Where does Captain America 2 leave the Marvel universe?

Spoilers: just where does Captain America: The Winter Soldier leave the Marvel cinematic universe?

This article contains lots of spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The phrase ‘game-changer’ is bandied about a lot in the ever-growing world of superhero movies, with The Dark Knight, The Avengers and now Captain America: The Winter Soldier being three of the biggest examples in recent years.

While Nolan’s terrorism allegory and Whedon’s super team-up both changed the game for the makers of comic book movies, inspiring a string brooding blockbusters and shared universes respectively, The Winter Soldier actually changes things in a different way – by hugely shaking up the fictional world of the movie, the events of Cap’s latest adventure have steered the Marvel Cinematic Universe away from the direction many presumed it was going in.

There is a lot of spoilery discussion to be spawned by this film and let it be stressed that the Winter Soldier’s identity is not the only twist. If you haven’t seen the film yet, and want to go in completely cold, scroll no further than this beautiful visualisation by Kerry Callen of what Captain America would be like as a DC character in their wacky 1960s phase:

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‘Everything goes’

Let’s start with S.H.I.E.L.D. – the spy agency which has been the backbone of Marvel’s shared universe since day one. Marvel’s huge success with 2012’s The Avengers actually started way back in 2008’s Iron Man when Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury first dropped the hint that there were more superheroes out there, and that he had a plan to bring them together.

Since Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige’s mammoth crossover conquered the global box office, the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents have been suspiciously absent from the big screen MCU adventures. They didn’t do anything to help stop a plot against the P.O.T.U.S. in Iron Man 3 and they weren’t even answering important phone-calls in Thor: The Dark World – now we know why.

The Winter Soldier shows us that S.H.I.E.L.D. has some serious problems – former WWII-era HYDRA scientist Arnim Zola has been corrupting S.H.I.E.L.D. since the start. Present day Zola, now a living computer, has created an algorithm to identify potential troublemakers and kill them before they get a chance to commit any crimes. As the ever-righteous Steve Rogers points out – this isn’t freedom, this is fear.

When punching Zola’s computer monitor doesn’t seem to fix anything, Cap sets out to stop the modern day HYDRA representative leading S.H.I.E.L.D. – Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce. When the few remaining good guys meet-up to form a plan, Cap shoots down Fury’s idea of trying to salvage S.H.I.E.L.D. “Everything goes” says Rogers, and everyone agrees. S.H.I.E.L.D., as we know it, is gone.

At the end of the movie we see Fury incinerate his iconic eye-patch and head to Europe to stop some more corruption, while Maria Hill sits down to take a lie detector test at Stark Industries. So what does this mean for the future?

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The immediate assumption is that the Avengers (including the remaining trustworthy agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), will form their own justice-keeping organisation, financed by Tony Stark. Not only would this tie into the tease of the ‘A’ left hanging on Stark Tower in Avengers Assemble (which alluded to the Stark-donated Avengers Mansion from the comics), this would be a neat way to keep Robert Downey Jr. in the franchise without too many action scenes for the World’s Mightiest Middle-aged Dude.

This private ownership would no doubt pit the Avengers against the government at some point, which could tee up nicely for a Civil War-style crossover. With the Avengers possibly working alone, surely Stark creating Ultron and putting the world in danger is going to get him/the team into a lot of trouble somewhere down the line. Why would Stark need to do a lie detector test on Maria though? Maybe he’s interviewing her to help run the new Head Quarters, but needs to know he can trust her. Either that or he just likes messing with people and making them nervous.

Another option is something similar to the aftermath of the Secret War comic book arc which saw Fury disappear in disgrace, with Maria taking the helm of S.H.I.E.L.D. – with no teases for a new S.H.I.E.L.D. team though, and Maria’s visit to Stark Industries surely being more than a red herring, a Stark-funded Avengers HQ seems more likely.

Two more grow in its place

Kept well under wraps in the publicity for this film was the fact that HYDRA were returning. The Nazi deep science research division, thought defeated during The First Avenger, has actually been gathering strength and numbers while Captain America was on ice.

Not only did it survive without the Red Skull’s leadershipit has grown into powerful behind-the-scenes puppet masters of society by building cybernetic-enhanced killing machines, wiping out potential threats before they’ve done anything, infiltrating the most secure levels of the government and even influencing key historical events. A brief image even suggested that HYDRA was behind the assassination on the grassy knoll.

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Truly, the events of The Winter Soldier show that there’s no limit to HYDRA’s reach, and we’re sure to see more of it. Although Iron Man 2 alumnus Senator Stern and established S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Agent Sidwell have been caught mid-heil, there’s bound to be more powerful figures in on the act.

While we’ve all been expecting each film to tie back to Thanos and the Infinity Stones, the Russo brothers have snuck another massive threat into the MCU in the shape of HYDRA. There’s several ways this could be developed on screen in the future; with the power of Loki’s sceptre, HYDRA could potentially open a portal and bring back Red Skull; with high levels of influence in government, it could try to stamp down on superheroes; in rebooting Zola, it could rain computerised terror on our tech-obsessed society; tying into the Clairevoyant’s experiments in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it could even create its own army of super-soldiers.

Although there are plenty of options for future plotlines, one thing is for sure – we haven’t seen the end of HYDRA. It seems likely it will become established as a recurring threat meddling in the background of the MCU, returning repeatedly to torment the Avengers over several films. The film’s mid-credits sting confirmed that The Winter Soldier only represented one battle, and that the war is far from over. Introducing Thomas Kretschmann as Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, this short scene introduced us to a HYDRA project which is bound to dominate Phase 3…

The Age of Miracles

While HYDRA continue as the puppet-masters of planet earth, von Strucker will unleash super-powered humans onto society. When you think about it, human characters with superpowers haven’t really been a big theme so far in the MCU. Iron Man’s abilities are all in the suits; Captain America is honed to perfect physical condition but is still essentially just a man; and the Hulk, although indestructible, is the result of a radiation mishap. When compared to the X-Men and other Marvel heroes, the current on-screen (human) Avengers rosta isn’t very heavy on superpowers.

Thor, Loki and other Asgardian characters have introduced the idea that beings from other corners of the nine realms have far more fantastical abilities – flight, witchcraft, controlling lightning and near-immortality being examples that we know about so far.

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Since Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were announced to star in Age Of Ultron, there has been speculation about how Marvel Studios would give them their superpowers. Existing as children of Magneto in the comics, these two characters are traditionally mutants.

Without the rights to the X-Men lore, Marvel Studios would have to get creative to introduce these characters, and it looks like it’s found a way. So how has von Strucker gifted ‘the twins’ with the fantastical powers of super speed and telekinesis which we see in the mid-credits sting? With the help of Loki’s sceptre.

Last seen in Black Widow’s hands closing Loki’s portal, the sceptre has previously allowed the God of Mischief to take control of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and several other characters. Presumably left lying around while everyone went for shwarma, the sceptre is now with HYDRA.

It seems likely, as it was reintroduced in the same lab as the super-powered siblings, that HYDRA has been experimenting with the sceptre and found a way to use it to give out amazing abilities to ordinary individuals.

Although the MCU has seen aliens, flying suits and huge green rage monsters, it has never seen anything quite like this, which is bound to have big consequences. Dubbed by von Strucker as ‘the age of miracles’, this introduction of new super-powers into the MCU is almost certain to dominate phase three. With Stephen Strange name-dropped in the same movie, it’s worth putting money on him gaining his mystical abilities through similar techniques. With more opportunities arising for new characters, this ‘age of miracles’ could also open the door to a massive crossover event like Civil War.

Will these new characters, and any more HYDRA creations, be able to control their new powers? How long before HYDRA starts using them to attempt total world domination? Can the sceptre create beings with Asgardian levels of power? Expect these questions, and many more, to be raised shortly and for ‘miracles’ and impossible abilities to dominate the MCU for years. Before we even got time to dwell on this revelation in the cinema though, another big hint was dropped…

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The Death of Captain America?

Although not overtly mentioned, Bucky Barnes rediscovering his human side at the very end of the film, coupled with the return of Arnim Zola and the reappearance of HYDRA, seems to point towards one famous comic book arc making it to screen in the future – The Death of Captain America.

The fact that Chris Evans has displayed an interest in winding down his acting career lately, while Sebastian Stan has signed up for a nine film deal, also serves to support the theory that the mantle of Captain America might soon be changing hands.

This 2007 comic book arc was written by Ed Brubaker, the man who first brought back long-dead Cap side-kick Bucky Barnes as The Winter Soldier. Brubaker’s work was a huge influence on the Russo brother’s development of The Winter Soldier and if logic prevails, they are likely to find more inspiration in his further work.

Brubaker famously killed off Cap after the events of Marvel’s Civil War crossover. As Crossbones looked on, a brainwashed Sharon Carter dealt the final blow on the orders of the Red Skull. In introducing Crossbones and Carter, as well as giving HYDRA a sceptre with mind control powers, there are so many clues alluding that Marvel Studios is building towards putting these events on screen in the future.

With Evans tied in for at least two more films after Age of Ultron on his six film contract (his Thor: The Dark World cameo doesn’t count), it seems likely that he will appear in Captain America 3 before bowing out in Avengers 3, letting Bucky take on the role of Captain America in phase four.

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To wrap up then, although Captain America might not be the most charismatic or powerful Marvel hero, his latest movie has been arguably the most significant film of phase two so far and has delivered by the far the most change we have ever seen in the Marvel cinematic universe.

Going forward, the legacy of this film will have repercussions throughout the MCU for years to come. HYDRA has now been reintroduced and will likely be a background baddie (like Thanos so far), tormenting and testing the Avengers from afar through its evil schemes.

Using Loki’s sceptre, HYDRA has managed to give ordinary people incredible powers, and by throwing Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch into the mix in Age Of Ultron, Marvel Studios will move forward with its own experiment of introducing many more superpowers, which could lead to their biggest, most epic crossover event to date.

This brave new world of crazy super powers will be governed by a new team, possibly a new, non-government-aligned Avengers team, funded by Tony Stark with leadership help from Maria Hill. Steve Rogers will be a key part of this team for the next couple of years, but Bucky Barnes is likely to take on the mantle of Captain America after Chris Evans’ contract ends after Avengers 3.

Whether or not our predictions and assumptions are right, we can expect the MCU to be a very different place from Age Of Ultron onwards, with super-powered people running around, something new in place of the established S.H.I.E.L.D. set-up and a shady bunch of Nazi scientists attempting world domination. No wonder Marvel has so many films lined up, if it’s looking to cover that little lot…

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