'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' ending: Explaining the credits scene (and beyond!) -- SPOILERS

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Another day, another dollar, another Marvel movie that ends on a high note…and then teases the audience with an epilogue sequence that seems purposefully designed to thrill certain members of the audience while purposefully confusing everyone else. Captain America: The Winter Soldier just hit theaters, and as with all its Marvel Studios kin, the end of the movie is only the beginning…of the post-credits sequence! And the Capquel ended on a particularly fascinating teaser, rife with implications for the future of the Marvel Universe. Let’s take a look at it now, as soon as we get the SPOILER ALERT out of the way.

As with last November’s Thor: The Dark World, talking about the “ending” of Winter Soldier is really three different conversations. There’s the Ending, there’s the Mid-Credits Spinoff Tease, and there’s the Post-Credits Sequel Tease. Let’s take them one at a time, starting with…

The Ending
So far, the post-Avengers Phase 2 films haven’t really altered the status quo in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man 3 cured Iron Man of his need to be Iron Man…but who really thinks he won’t be Iron Man again? Thor: The Dark World left Loki on the throne of Asgard while Thor promised himself to Earth…but the repercussions of those events probably won’t manifest themselves until the still-unscheduled Thor threequel.

Winter Soldier is very different. Ever since Nick Fury showed up in the post-credits scene of Iron Man, SHIELD has been the continuity glue holding the Marvel films together. SHIELD showed up midway through Iron Man 2 to cure Tony Stark’s metaphorical heart problems; SHIELD captured Thor’s hammer; Captain America’s girlfriend helped found SHIELD; SHIELD brought the Avengers together; and SHIELD continues to do lots of things on the TV show Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, a show we’ll definitely start watching again any day now.

But now, SHIELD is finished. Nick Fury just wanted to root out the HYDRA element that had taken over the espionage agency, but Cap insisted on burning the whole thing to the ground. So Winter Soldier ends with the franchise’s lead SHIELD agents seeking other employment. We saw Maria Hill applying for a job at Stark Industries. We saw Nick Fury burn his secret stash to the ground, including his eyepatch. And we saw Black Widow testify in front of a very angry group of politicians, before making vague plans to set off into the unknown.

Placing Hill close to Tony Stark could mean that Cobie Smulders will have a significant role in Avengers: Age of Ultron — although that film is already so overstuffed that it’s equally likely the Marvel producers are putting her in place for Iron Man 4. (No, Iron Man 4 hasn’t been officially announced; yes, Iron Man 3 made over a billion dollars; no, that’s not the kind of money you walk away from, even if you have to pay for Robert Downey’s seventh private island.)

It’s equally uncertain how sending Nick Fury off on a hunt for HYDRA affects his role in the franchise. Samuel L. Jackson reportedly signed a nine-picture deal with Marvel, so we certainly haven’t seen the last of the one-eyed super spy. But this could mean that Fury will play less of a central role in Age of Ultron than he did in the first Avengers. Or perhaps Fury’s hunt for HYDRA leads him to uncover whatever terrible thing brings the super powered band back together?

We know for a fact that Scarlett Johansson will be a big part of Age of Ultron, even if Black Widow has to suddenly discover a taste for muumuus as a way to hide the star’s pregnancy. After three films, Winter Soldier gave us the deepest insight into Movie-Widow’s background — and even now, we still don’t know much about her. Age of Ultron could find her exploring her mysterious past. Or, maybe she’ll just spend the interim hanging out with Hawkeye, getting into barfights in non-extradition countries.

(Let’s also just take a moment to ask the obvious question: If SHIELD is finished, then what happens to Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, a show which is so totally about SHIELD that it has SHIELD in the title? Are they gonna go rogue? If this was the plan all along, have we been set up for an elaborate end-of-season reboot? Could this mean that they’re going to implement the Thunderbolts initiative pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease?)

More importantly for the Cap franchise, the closing Marvin Gaye montage also took time to show us a couple of minor characters. Emily VanCamp’s newcomer Agent 13 joined the CIA, and Black Widow strongly encouraged Cap to give her a call. VanCamp wasn’t a very big part of Winter Soldier, but her character has a long comic book history with Cap. This might be a minor spoiler, but in the comics, Agent 13 is actually the niece of Peggy Carter, Cap’s WWII partner and love interest — and she ultimately becomes Cap’s new partner and love interest. Which is a bit weird, and Winter Soldier seemed to purposefully downplay that possibility (though VanCamp did pointedly mention her aunt in a throwaway line of dialogue.)

The final montage also featured a quick shot of Brock Rumlow, the totally awesome henchman played by Frank Grillo. In the comics, “Brock Rumlow” is the real name of Crossbones, a longtime Cap baddie. Crossbones doesn’t have any superpowers, but he’s a martial arts master and an all-around assassin badass. He’s also a henchman of the Red Skull — a character who didn’t pop up at all in The Winter Soldier(ASIDE: Am I the only one who thought that Robert Redford was going to pull off his face and reveal that he was the Red Skull all along? END OF ASIDE.)

The fact that Rumlow was purposefully shown still alive at the end strongly indicates that he’ll be around for Cap 3. Could that mean that the Skull will make an appearance, also? (He was disintegrated at the end of Cap 1, but “disintegrated” is another word for “transported to some other dimension until required for a sequel.) Or, since Rumlow’s body is clearly damaged, will he be some kind of next-wave supersoldier candidate? The idea of other supersoldiers comes up frequently in the Marvel Universe — perhaps he’ll be the big screen version of U.S. Agent?

As for Cap himself, he ended the movie staring at a file on Bucky, a.k.a the Winter Soldier, with Falcon promising to follow him. If nothing else, this seems to strongly imply that Anthony Mackie will have a role in Age of Ultron — although again, it could just be for a quick scene, since there are currently more stars in Age of Ultron than in a season of Game of Thrones, a fact confirmed by the…

The Mid-Credits Spinoff Tease
Three brand-new characters made their debut in the mid-credits sequence. First up was Thomas Kretschmann as Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. In the comic books, Strucker was originally a Nick Fury villain: First as a Nazi during World War II, then as a leader of HYDRA during the Cold War. The bigscreen Strucker is definitely a HYDRA bigwig, although he seemed unconcerned about the fact that his organization’s master plan to conquer the world failed. “HYDRA, SHIELD: Two sides of a coin that no longer has any use,” he said.

See, Strucker and his men are up to something bigger. They have hold of Loki’s scepter, the weapon that gave Loki a wide assortment of powers in the first Avengers film. And they’ve discovered whole new uses for the scepter. Strucker and his underling talked about performing experiments: “We’ve only scratched the surface, and already…” they said, implying some rather impressive results. Not without casualties: There was mention of “volunteers,” who would need to be buried. But apparently, the research had led to what Strucker called a new world of “miracles.” And we saw two of those miracles, held captive inside of cells: Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, making their debut as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Quicksilver moves really fast. Scarlet Witch has, well, lots of weird and kinda abstract powers, usually defined as “Hexes” or “Probability Manipulation” or more simply “Red Stuff Happening Helpfully.” Movie-Witch appears to have some kind of explosive telekinesis. It looked cool.

On one hand, this is just a nice little intro to the Avengers newbies — not to mention a way for Marvel Studios to get their Quicksilver into theaters before Future Past‘s silver-jacketed speedster. But this little dialogue could also hold lots of implications for the further evolution of the Marvel Universe. See, the Avengers films can’t really talk about mutants: The whole idea of Superpowered-Beings-as-Next-Stage-of-Human-Evolution seems to belong to Fox, which controls the X-Men movie franchise and all the hundreds of X-Men characters therein. So, if I heard Strucker and his subordinate correctly, this universe’s Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch aren’t mutants at all. They weren’t born with powers: HYDRA’s experiments gave them powers.

Taking this one step further: Loki’s scepter was given to him by Thanos, the final-boss Big Bad for this whole franchise. It’s never really been confirmed how the scepter works, but popular theory holds that the blue rock at the center of the staff might actually be one of the six Infinity Gems that form the Infinity Gauntlet. (ComicBookMovie has the best visual evidence of this, though admittedly this theory depends on the idea that there’s only one magic blue rock in the universe.)

Could it be that, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Infinity Gems will be used to create a new race of super powered human beings — starting with Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and possibly continuing onwards into Marvel’s Phase 3? At this point, we’ve only had confirmed sightings of two gems, or “Infinity Stones” as they were called in The Dark World: The Tesseract, and the Aether. If Loki’s scepter makes three, we’re only halfway there. Could the other stones pop up in as-yet-unannounced Marvel films? Perhaps, on the big screen, the Inhumans’ superpower-granting Terrigen Mist is some kind of derivation of an Infinity Stone; likewise, perhaps Dr. Strange’s mystical powers come from some version of an Infinity Gem. (In the comics, the Reality Gem is yellow, and so is the Eye of Agamotto. COINCIDENCE? PROBABLY!)

Still, one thing seems clear. Since SHIELD is no longer the continuity glue of the Marvel franchise, it’s very likely that the Infinity Stones are the new glue.

Brief Aside To Mention Something Important
When traitorous SHIELD agent Jasper Sitwell is on the rooftop naming potentially dangerous people, he specifically throws out one complete name first and last: “Stephen Strange.” Guys: The Dr. Strange movie is totally happening. We are blessed.

The Post-Credits Sequel Tease
Whew! Given that depth charge of a mid-credits sequence, it’s understandable that the post-credits scene felt a bit undercooked by comparison. We just returned to the Smithsonian exhibit about Captain America and his Howling Commandos, and saw poor damaged Bucky staring at a picture of himself, perhaps hopefully starting to remember his past, almost definitely preparing to do something rash and vengeful.

What does the future hold for Bucky? For that matter, what does the future hold for the Captain America franchise? At this point, HYDRA has been the Big Bad at the center of both movies, so it’s possible that Cap 3 will see Cap, Falcon, and the Winter Soldier hunting down whatever dark forces remain of that evil organization. It’s equally possible that the Winter Soldier will factor into Age of Ultron, although Strucker’s comments in the mid-credits scene seemed to imply that he was leaving HYDRA behind him.

The other tantalizing possibility is that Captain America 3 could look completely different. At various points in comic book history, Cap has left behind his costumed identity, usually because he has a crisis of confidence in the American government or in America itself. Meanwhile, for a significant stretch of the 2000s, the Winter Soldier actually became Captain America. Could the two former pals switch places in the threequel? Cap could become Nomad, his renegade alter ego with the awesome name and the decidedly-less-awesome costume, while Bucky assumes the mantle of Captain America. And then Baron Zemo gets involved somehow, maybe possibly? Thunderbolts, guys, we gotta get to the Thunderbolts!

Fellow viewers, what did you think of the final revelations in Winter Soldier? Sad to see SHIELD go? (I’m not.) Intrigued by the idea of a Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch who aren’t “mutants” in the classical sense? Is Marvel just keeping the Winter Soldier around as a potential Gyllenhaal in case Chris really does stop acting? Is Lucy really a Black Widow prequel in disguise? Who already bought their Strucker™ Brand Evil Monocle?

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