The problem with Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that there’s no room for a bathroom break. Other Marvel movies have spots that slow down or drag, but Winter Soldier manages to make every moment plot-relevant and engaging. It’s one reason why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for two and a half weeks, and why I’ll be seeing it for a third time this afternoon.
I was never a big Cap fan: Thor was the one that grabbed me from the moment the lights came up, with its Shakespearean grandeur, self-effacing humor and immensely compelling brothers-at-war plot. I saw Captain America: The First Avenger opening weekend — a group of friends and I dressed up as ’40s ladies — and wanted to love it, since Band of Brothers was and is so important to me. I enjoyed it at the time, but thought it was over-long. The Avengers, released almost a year later, I found emotionally vacant, the cinematic equivalent of banging action figures together. The Thor sequel and the Iron Man films were fine, but they didn’t move me. I was really expecting similar from Winter Soldier.
Oh boy wow, was I wrong.
General praise first: Anthony and Joe Russo, primarily known before this for directing TV like Community and Arrested Development, did something we didn’t expect but should have seen coming — they made an entirely character-driven story. The fight scenes are spectacular (and all very distinct), but they’re also critiques of fight scenes and the military industrial complex that drives their demand. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is deeply uncomfortable with his role within SHIELD and its workings, as well he should be: the movie is really about drone strikes and the NSA. When Rogers needs help, between Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Sam “Falcon” Wilson (the standout Anthony Mackie), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), he’s literally the only white man at the table. There’s no romantic subplot, and that’s thrilling: all the women are competent, fully-fleshed and motivated by more than sharing screen time with Cap.
Oh yes, and the Winter Soldier himself blows me out of the water. Spoilers below, as well as more discussion of character, U.S. history you’ve probably never been taught and why I’m reevaluating the Captain America franchise.
The second time I saw this film, I went with a friend who had no clue about the Winter’s Soldier’s big reveal. By that point in the movie, the moment has been building with a slow and terrifying burn: a deadly, souped-up assassin has, after two lightning-quick and staggeringly brutal attempts, managed to kill Nick Fury, the unkillable director of SHIELD, and it’s increasingly clear that Steve Rogers and his friends are his next target. His absence infuses every second, the threat that never lets any of our heroes let down their guard.
During the third encounter, a vicious and relentless attack in public, among civilians, the Winter Soldier — who, in case you missed it during that trailer, has a robotic arm that would put Tony Stark to shame — loses the mask that’s covered his whole face and given him the ghostly anonymity and single-minded lack of emotion that’s made him so scary. What we learn is that his expression is as dead and emotionless as the mask: it’s almost not needed. But in that moment, in the brief lull before Winter Soldier tries to kill him again, Steve recognizes him.
Bucky Barnes, his greatest friend, his fellow Howling Commando, his greatest guilt, whose apparent death in WWII drove Steve to the act which would put him on ice for 70 years.
And Bucky — the Winter Soldier — has no idea. He’s been mind-wiped and brainwashed and brutalized for the seven decades Steve was asleep, periodically awakened from stasis to murder and wreak havoc across the twentieth century. After this revelation, Steve’s quest to stop Bucky and to save him become the emotional core and the driving plot force of the movie.
“What!” my friend blurted out in the theater. “No way! No freaking way, oh my god!”
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw (Hello, Tailor) has written beautifully about Bucky’s backstory and what it means for Winter Soldier and beyond; earlier this weekend, I feelingsdumped about Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier and how I’d like to see that story expanded, particularly in the vein of How do you human and who am I? I’ve been spiraling into research too, which has produced some gems (Sebastian Stan watched Band of Brothers to build Bucky as a character) and some hilarious cautionary tales about journalism. This story is totally my jam. It’s the same one that drew me to Thor and Loki, but with an added layer of staggering tragedy — because while Loki is in terrible pain during the first Thor movie, he’s also acting fully under his own steam. Bucky Barnes has lost everything that makes him an individual with agency, and only one person believes he deserves not to be destroyed for it. Only Steve Rogers believes Bucky can get himself back.
One argument you can make about the Captain America franchise is that it’s about staying true to yourself and knowing who you are. The supersoldier serum that transforms Steve Rogers from a scrawny 4F street kid to the First Avenger also amplifies whatever naturally makes you who you are. It’s a great plot device. In the Red Skull’s case, it made him evil and megalomaniacal; in Steve’s case, it made him even more conscientious and determined to stop bullies. In Bucky’s case — because that’s what was happening in the first movie when Steve rescued him; he was enduring Hydra experiments that attempted replicate the Americans’ serum formula — it made him fast, strong, skillful, but it also amplified a darkness that was in him all along. The Winter Soldier is so scary because, while he’s been terribly traumatized and abused, he’s also more Bucky than the Bucky that Steve grew up with: Bucky the sniper, Bucky the cynic, Bucky who, in Ed Brubaker’s game-changing run of the comics, does the dirty work of war that Captain America can’t be seen to do.
And of course, the Winter Soldier is one of the driving forces behind the Cold War, which Captain America, crucially, missed entirely. I’m extremely fond of a very good essay about why this is important, and why Steve Rogers is actually the product of the radical and progressive New York of the 1930s and ’40s, rather than the McCarthyite jingoism and paranoia of the ’50s and beyond. The United States that he awakens to is completely transformed, almost unrecognizable to Steve, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier deals explicitly with his rejection of contemporary American politics of fear, preemptive strikes and surveillance. (It’s been interesting to watch my friends overseas react to this throughline: their responses have ranged from shrugs to celebration to not buying the movie’s message at all. Americans, meanwhile, seem shocked that a big-budget script put out by Disney even went there. That seems telling too.)
My original plan for this review was much smaller: I have a bunch of links about real-life reasons why Cap wouldn’t recognize the United States today, largely having to do with gentrification, the student debt/college tuition crisis and the economics of political polarization. (I’ll still make that post — I’ve had the tabs saved too long to give them up now.) And I don’t want to imply that the United States had some sort of better way during WWII that we’ve lost sight of to our detriment: one only need read Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” to see that. (Steve says it too, in the first minutes of the film. While missing lost friends is one thing, nostalgia is almost always a dangerous impulse.) But the other story in this film, the emotional story, fascinates me even more than the already compelling political thriller at its core. (I can’t go without cheering on Robert Redford’s excellent turn as the villain. Perfect casting strikes again, as it has with virtually every character in the franchise.)
I’m still considering what I’ll be watching for this third time in the theaters. The first was the pure thrill of seeing something for the first time; the second was trying to catch all the little things and threads I’d missed while immersed in the initial experience. Maybe this one will be with an appreciation for the making-of/behind the scenes/cast shenanigans I love so well. Apparently Sebastian Stan did most of his own stunts — I had seen him in Gossip Girl and Once Upon a Time, but he’d never made much of an impression on me until now. Dang, have I done a 180 on him. His performance is staggering, for having so few lines and for being absent for at least half the film. All the performances are, actually: Steve feels more natural and like himself than ever before, Natasha gets a wonderful arc and to completely change her own game, Sam Wilson steals every scene he appears in and Nick Fury is at his most stunningly badass and actually emotional.
This is just a good movie, all on its own. In case you hadn’t guessed, I highly recommend seeing it. But if you’ve read this far, I’m also guessing you already agree.
Got feelings of your own? Lay ’em on me in the comments, or mosey on over to my Tumblr, which has become all Cap 2, all the time for the moment.