Paramount via Everett Collection
Even though there's still three months to go before Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be released in theaters, Marvel is reportedly already working on a third installment of the franchise. Though it was only a matter of time before another sequel was announced - like the rest of Marvel's recent films, The Winter Solider is expected to be a box office smash — the studio has decided to move more quickly than usual in an attempt to lock down the film's directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, for the third film. Though everything is still in the early planning stages, footage from the film has impressed both Marvel and test audiences, which propelled the studio into moving forward with the new project.
The biggest doubt as of right now seems to be whether or not The Winter Solider will actually live up to its hype, but it seems highly likely that the film will continue the studio's long line of successes. Cap is one of Marvel's most beloved characters, and Chris Evans' performance in The Avengers has helped win over any moviegoers who may not have enjoyed the first Captain America film. That kind of pedigree alone means that there should be no problems attracting an audience for the sequel, but it will be helped by forcing Cap to deal head-on with the way that society has changed in the 70 years that he was frozen. Introducing the emotional and psychological ramifications that come with the Avengers' jobs and histories received rave reviews from both critics and fans in Iron Man 3, and continuing that thread in The Winter Soldier will help to not only add depth and substance to the action sequences, but also to help make the character and his philosophy more timely.
In addition, the film will see the return of plenty of familiar faces, including Black Widow, Nick Fury and Bucky Barnes, and since all three are fan favorites despite not having any solo films, that will certainly help attract a larger audience. There will also be a new love interest, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter, and a new sidekick for Cap, Stan Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon. The presence of these new characters, coupled with the emotional hurdles that Cap will have to face, open up new storyline possibilities for the character, both in the larger Marvel universe and, perhaps more importantly, in the third Captain America installment.
Though he joined the team for a while in the comic books, the Avengers lineup is already pretty crowded, so it's hard to see anyone adding Falcon into any of the upcoming Avengers films, other than in a supporting role. Therefore, the third Captain America film would be the ideal place to expand the character's screentime and explore his character further. It's already been revealed that he and Cap will bond over their shared history in the military and sense of duty, and it would be great to see that backstory fleshed out in a way that helps establish Falcon as his own, distinct character. The films have proven relatively adept at creating three-dimensional characters despite a lack of screentime, and often find ways to discuss and explore Natasha and Black Widow's past despite her only playing a supporting role in other hero's films. In the comics, Falcon had an important presence as Cap's partner, and it would be nice to see the films do justice to his importance, even if they can only do it through the Captain America films.
Similarly, The Winter Soldier seems set to forge a bond between Black Widow and Cap, both platonically and romantically, which could cause a problem with both Hawkeye and Sharon Carter. The Avengers seemed to establish some romantic tension between Black Widow and Hawkeye, and so having her and Cap become involved could either be a sign of Hawkeye's diminishing importance in the Avengers lineup, or it could set up a conflict amongst teammates, as Cap doesn't seem the type to be comfortable with overstepping those kinds of personal boundaries. Meanwhile, Sharon Carter plays a significant role in the comics, and she and Cap have a long, if somewhat tumultuous, relationship. It seems like Sharon will be appearing in several films within the universe, which means that the studio might be establishing a love triangle. It's a plot development that they've tried before, most notably in the two Thor films with Thor, Lady Sif and Jane, but it has never been particularly well received by audiences. These two women are well-written, smart, and interesting characters in their own right, so the last thing we would want for either one of them would be to see the third Captain America film taken over by a love triangle that pits them against one another. It not only takes away from what would probably be an exciting, compelling storyline, but it would negatively impact both characters.
The other major character introduction that will be occurring in The Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes, Cap's best friend who has been brainwashed into a Soviet assassin. Although the main villain will be played by Robert Redford, the Winter Soldier will likely be a recurring villain, like Loki, and appear in multiple films throughout the universe. Both the bad guys in Cap's films are strongly to their time period and the political climate of the day, which makes it impossible for them to flit across the various planets and times that make up the Marvel universe. Bucky, however, is bot bound by those same laws, and like Loki, can move through those different universes and films in a way that seems to hint at the possibility of him being the main villain of either an Avengers film or the third Captain America. Setting him up to be the villain of the third film would be a good idea, as it forces Cap to confront the idea of fighting against his best friend, rather than beside him, which, again, helps give the film some depth. The implications and consequences of a character that has been brainwashed into evil are too interesting to be brushed off at the end of the film, and so we'd love to see the Winter Soldier be the big bad of the third film, if only to learn more about what Bucky has gone through.
The down side to news of the third film is that Marvel won't be giving a solo film to any of the other major characters, but Cap's position as one of the leaders of the Avengers allows them to incorporate those characters into his storylines, and give them more screen time. It would be really interesting to see Hawkeye or the Hulk team up with Cap on his next mission, instead of simply having Black Widow play the supporting role in every film, especially since neither character got to interact with him much in The Avengers. The fact that Marvel is expanding Cap's universe and history so much makes bringing in outside characters difficult, but since anything the Avengers do will affect them as well, it seems like it would be worth the effort.
Of course, since nothing has been officially confirmed by Marvel as of yet, there's still a chance that all of this can change, and characters like Falcon and Bucky could end up being significantly less important or interesting than we thought. But since there's nothing to do until Captain America: The Winter Soldier is released on April 4, there's no harm in trying to guess what the studio has up its sleeve.