Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.
When the editors and contributors at Lewton Bus agreed to undertake this project for the site—of watching and writing about 19 Marvel films in a row—there was a ton of excitement. Lots of discussion about who wanted to write what, and why. This is as it should be, considering that the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from least to greatest, are universally exciting and fun to talk about.
I had one simple rule in planning this article series, which was that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was spoken for, and off-limits to any of our other writers. This was one task I would set myself, after years of waffling, considering, re-considering, and usually finding excuses to do something else. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is my favorite film in the entire Marvel catalog, but big whoop. Lots of people love The Winter Soldier. After all, it’s great. It’s exceptionally well made, full of bravura practical action sequences, it’s unquestionably well-acted, and emotionally and thematically quite resonant (not to mention very politically relevant, both when it came out and now, for uh… obvious reasons). But more than any of that I wanted to write about this film because I kind of need to write about this film. Because I believe in the messages, themes, and central metaphors of this film on a pretty much spiritual level. I think that the surprisingly adult way this film deals with the concepts of identity, self-sacrifice, total war, dignity, and even mental health are important. I don’t think this film is just fun to discuss. I think this film needs to be discussed, and with a deeper critical eye than I think it’s ever been afforded. In a decade of storytelling, Marvel told their best, most mature story in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, with a surprising amount of nuance and respect for a more adult audience. And it still manages to kick ass.
The third film released after The Avengers, The Winter Soldier continues the trend of superhero subversion begun in Shane Black’s brilliant Iron Man Three. Black zagged by sending up the sacred cows of proto comics-bros to tell a road story about identity and transcending the boundaries we place on ourselves. New to action features, the brothers Anthony and Joe Russo follow a similar path here, telling a quasi-road movie about identity, and transcending the boundaries we allow the systemic pragmatism of society to place on us. I know it sounds like I’ve disappeared up my own assessment already, but bear with me. The real truth of The Winter Soldier isn’t that it’s subverting either of it’s progenital genres (the paranoid 1970s political thriller, or the modern superhero blockbuster) in favor of one or the other, but that it’s subverting both.
Cost, Value, and Worth
The reason any of this works is Chris Evans. This point in Cap’s journey through the MCU is an inflection point. The Greatest Soldier In History finds himself 70 years in the future, tasked with saving the world again. This time fighting alongside people he can barely comprehend, against an alien force beyond anything in his reckoning. And he does it. But then what? What does that experience do to you when the dust settles? What is your life, but a legacy beyond anything you ever dreamed? A legacy you never wanted, but now have to try to create a life in. What shared life experiences can you bond with strangers over? Especially when all they really want is a chance to meet a celebrity. Maybe the celebrity. A guy chosen for a military experiment based on the content of his character is now both a celebrity, and a soldier with no war to fight. Having sacrificed everything in WWII to save the planet from Hydra, he wakes up in a world that thinks he’s a comic book character, completely untethered to anyone but the woman he loves. A woman now elderly, who can barely remember him from moment to moment. Sounds like something that would send a person into a depressive state, right?
Evans captures all of that in his performance In the first 10 minutes of the film, never once mentioning any of it in on-screen dialog. We open this film with Steve Rogers reluctantly befriending his new BFF Sam Wilson, The itinerant Falcon. Captain America is a character that, above all, needs people. But after his string of traumas, Cap is depressed and withdrawn. Friendly and polite by nature, Cap is faking it to avoid the possibility that Sam Wilson is just another star-struck person who wants something from him. Until he finds out Sam is a veteran, that is. On first viewing, it’s easy to read their competitive little morning run as a bit of a friendly meet-cute (which it is, after a fashion). When you dig a little bit into Cap’s quick dismissal after Sam brings up his past, it becomes clear that Cap is shutting all that down. Until he realizes that Sam is the one thing he hasn’t yet come across: a well adjusted and healthy person with similar life experiences to his own. Perhaps one who can help him through his fixation on the past, so that he can start to finally build a future. Through the early part of the story, it becomes clear that Cap is a guy who, to avoid dealing with the trauma in his life, is literally throwing himself back into work.
And taking stupid safety risks to see if he still measures up in the modern world.
When we begin Cap’s first mission, we see all this borne out. His costume is a simple blue with silver accent. All function over form. Uninspiring and “tactical”. He’s a glorified wetwork man. His shield’s paint is dulled and scuffed. Everything about Cap is muted except his fighting style, which is harder and more forceful than ever before. He seems engaged only when fighting. He leaps at the chance to face a qualified opponent in Batroc, and willingly discards his defensive advantages.
As the story unfolds, and Steve comes to understand that he cannot function in a world devoid of abject truth, savvy viewers will notice he sheds the modern, kewl look. As he begins to reckon with the duty he has to himself and his dignity, his shield begins to brighten, his renewed purpose instilling it with new life and light. By the end of the film he finds himself duded out in a version of his classic WWII star-spangled costume. The visual motif of the film shifts as he finds his way back to moral center, and he eschews the grey of not only his own heart, but the hearts of those he finally allows into his.
But he’s got work to put in first. My man needs to attend some group therapy to realize that manliness and masculinity do not preclude seeking help for the grief and trauma in your past. True strength lies in those who realize that holding on to our past gives us half a future. Hiding your burden, pushing away those who would help you carry it forward, and pretending on the surface to be okay when you’re not sure why you wake up every day may feel like strength, but it’s actually just making yourself small enough that others won’t notice. Sam Wilson, fellow veteran and now group leader at the V.A., has his work cut out for him.
And help he does. On the two battlefields of Steve’s life, Sam forces the issue, leaning on his own skills as a healer and therapy group leader, and a superpowered fighter in the battle against a resurgent Hydra. Sam’s genuine friendship is based on a unique understanding of the grief and survivor’s guilt Steve lives with every day. He’s not pushy. He encourages Steve by maintaining an open and honest dialog at times when he thinks Cap is ready to hear a little truth. He doles out enough information and reinforcement to let Steve come to the decision to take action, and take control of his own life. He then supports his friend through each course of action he chooses to take, never coddling or patronizing him, but offering kinship, support, and acceptance every step of the journey.
Steve bristles at the attachment and connection that Sam offers at first, because he’s scared. Scared of letting go of the people he lost along the way, and of finding out that he doesn’t belong in a time that seems to have abandoned hope and determination for cynicism and pragmatism. He also bristles at his growing friendship with his partner Natasha, the Black Widow. Natasha is a person who has had to lie and kill her entire life in order to survive. She was born into a world where trust and loyalty were the quickest ways to die, or kill. They respect and admire each other but have trouble reconciling worldviews that are incompatible on the surface. The truth is that they resent the potential they see in each other. Steve resents what he sees as Nat’s wasted potential as a true agent of change. A hero. Nat resents both Steve’s expectation and her own desire to be more than she’s allowed herself to be. She resents his privilege, perhaps, in making such assumptions of her according to his own standards.
Natasha: The truth is a matter of circumstances, it’s not all things to all people all the time. And neither am I.
Steve: That’s a tough way to live.
Natasha: It’s a good way not to die, though.
Steve: You know, it’s kind of hard to trust someone when you don’t know who that someone really is.
Natasha: Yeah. Who do you want me to be?
Steve: How about a friend?
Natasha: Well, there’s a chance you might be in the wrong business, Rogers.
Natasha, not too unlike the mysterious Winter Soldier stalking our heroes as they run from foes and allies alike, has lived a life where her proficiency with murder makes her a commodity. She’s been fostered (first by the KGB, and then by Nick Fury) to believe her inherent value lies in her prowess as a killer and a liar. But now, after the Battle of New York, she’s had a taste of something greater than that. She’s experienced the possibility of deciding her value for herself and forging her own destiny. Not as a tool for the whims of empires, but as a true agent of change. Her extended proximity to Cap, even in the lost place he’s been, has shown her a dignity that has never been afforded to her before. After the Winter Soldier takes the life of her mentor, Fury, and Cap’s response paints him (and those perceived to be his allies) as a risk to the systems that created them, Nat finds she has to grow or die. The pragmatic shifting loyalties that have kept her alive for this long will no longer protect her from the unseen foes closing in.
Like Nat (and a lot of folks facing an existential crisis), Cap is mistaking his prowess for his value. Both as a person and as a soldier. And don’t you just wonder where he got that idea?
Whatever you do, watch this, the best scene in the entirety of the film.
I could write an entire essay simply on the manipulation and cynical seduction at play by Nick Fury here. The way the elevator slowly slides down below the DC horizon, descending into Hell as Nick Fury barters for Steve’s soul, telling Steve a story about his grandfather. A story that I can’t be sure isn’t purely convenient fabrication. It’s in the sly ways he devalues trust by playing to fear, and the loss of a more innocent time. The slow build to placing value only on the raw power (prowess) of the State until his opus, Project Insight is revealed. This is a brilliant misdirect, in that it’s subverting what appears to be a toy showcase on first glance. A car commercial for Total War, and an unending pursuit and elimination of the Other. In a moment where the marching score begins to swell, evoking awe and militaristic majesty, the push in on Steve’s abject revulsion at the jingoistic hardware power fantasy on display destroys the moment. Realizing he’s lost his gambit, Fury appeals to his own sacred authority (surely the truest arrow to shoot into the heart of a man devoted from birth to duty), and is utterly and wholly rebuked. Steve Rogers, Hero Out of Time, refutes the raw military fetishization that has driven policy and sentiment in this country since the time when he rescued it from Hydra. Captain America does not want your parade of tanks down Pennsylvania Avenue. Bowing to that concept of power is not strength. It’s cowardice. It’s fear, masked with naked aggression. It’s the kind of power that a pragmatic and cynical society, convinced of the foolishness of earnest, hopeful progress embraces. And the only way it spreads is by demanding conformity. Demanding obedience, and an orderly submission. This is the moment when Nick Fury is shown all his failings. He’s shaken to his core, and begins to doubt his own devotion to the cause. This slip in his pristine image of authoritative Realism signals Fury’s imminent doom. There are no prisoners with Hydra. Only Order.
Freedom and Fear, The Code You Live by
Subjugation to fear breeds an apathy. It will come in the guise of authority, with all the expectation of compliance that comes with that. It will come in the form of those you trust. Those who use the superficial bonds and expectations of friendship to manipulate you into seeing things their way, and living in their ordered (and small) perception of the world. The pragmatic and cynical worldview of “that’s the way things are”, and “It’s getting damn near past time for you to get with that program.” Subjugation will come wrapped in nuggets of truth, as Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce feeds Steve bits of it to get a read on him, and see which way he’ll go. As he also feeds truth and lies to SHIELD about why they’re hunting Steve, or to the World Security Council, as they relay back to him exactly what he wants to hear. This sliver of doubt and fear is all it takes for some of us to give up on our better dreams for the world we want. The thought that hope makes us foolish and small. Easily brought down by the lions of the veldt of pragmatism.
The eponymous Winter Soldier, the mysterious masked assassin with which Cap and his small crew of compatriots must contend, turns out to be Bucky Barnes. Cap’s lifelong friend and fallen comrade-in-arms has been brainwashed, frozen, mind-wiped, and turned into a dark reflection of Cap meant only for Hydra’s wetwork and black ops. He is the tip of the spear in Hydra’s campaign to rewrite reality as a chaotic and untenable horror. One from which the only escape is either apathetic acquiescence to Hydra’s pragmatic order, or a bullet to your head. Bucky has been reduced to nothing but a tool of the State, stripped of all vestiges of his humanity and robbed of a brotherhood that defined both himself and Steve Rogers. He’s a blank and conquered ruin, conscious only long enough to recognize glimpses of the life that’s been stolen. Sebastian Stan delivers a performance that has been utterly devalued in the cultural landscape, informed by his knowledge of the suffering and loss visited upon Alzheimer’s victims and their loved ones. It’s an existence punctuated by confusion, sometimes violence, and brief moments of clarity where the person you knew returns to you.
In the beginning of the film, Steve is lost for what to actually do in this world. The transition between the museum (the living and breathing example of everything he fought for, and lost with Bucky and Peggy), to the death of Bucky and the loss of a life with Peggy, and finally to the honest discussion of that loss with the only person he has who he can still trust; Peggy. Steve only has her for moments at a time. He shares everything with her and she often loses it after dementia steals it away. He never holds this against her. He never challenges her to recall things she cannot. He gently goes along with it and serves her needs no matter how much it might hurt him. This small kindness is all he has to give the love of his life.
This is at the apex of his depression. Cap is bound to endless duty in service of goals which he doesn’t understand fully, and serve no greater purpose he can identify. He stays at SHIELD out of obligation to a memory, and respect for Peggy’s legacy. He’s losing her and SHIELD. When Steve returns home and hears his stereo playing, it’s playing “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”. A song made popular in 1945 as soldiers were returning from the battlefield, It’s sung from the perspective of a lover welcoming home one who has been away for a long time. Fury is here to tell Steve that the enemies from the War are not quite as defeated as they thought. This is the end of Steve’s life in the past and the beginning of an entirely new battle that will require the strength of character and heroicism he thought died with him. He’s going to have to break down the walls he’s built between himself and the outside world, and find the strength to free himself from the shackles of the pragmatic rule of Hydra.
When he’s finally made aware of the full truth of Bucky’s grim return, it’s Cap’s code of duty and kindness that will be required most. Because he’s not just fighting to protect some 20 million innocents from the cynical and dispassionate genocide of Hydra. He’s fighting for the soul of his best friend. He’s fighting to give Bucky the dignity and agency he’s been robbed of. To give him his life.
The Winter Soldier is a modern fable about a state-created living weapon finding his humanity and identity through service, sacrifice, and the repudiation of the systems that created him. The fact that it digs so deeply into the psyche of a guy called Captain America on the meta-levels, while still delivering some of the best action in near 20 films, is an achievement in itself.
But it’s the how of it all that makes it so damned impressive. Even after 4 years of intervening films. The method of Captain America: The Winter Soldier is to root every development and wrinkle in what might have been a fairly standard super-espionage story firmly in character and theme. Cap isn’t the hero because the script calls for it. He’s the hero because he’s morally unfailing to the core, and can’t exist outside of the standards he holds himself to. Black Widow and Fury (the world’s greatest spies) are what they are because, as fully rounded characters, the lives they have led make them mortally allergic to trust. The relationships between these three characters do not exist for bouncing plot-driving information around. Instead, their evolving interactions and very different worldviews result in organic action that then creates the plot. The genius of the Russos’ storytelling is in their dissatisfaction with letting these characters and types exist as points from which to anchor plot. These characters are dragged kicking and screaming through their arcs, facing the natures they know and the limits of what they’ll allow their existences to be. And when you’re a grey character placed in a grey story with Captain America, he’s going to unshade it. You grow. You change. You choose a side and take a stand. When the light shines through, will you be ready for the world to see you as you really are? The conscious decision to drop the apotheosis of moral might into a morally grey espionage tale, with the potential to expand that story to superheroic scale, gave the Russos all the excuse they needed to blow up the Earthbound dynamic of the Marvel universe. They didn’t blink.
Conclusion: Fighting Apathy With Kindness
I’ve always been drawn to the idea that Captain America fights his battles with a shield. That shield, unbreakable and capable of impossible feats of physics, is Steve Rogers. A tool built not to harm, maim, or kill. But to protect. At his core, Steve Rogers is a man who never stopped caring about protecting others. He didn’t join the Army to become a killing machine, but so that he could put himself in harm’s way to protect people that can’t or won’t protect themselves. Not because they deserve it. Because it’s what is right. Because he’s seen first hand what this world will take from you if you give in even one iota. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve lays out his philosophy in the most direct terms imaginable.
“You start running, they’ll never let you stop. You stand up. You push back. They can’t say no forever, right?”
“I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”
I love Steve Rogers because his ultimate superpower is an innate kindness that is unmatched. Captain America absolutely refuses to bow to a worldview that says it’s impossible to win life’s battles with compassion, decency, and kindness. He’s a man who will put himself in the path of danger for the least of us, and bear the scars and the wounds and the pain and the loss because it’s what you’re supposed to do. Because it’s the right thing to reach out your hand when it’s been bitten and slashed. It’s the right thing to do to stand up for your friends and to protect them when they’re lost and hurt. It’s the right thing to do to look those who would define you according to their desires and needs directly in the eye and tell them that you will not participate in your own subjugation. It’s the right thing to do to stand between those people and the ones who can’t stand for themselves. And when you do? People notice. They stand taller. They push back with you.
Because this is a world of cynics. And opportunists. But it is also a world full of those with the stuff to fight the cynics. If you let it, this world will grind you down. This world will take everything from you, and it will keep taking until you have nothing. And then it will make you think that the loss is your problem and your responsibility. Some people will make you think that you are entitled to nothing and that you deserve nothing, and that whatever comes your way was never yours to begin with. This world will hurt you, and it will do its best to break you. And to make you think that this is normal, and that any alternative is a naive fantasy. And if you stand up and you push back, some will put their entire being into flattening you out. Making you thin and small enough that nobody looking at you sees anything but a fool, lest they think your kindness and your compassion is power. Because it is power. And it’s the right thing to do to fight those who would enslave you to pragmatism and cynical apathy with every ounce of ferocity and that power that you have in your soul, and show them that you deserve to be here. You are worth all of the love and appreciation and dignity you will afford yourself. It’s the right thing to do to reach out to the least of those around you and to instill that dignity in them. To show them that you know they are better and stronger than they have allowed themselves to be, and that they have nothing to fear, because you will lift them up and you will believe in them. Even when they can’t believe in themselves.
There’s a better world out there. There’s a better us out there, if we’re strong enough, brave enough, and free enough to take it. All we can do is our best, and sometimes the best that we can do is to start over. If we can break free of the systems of fear and pragmatic apathy we’ve allowed to flourish for the benefit of comfort, we can seize that world. It’s not foolish to believe that and to fight for that and to tell everyone in your path that this is what we can build together. This isn’t fear. This is freedom.