by Betsy Scott
I decided that while analyzing my feelings for the character. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has much in common with the Bourne movies: a government-created “super soldier” chased by an agency determined to destroy him. Action sequences make up the bulk of the film, and all of them are stunning. But eEven with the action, this is more of an espionage story than superhero film; the main characters are more accurately described as super-spies than high-powered characters like the Hulk and Thor.
But what makes Steve Rogers, as played by Chris Evans, so charming is that he is simply a nice guy. He’s humble. He’s kind to everyone he meets. And though he knows when he’s being lied to, he doesn’t lie. As with Fred Rogers, it’s just his nature.
Of all the Marvel Universe movies, The Winter Soldier is the most like the first Iron Man film, which drew upon world events (the war in Afghanistan and American involvement in arming warlords) and saw the character of Tony Stark grow through difficult choices. In this film, S.H.I.E.L.D., an agency like a super-powered NSA, has been infiltrated by Hydra, the Nazi splinter group that Captain America fought in World War II. Hydra’s master plan is to control the world through fear and to use S.H.I.E.L.D.’S vast intelligence sources and power to determine and neutralize specific targets – not only people with the superpowers to oppose them, but anyone with political power or any other influence that can, or in the future could, threaten Hydra’s plan.
When Rogers becomes a target, he is reluctant to trust Natasha “Black Widow” Romanov (Scarlett Johansson). He doesn’t know who could be a Hydra agent, of course, but he also knows from the start she had hidden agendas on the missions they worked together, sometimes with very bad consequences. Both of them are aloof and wary at the start of the film. Romanov simply can’t stop being a spy and doesn’t trust anyone, even Captain America. Rogers, of course, is the “man out of time;” his cheerfulness hides his loneliness and confusion about the world. He jokes about the guys “in his barbershop quartet” being dead, but there isn’t any real humor in it. He visits the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian where memories that seem like yesterday to him are history for everyone else. When he first meets Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), he shows him a small notebook which he carries to write down things he needs to look up later, a list that is both hilarious and heartbreaking. And yes, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, in some convincing age makeup), Cap’s World War II romance, is still alive, though we don’t see their reunion, only a meeting between long-time friends. Even Carter feels pity for Rogers; she laments that he didn’t get to have a life like she did. Carter mourned Cap, then moved on, marrying another man and living a full life that included helping to found S.H.I.E.L.D. For her, there is no regret, but for Cap there is only regret.
It is Sam Wilson who helps Cap return to life. A veteran himself, he understands Rogers’ difficulties better than most; like Cap, he is a compassionate person, who runs a support group for vets with PTSD. When Rogers is in trouble, he knows he can turn to Wilson and find an ally. Without hesitation, Wilson shows him his “resume,” the Falcon project, which put soldiers in experimental, winged jetpacks. It may sound silly in type, but visually it is gorgeous, and Mackie makes it not only credible, but also (there’s no other way to say it) badass.
Cap and Widow do eventually warm to each other, too, and learn to trust each other. There are little moments, even throwaway lines, which show such personality and history. Romanov tells Cap that she left the KGB to be one of the good guys and there is a hint of some past sin she is atoning for, a tantalizing peek at her past that is never addressed. With each Marvel film, Black Widow becomes a more interesting and developed character who deserves her own film.
Probably the worst kept secret is the identity of the Winter Soldier; fans of Marvel know it is James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Captain America’s childhood friend and brother-in-arms, but even if you didn’t know that already, the previews don’t disguise the actor’s face well. It’s interesting to think that though they are old friends, this film is the first time the two meet as equals, at least physically. In the first Captain America movie, Rogers starts as physically weak and small, with a protective Barnes by his side. After the “Super Soldier” project, Rogers is far taller and stronger than Bucky. As the Winter Soldier, Bucky has gone through a nightmare version of the Super Soldier project; for seventy years, he was kept mostly in a cryogenic state, only to be thawed out for periodic assassinations, and underwent what appears to be extensive shock treatments to keep his mind blank and pliable. As a villain, he is relentless and brutal, a force of nature rather than a person. He is a potent symbol for what Hydra wants and values: a populace that is unquestioning in its obedience.
Beware: spoilers for the ending of Captain America: The Winter Soldier follow.
• The resolution of the Hydra infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. has interesting implications. In a move Edward Snowden would have approved of, Black Widow leaks all of the S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets, exposing not just Hydra but every operation, project and intelligence S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever created or gathered. In the aftermath of the battle with Hydra, even S.H.I.E.L.D.’s physical assets are destroyed. It’s a bold move on several levels. If Marvel continues on its current trend of keeping continuity in all of its film and television projects, it will affect every movie and television show produced hereafter. I wonder how it will affect the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. program specifically. (Ed. note: Oh boy did it!) Thematically, if S.H.I.E.L.D. is a stand-in for real world agencies like the NSA it sends a strong message: expose them and burn them down. That’s a surprisingly radical theme for a movie about superheroes.
• The last teaser in the credits should have really been included in the film: it shows Bucky going to the Smithsonian’s Captain America exhibit to look at pictures of himself with Captain America and the Howling Commandos, perhaps at last regaining the memories Hydra took from him.
• My favorite scene was probably with Armin Zola (Toby Jones), a Hydra scientist whose consciousness was transferred to a computer hidden in a bunker in an abandoned military base. The computer, however, was thousands of reel-to-reel mainframe machines; like Cap, he is a dinosaur from another era. It’s a pivotal scene, where Cap and Widow discover the truth about S.H.I.E.L.D (that Hydra agents had been involved with the organization from the beginning), but it is still quite fun. As much as I wanted to gush about it, I didn’t want to spoil it.
• There are all kinds of wonderful trivia sprinkled throughout. Dr. Strange gets name-checked and there is an unsubtle reference to Pulp Fiction.