specs to Hawkeye's psych evaluations. Civilians now know precisely how much SHIELD has been hiding from them all these years, and therefore people are likely to react differently to superhuman threats (and heroes) in the future. By sheer force of numbers, "normal people" are now more powerful and influential than the strongest of the Avengers.
The MCU has been fleshing out its world for nine movies now, but by process of elimination, CATWS was the first chance they had to explore that world in a more wide-reaching way.
Avengers was the most high-impact movie before this, but for obvious reasons it didn't show much of its own aftermath. Iron Man 3, much like its prequels, focused on Tony Stark's life and emotional journey rather than on the outside world -- although it was still a direct follow-up from Avengers, because one of the main themes was Tony struggling with PTSD resulting from the Chitauri attack. Thor: The Dark World told Loki's side of the post-Avengers story and spent half of the time on alien planets, meaning that there wasn't much room for earthbound worldbuilding. But Captain America? He was the perfect choice to show us everything else, not just because we already knew he was working with SHIELD (i.e. the Avengers' most direct link to the civilian population), but because Cap has always been a hero of the people.
It would be a waste of a movie to just have Steve Rogers face off against some supervillain all by himself. Even in The First Avenger, he was backed up by Bucky, Peggy and the Howling Commandos. Before that, his first mission as Captain America was as a propaganda icon, a foundation for his later role as an in-universe historical/comicbook hero. The point of Cap is that he's a leader and an inspirational figure rather than a solo act. He's public property. Even his origin story is all about collaboration, with Dr Erskine and Howard Stark working to build a supersoldier, rather than Steve's powers being an accident of birth, magic, or science.
Cap is pretty unusual in that his battles aren't personal so much as idealogical. Most supervillain/hero conflicts are a combination of personal rivalry (Lex Luthor/Superman, Thor/Loki, Tony Stark/Obadiah Stane, etc.) and the supervillain Doing Something Evil That Must Be Stopped. In the MCU, Captain America doesn't really have an arch-enemy in that sense. He basically just fights bad people, which he'd already been trying to do before he got the supersoldier serum. In The First Avenger, the Red Skull is a relatively late addition to the Captain America origin story, and even after he appears, Cap's main goal is still just to defeat HYDRA/the Nazis. This attitude is why it makes sense for Steve to be working for SHIELD in CATWS, while Tony Stark continues to stay on the sidelines. Steve wants to help, and he feels that SHIELD is the place where he can most effectively put himself to good use.
I think this also ties into the way Steve straddles the line between human and superhuman, meaning that it's still ethically acceptable for him to be going toe-to-toe with normal humans. Captain America can be relatively indiscriminate in the kind of bad guys he decides to take down, because unlike Superman (who can kill more or less anybody without breaking a sweat) or Tony Stark (who is richer than god and can blast you out the sky with his near-indestructable robot suit), it doesn't feel like overkill to have Steve go up against someone like Batroc. Sure, he's stronger and faster than an ordinary human, but he's not so strong and so fast that you see him having to rein himself in. His enhanced physical abilities are basically just a tool he can use to do what he wished he had the power to do back when he was a skinny, asthmatic kid.
In The First Avenger, Steve's battle with the Red Skull only becomes personal after Bucky dies. CATWS mirrors this because Cap's plan to defeat HYDRA is all very strategic and practical until he discovers that Bucky is the Winter Soldier, at which point all bets are off. All those comparisons between CATWS and spy thriller movies are apt, because the story structure isn't particularly superheroic: Cap goes out of his way first to identify the enemy, then to investigate what the hell is going on, and finally to gather a team and face up to that threat. This is a perfect fit for Steve Rogers' characterisation as a commanding officer and a guy who always goes out of his way to do the right thing, and it also serves to highlight the significance of him then risking everything to keep Bucky alive at the end.
The disaster movie genre has been around forever, but recently there's been an uptick in the number of summer blockbusters that illustrate their impact with collossal infrastructure damage. This is possibly the result of Michael Bay's Transformers movies, and I don't find it very effective because with a PG or PG-13 rating in mind, no amount of toppling skyscrapers will feel meaningful. It's particularly bizarre when you consider America's obsession with urban terrorist attacks. Hollywood movies regularly include disasters that are ten or even a hundred times more devastating than 9/11, but they zoom out until all you're experiencing is grey concrete dust, tiny people running around like ants, and the distant vibration of a dramatic bass soundtrack.
I find it quite unpleasant to watch this kind of movie that implies vast amounts of civilian casualties, but cleanses that loss by removing its bloodshed and viscerality. I'd rather have a supervillain cause the meaningful death of one character we actually care about, than have him destroy fifty skyscrapers full of nameless civilians whose deaths are reduced to a silent, PG-rated nonentity. I'd rather have Obi-Wan Kenobi say "It was as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced," than watch another CGI shot of buildings toppling over like dominoes, with no sign of who was inside. CATWS wasn't perfect in this regard, but it had three things counting in its favour:
- Whenever action scenes took place in a public space, it was a situation where the heroes had no choice but to stand and fight (or drive wherever there was still space on the road.) There were vanishingly few situations where the "good guys" would have caused the deaths of innocent bystanders, which is more than you can say for Man of Steel.
- The inevitable "huge things crashing into each other" scene was when Team Steve took down the Helicarriers, and there was an actual reason for them to be crashing, unlike the endlessly disaster-prone skyscrapers I keep seeing in other movies. Also, the people in the Helicarriers were explicitly meant to be enemy combatants who were voluntarily doing a really bad thing for a really bad organization, and Steve already gave them every opportunity to leave their posts.
- The scene where Natasha desperately yells at civilians to get to safety. (Which, incidentally, is one of the very few scenes where one of the heroes actually has a chance to do something to help nearby civilians, because most of the time they're already running for their lives as well.)
The superhero genre is always going to require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. For example, the concept of secret identities has always been kind of ridiculous, and is now even less plausible than it was before. Given the current level of surveillance technology now available, Spider-Man and Batman's secret identities would have been revealed within days of them becoming public figures. However, for those stories to keep being told in any recogniseable fashion, the issue of secret identities must simply be ignored. And personally, I don't have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when a hero repeatedly defeats various supervillains in a very public and dangerous way, and everyone else just keeps... living on as normal.
Character-wise, one of the most significant worldbuilding decisions in the MCU was to make all of their heroes completely public. Steve Rogers is famous enough that Sam Wilson could recognise him in the park. Tony and Pepper are already celebrities, of a sort. All of the Avengers are now mythologised with in-universe memorabilia. In fact, the only characters with anything remotely resembling secret identities were SHIELD agents like Hawkeye, Fury and Black Widow, who are the least "super" of the main Avengers team. Following CATWS, even Black Widow is a public figure, appearing on TV to testify about the SHIELD/HYDRA document leak. She is now the Edward Snowden of the MCU.
The MCU doesn't really require the kind of suspension of disbelief needed to continue watching Spider-Man movies where New York continually fails to just shoot the Green Goblin out of the sky. First of all, the scope of the MCU allows us to get a closer look at things like SHIELD, which explains how certain supernatural/superpowered phenomena have stayed secret for so long. The SHIELD characters also show how normal humans react to the sudden appearance of people like Thor and Captain America. Secondly, the hero/villain conflicts in the MCU are not confined to just the hero and the villain, but have a solid foundation in the world "outside." Even Malekith in Thor: The Dark World (probably the most two-dimensional villain so far) was shown in terms of the real consequences of his actions, with that tear-jerking Asgardian funeral scene.
Most importantly of all, the human characters in the MCU are just as significant and powerful as the metahuman characters. Nick Fury is undoubtedly more powerful than any of the Avengers: he's their boss. Peggy Carter and Howard Stark helped found SHIELD, an organization that spent decades shaping the way the world would react to people like Thor and Iron Man. Pepper Potts and Jane Foster both have an ongoing impact on the world around them. Phil Coulson is the catalyst that brings the Avengers together in the first place. In CATWS, we see that expanded to its greatest extent so far, with Agent 13 and crowds of other SHIELD agents making the decision to ignore their orders and fight alongside Cap. By elevating the importance of human/civilian characters, the MCU creates a far more complex and believable world than most other superhero movies -- and all without disempowering its heroes.
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Continued in Part 5: Costuming and design: Steve & Bucky.
Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the "gritty" superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon.
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes.