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The Road to ‘Endgame’ Part 6: How ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Pushed the MCU to New Heights

'The Avengers' who? THESE are the films that showed the MCU's true potential.

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In the lead-up to the highly anticipated conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s epic “Infinity Saga”: Avengers: Endgame, we’re taking a look back at the decade-long road it took to get to this point. Today’s retrospective takes us back to 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, two movies that are undoubtedly among the most important to the MCU’s longevity.

Apart from being under the superhero umbrella, these two movies are quite different from the others in Phases 1 and 2, most of all each other. While the majority of Phase 1 consisted of beat-by-beat origin stories and Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World both had the typical “superhero sequel” tone, but Captain American: The Winter Solider is a political spy thriller, while Guardians of the Galaxy is a space comedy.

Most of the MCU sub-franchises’s second installments have received relatively negative reception from audiences (which basically translates to mixed reviews when compared to all of cinema in general). In fact, The Winter Solider is probably the only one that’s generally regarded as the best of its trilogy. I don’t want to get into that debate, but this movie certainly helped make Captain America as a character more popular with mainstream audiences. In his first two appearances, the filmmakers embraced the corniness of his 1940’s mentality and do-gooder spirit, but here he feels much more grounded in a sense. While Steve Rogers was introduced to the modern world in The First Avenger and we see glimpses of his attempts to adjust to it in The Avengers (most of the more poignant examples of this were cut from the final film) The Winter Solider is when he finally gets a true dose of reality and is forced to really think about his place in this new world.

The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier are an interesting pair of films. One is a period piece set mostly during WWII Europe and the other is an American-centric spy thriller, but both somehow work not only as part of the MCU as a whole, but as part of the same trilogy within in. As I said a few days ago, The First Avenger is a great origin story because it sets up the emotional stakes and motives for our main character in future installments. Even though The Winter Soldier throws in a couple of quick lines and scenes to bring audiences somewhat up to speed on things, it’s definitely not a replacement for actually seeing the “before and after” juxtaposition between the two movies.

A lot of people were lukewarm about the idea of a Captain America sequel (there was some excitement but not a lot of true HYPE) but the movie that had people flat-out worried upon the Phase 2 slate announcement in 2012 was Guardians of the Galaxy. It was one of Marvel’s lesser-known properties, which was saying something considering most of the films up to that point had been based on B-list characters, and there was much concern that a talking raccoon and tree would be “too much” for general audiences to take. Guardians of the Galaxy was a test for Marvel Studios, possibly an even bigger one than The Avengers; if they could make a hit out of the property, the sky was the limit for which other Marvel Comics characters could wind up in the MCU (FOX and Sony rights notwithstanding).

Not only did they pass with flying colors (the worldwide box office total was well over 700 million dollars) the movie ended up opening the door for different tones and visual styles to be used in future Marvel movies. While humor was a part of all the previous films to some extent, this was the first straight-up comedy in the MCU. It knew it’s premise was a weird one to swallow and it embraced this by not taking itself too seriously. Audiences responded well, and looking at some of the movies that came after, that success surely played an integral part of shaping the franchise as a whole going forward.

Looking back at the MCU as a whole, 2014 feels like a real turning point for the series. While Marvel Studios had already proved they were capable of coming out with consistent hits, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy took things to the next level by exploring new genres and diving headfirst into them. Most franchises get stale by the six-year mark, but for the MCU, things were just heating up.

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