Five years ago if someone asked me to go see a comic book movie, I probably would have gone along with a little bit (a lot) of reluctance: I’d never liked superheroes much growing up, and Toby McGuire as Spider Man didn’t do much to change my mind (Andrew Garfield did, though!) To be fair, most of what I knew of comics and superheroes stemmed from the rather campy TV shows I grew up with, so that was what was in my head. Three years ago, after seeing Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and falling pretty hard for the Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, I would have gone along with a whole lot of enthusiasm. (I even went to see Iron Man 3 on opening night! And I saw Avengers about 4 times in theaters And also sat through the entire Batman trilogy in one theater sitting.) But even then, after picking up a few trade comic books (a few Batman, an Iron Man) and reading them, I remember quite clearly saying aloud to myself, “I really like the films, but I don’t think I’ll ever get into comics. Too complicated.”
Oh, past self. You were wrong. So very, very wrong.
The pile of Captain America comics sitting on my bedside table (and the many, many more I’m going to purchase now that I have a list recommended by friends) are a testament to JUST how wrong I was. The fact that I’ve seen Winter Soldier three times already is also a testament to how wrong I was. But through my inevitable tears while watching Winter Soldier with friends last week (who were also there on multiple viewings) I couldn’t help but inwardly laugh at how long it took me to reach this conclusion, because the Marvel universe contains so many of the things I love: adventure, heroics, intriguing, layered characters (including some seriously kick-ass female characters, which I am always for), and stories that can simultaneously make me laugh and tug pretty ferociously at my heart strings. What bewilders me more than my initial hesistance to dive into the world of comics and their adaptations was my slowness in realizing that without a doubt that Captain America was my favorite Avenger, was my favorite Superhero period. If you’d asked me a few months ago, who my favorite superhero was, I might have responded with Iron Man. And don’t get me wrong, Tony Stark is still among my favorites, because he is fabulous! Plus, he and Cap have a long, varied, and pretty epic partnership, so with one the other usually tends to come along. But when I came home from seeing Winter Soldier for the first time and promptly put in “Captain America: the First Avenger” into my DVD player, I felt my heart overcome with that oh so familiar feeling I get when I fall flat and hard in love with a character, or when I can relate to a character. I’ve felt it many times: with Belle from Beauty and the Beast as a child, Christine Daae from Phantom of the Opera, Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean, Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds, Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, Enjolras from Les Mis. And now, with Steve Rogers.
Let me just talk (flail) a little bit about Steve Rogers, otherwise known as Captain America, and we’ll start with this gif set I found on tumblr:
I’m still surprised it took me so long to realize how much I cared about and empathized with this character, because Steve Rogers represents so many of the things I believe in, the type of character I will jump to defend in a world where cynicism sometimes seems the norm and people so often fall in love with the anti-hero. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of really fantastic anti-hero stories, but for me, seeing a character like Steve Rogers is SO refreshing, because from the very beginning when he was a sickly, tiny guy living in Brooklyn and getting beaten up in alleys, he wanted to do the right thing, wanted to fight for freedom and protect the people of his country, because as he so famously says in the first Captain America film “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies, I don’t care where they’re from.” His heart is full of love and full of fight. He’s immensely kind, but he will not be stepped on by anyone. (Also he’s sassy). There’s no reason why a character like this has to be flat or uninteresting, and in fact Steve is far from either of those things: he experiences personal struggles and has flaws like anyone else, but at his core he is an exceedingly good man, and from what I’ve read, one that all the characters in the Marvel universe look up to. He makes mistakes, he gets hurt (and rather badly, he gets his emotions messed with very severely) but he always manages to find a way to get back up and find a way to make the world better.
And though Steve can do some seriously bad-ass fighting with his super soldier body, that is not, in the end, his defining trait. His defining traits are his goodness, his bravery, his optimism, his loyalty, and the super soldier serum was the vehicle that allowed him the chance to fight, the chance for others to recognize just how exceptional he is. He might be America’s hero who can get shot several times without dying, the perfect soldier, but at heart, as he himself says, he’s just a poor kid from Brooklyn. A poor kid from Brooklyn who wanted so badly to make a difference. I’m no superhero and I haven’t ever been rejected from fighting in a war because of my physical issues, but one of my most distinct childhood memories is of overhearing my very first swim coach telling my mom I was an “asthmatic shrimp who would never amount to anything in the pool.” It was a very important moment for me two years later after he’d moved on to another team, when I cut 13 seconds off my 100 yard backstroke, won my heat, and got a state qualifying time all in one fell swoop in front of my ex-coaches’ very eyes. Its’s funny how telling someone they can’t just makes them ever more determined, and that’s certainly the case with Steve Rogers.
Steve Rogers isn’t just flooded with American patriotism either (I mean obviously that’s a thing) but instead wants to help make the world in general a better place. In the Winter Soldier arc in the comic books, Steve speaks to another character, Sharon Carter, about how frustrated he gets when he hears Americans call the French cowards, because he fought with the French Resistance in WWII, and those were some of the bravest men and women he’s ever met. Paris is also one of his favorite cities. It’s also made very clear in the comics that though Steve struggles with being a man out of time (because, who wouldn’t, he lost literally everything at once) he is very much a progressive. He talks about his support of FDR, and how he wishes he could have seen things like the Civil Rights movement take place with his own eyes. He misses the time he knew and he struggles with the shades of grey in the modern world, but that doesn’t mean he ignores the flaws of his own time, and openly admits that sometimes they had to do things in war that made him lose a whole lot of sleep at night. Steve is a member of what we call “the greatest generation” but he doesn’t hold it up to a pedestal: he sees the good and the bad. He’s an idealist, absolutely, but it doesn’t blind him.
(Warning, spoilers ahead for Winter Soldier. Big ones.)
I am diving into the comics now, but the great thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that you do not have to read the comics to enjoy, appreciate, and fall in love with the movies. They’ve set up something seriously incredible here, and the last few episodes of Joss Whedon’s coresponding TV show “Agents of Shield” developed it’s plot right off the back of Winter Soldier. So let’s talk about Winter Soldier and why this movie is just a little bit revolutionary to me.
Point the first: it focuses very heavily on friendship, whether that’s forging new relationships based on trust or similar experiences, or what kind of sacrifices someone will make for an old, treasured friend. Friendship is something that doesn’t get nearly enough attention in light of the piles and piles of romantic stories we see in in the media, and that has always been something that bothered me, given that my friendships are some of the most important relationships I have with people. Friendship is a massively important thing, and I was so pleased to see so much of it in this film. There is of course, a re-visiting of Steve’s brief, tragic romance with Peggy Carter from the first film (a relationship I very much enjoyed) but that comes back in a seriously heartbreaking way: Peggy has obviously aged, given that she wasn’t stuck in ice for 70 years, and has either Alzheimers or some type of dementia. In one scene Steve goes to visit her, and though she offers him some very solid advice at first, she then slides back, and it is as if she is only just seeing Steve again after he emerged from the ice, and let me tell you, seeing Steve Rogers about to cry as his last remaining person, the last remaining link to his old life, loses her memories, is enough to make me cry. (It did. A lot. Don’t cry Steve, it makes me upset.)Plus Peggy Carter was an amazing character, and stands up well in the line of awesome female characters in the Marvel universe. (I’m WAITING to see a Black Widow movie, Marvel. Chop chop.)
But throughout this movie we see Steve develop friendships, and the thing about Steve Rogers is that he relies on friendship, relies on having people he can trust at his side. At the very start of the movie we see him befriend Sam Wilson, played by the gem of a man named Anthony Mackie. Let him talk for a few minutes about representation in film because he will floor you with just how important it is, and it was great to see a pretty diverse cast in this film. Sam, codenamed Falcon, is an army veteran who participated in a special paratrooper project (he flies with this wing jetpack type thing, it is SO COOL) who lost his best friend in the war (an experience he and Steve at first appear to share, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Sam seems able to sense just from talking to Steve that Steve needs a friend (Sam does counseling at the VA), and when Steve and Natasha find themselves in trouble later on, Sam helps without question, saying eagerly, “Dude, Captain America needs my help. That’s more than enough reason to get back in.” Sam sits by Steve’s bed when he ends up in the hospital, and by the end of the film, readies to go with Steve on a journey that will not be, in any way, shape, or form, an easy one. There is an automatic, easy trust between the two of them, and I’m excited to see it progress in the next installment, especially as Falcon is one of Cap’s greatest friends in the comics.
The second friendship Steve develops is with Natasha Romanoff, otherwise known as Black Widow, who he also interacted with in The Avengers. In this film they work together often for Shield, and have developed a teasing banter, but in Winter Soldier they develop trust, which is not so easy for Natasha, nor is it something she hands out freely. One of the absolute best things about this relationship is the lack of sexual tension within it: these two are partners and platonic friends, and to see a movie so freely pair up a man and a woman without giving the relationship unecessary sexual tension, is something that doesn’t happen often. In one scene Natasha and Steve kiss to distract the Hydra agents chasing them, but Natasha then proceeds to tease Steve about it and spends the rest of the film throwing out the names of women they work with for him to ask out. It’s a good gag, and it shows that men and women can, in fact, be friends without romance constantly being a question. (I know, insert shocked gasp here).
(Really, spoilers here)
The third friendship that’s focused on, and is indeed, part of the title of the film, is Steve’s relationship with his best friend Bucky Barnes, who he’s known since they were kids in Brooklyn. In the first film we see Bucky fall off a speeding train, and we see Steve grieve him, we see Steve declare he’s going to take on all of Hydra to avenge the loss of Bucky. But the thing is, Bucky isn’t dead. Bucky was experimented on by Hyrda scientists in the first film (which is how he survived the fall) and was taken by those very same scientists after he fell. He lost his memories in the fall, and anytime he even came close to remembering, Hydra wiped his mind, turning him into the ultimate assassin and putting him in cryo freeze between missions. They locked Bucky Barnes away and created the Winter Soldier, a machine of a man, or as Natasha says, a ghost story. So when Steve sees him during the middle of a battle on the 14th Street Bridge as his mask falls off, his shock and emotion are apparent as he says Bucky’s name and Bucky looks right through him with the words “who the hell is Bucky?” Indeed one of the most heartbreaking scenes is when we see Bucky starting to remember, swearing he knew the man on the bridge, and being wiped of his memory again, almost childlike and traumatized, a far cry from the ruthless assassin we initially meet. It’s tragic once again when we hear Steve declare “even when I had nothing I had Bucky.” LIKE HE HASN’T BEEN HURT ENOUGH ALREADY. Ahem. When we meet Bucky in the first film he is pulling Steve out of a fight, and he’s instantly likeable. It’s obvious he cares a whole hell of a lot about his best friend, and looks out for him. Bucky is charming, sassy, and an all around awesome guy, so to see him turned into this is particularly terrible.
(“I’m with you till the end of the line, pal” Bucky says to Steve in a flashback, and Steve repeats back to him as they fight in the final battle sequence, Steve desperately trying to make Bucky remember. I am CRYING again just thinking about this, good lord.)
But in the final fight to stop Hyrda on the helicarrier, it’s clear that Bucky is starting to remember even as he and Steve fight, and in one of the most achingly beautiful scenes I’ve seen in a while, as soon as Steve completes his mission and prevents Hydra from killing millions, he stops fighting Bucky. For the first time, Steve Rogers backs down from a fight because he cannot kill his best friend who has been tortured, his memories stolen from him and turned into a mindless, abused assassin. We watch Steve Rogers fall into the Potomac River, and then we watch Bucky, still unsure of who he is or what’s happening, pull Steve out of the river and save his life. Because even though his mind has been played with and twisted, something in him speaks to knowing the man he was sent to kill, speaks to a bond of friendship, of brotherhood, that even a trauma and multiple mind wipes can’t destroy. In one of the after credits scenes we see Bucky at the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, looking at the section dedicated to him, and we see Steve, with Sam in tow, going to look for Bucky. I’ll be honest, I can’t really think about Steve and Bucky without wanting to cry, and I am more than a little anxious for the next installment because I need them to be together again.
I could write an entirely seperate blog post about the plot of this film: the fact that Shield, the security organization who put together the Avengers and is run by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury was infiltrated by Hydra, the enemy Cap fought in the first film and his long standing foe that turned Bucky into the Winter Soldier, from the very first day of it’s creation. About the fact that Hydra created an algorithim to wipe out anyone who would ever pose a threat before they could even thinkg about actually being a threat. It brings up questions about civil liberties in a post 9/11 world, in a time where we constantly toe the line and debate freedom and security, where we never really know who’s listening, reading, or watching. As Steve says to Nick Fury upon seeing the helicarriers Shield means to launch to kill terrorists before they even commit the act (hellicarriers that are in actuality run by Hydra, prepared to kill anyone who gets in their way, including the Avengers), “this isn’t freedom. This is fear.” It is strange to go back and watch the other Marvel movies and know that Hydra had been there all along, the villains in with the good guys and the good guys didn’t even notice, which leads to more questions about the lines between Shield and Hydra, which are like two sides of the same coin. Shield was created in the aftermath of WWII by Peggy Carter and Tony Stark’s father Howard, and it was very well meant, and certainly did good things. But at some point, fear began to take over, and seeing the very climatic moment where Natasha and Fury unleash all of Hydra’s secrets, in turn releasing Shield’s and their own, it is a testament to their bravery. Bad things happened and they got played, but in the end, they, and all the other good agents of Shield, stand up at Cap’s statement that “the price of freedom is high. It always has been. And if I’m the only one to pay it, then so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not.” And he is so right. He’s not. His hope and his words pay off.
This is a film that’s less about superheroes (though that part is very fun!) than it is about people fighting for a better world, about fighting for that and hanging on to the good despite how difficult the shades of grey can make things. About believing in freedom and having hope. About learning to trust and creating relationships with other people so that you can fight alongside each other. Sometimes the world falls into chaos, or a generation gets handed a country that’s fallen to shreds, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be saved, as long as there are people to save it and wade through those complicated waters. It’s an incredibly relevant film to our time and it’s issues, and I know for certain that it’s one I’ll be watching on repeat soon enough.
So, as Bucky Barnes says in the first Cap installment, “let’s hear for Captain America!”