Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon.
Bucky's role in this movie is the point where Marvel nerd and non-nerd audiences part ways. Going by the reactions I've seen from film critics and my non-fan friends, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was an entertaining popcorn flick that probably should've had more dialogue and fewer action sequences. But if you go by Captain America fandom, EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS FILM WAS AGONY AND LIFE IS A WORTHLESS HELLSCAPE UNTIL STEVE AND BUCKY CAN BE TOGETHER AGAIN.
Needless to say, I fall into the latter camp. If you want to preserve the illusion of this blog as an impartial source of pop culture analysis, stop reading this post and wait for the next part of the review, because I have A Lot Of Feelings about Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.
Marvel Studios movies are very good at making everything equally engaging for new and old audiences alike, but I suspect that Winter Soldier was their first stumbling block. CATWS has inspired an overwhelmingly positive audience response so I wouldn't describe this issue as a "failure," but there's clearly a gap between people who came into the movie already invested in Bucky Barnes, and people who didn't. It's kind of like if someone made a movie about Sherlock Holmes' return from the dead, but half the audience were only familiar with Watson and therefore didn't understand why everyone was freaking out over the dead guy who reappeared an hour and a half into the movie.
I saw several reviews that pointed out the Winter Soldier had very little screentime for a title character -- in fact, that the film more or less could've stood up without him. And from a plot perspective, I suppose it could. They could've swapped him with any old assassin character, and the plot would've worked out just fine. Except this fails to take into account the fact that Bucky is the emotional core of the Captain America story thus far. To fully understand this, we need to go right back to the beginning of the first movie, when Steve and Bucky were growing up together in Brooklyn.
I've already written about how lonely and miserable Steve Rogers is throughout CATWS, but I think it's fair to say that he's not just lonely for all the friends he lost in the 1940s -- he's lonely for Bucky, specifically.
"Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky," he says, when he finds out who the Winter Soldier truly is. Steve certainly misses Peggy and the Howling Commandos, but that loss is bittersweet. He at least knows that Peggy lived a long and happy life, and besides, he only knew Peggy and the Commandos for a few months, whereas he and Bucky were friends since childhood. Steve's scene with Peggy is upsetting because it's the one moment that really highlights the time travel aspect of the Captain America story: he can never go back. But Peggy went on without him; she had to.
Bucky's absence is more like (to use a rather inappropriate analogy) a missing limb. Not only did Bucky never get anything approaching a happy ending, but Steve never really got any practice at functioning without him. Within days of Bucky's death, Steve was piloting an aircraft into the ocean, and when he woke up he was thrust straight back into active service, in a totally alien environment but with SHIELD governing his every move -- even stationing a spy at his door.
In the 21st century, Steve is still living in the middle of a war story -- or a post-war story, as he fails to get the closure he needs because he never really "came back" from WWII. The soundtrack even includes a classic wartime love song about missing and then being reunited with your sweetheart, It's Been A Long, Long Time:
"Haven't felt like this, my dear
Since I can't remember when.
It's been a long, long time.
You'll never know how many dreams
I've dreamed about you.
Or just how empty they all seemed without you.
So kiss me once then kiss me twice
Then kiss me once again.
It's been a long, long time."
Steve has a copy of this song in his apartment, and the lyrics really could fit with anything: Peggy ("Kiss me once again."), Bucky ("Haven't felt like this since I can't remember when.") or even just his old life in general ("You'll never know how many dreams I've dreamed about you."). Honestly, it's quite astonishing how much misery this movie manages to pack into two hours of action sequences and espionage subplots, especially since Captain America is supposedly one of the "lighter" superheroes, compared to the unending grimdarkness of Batman. I guess this is the difference between "manpain" and "a man in legitimate emotional pain."
By this point Steve has been in the 21st century for about two years, and we don't see much evidence that he's failing to deal with the 21st century as a concept. He's a resilient guy, after all. What we do see is him being horribly lonely and no longer displaying much of the optimistic, target-oriented attitude we see in the '40s. I suspect that if Bucky was still with him, things would be very different.
The thing is, Steve and Bucky's friendship wasn't just a "they grew up so they're as close as brothers," thing, it's way more dynamic than that. Their relationship may be symbiotic, but it was never particularly balanced. Growing up, Steve was sickly and physically weak but had precisely the same personality as he does now: unendingly hopeful and moral, but with no conception of backing down from a fight. Hence why he's constantly getting beaten up, with Bucky having to wade in and finish those fights for him. Bucky is incredibly protective of him, which must have caused a fair amount of confusion when Steve turned into a near-indestructable supersoldier.
It's a classic partnership between idealism (Steve) and pragmatic cynicism (Bucky), with Bucky playing the role of Steve's protector and #1 fan. It takes the supersoldier serum for everyone else to realise what Bucky knew all along: that Steve is an inspirational figure, destined for great things.
There's this beautiful transitional moment in the first movie when Steve has just rescued Bucky and the other soldiers from the Red Skull's lab, and Bucky calls out for everyone to cheer for Captain America. This is the first time Steve has received outside recognition for being the person he is, and you can tell that while Bucky's happy for him, he's also a tiny bit resentful because he knows Steve is no longer "his". The tables have turned, and now Bucky is walking in Steve's shadow, rather than the other way round.
|GIFs by rogersbarnes|
CATWS purposefully sets up tons of parallels between them: Steve falling from the Helicarrier just like Bucky fell from the train, Bucky being defrosted, Bucky being strapped down in the chair like Steve was when they gave him the serum, Bucky being physically "improved" in a twisted mirror-image of Steve's supersoldier perfection, the pair of them facing off along that walkway on the Helicarrier. These comparisons serve as a constant reminder of how closely their stories are intertwined. Even when Bucky isn't onscreen, he's still always lurking in the background, out of the corner of Steve's eye.
The most significant moment is surely the end of their showdown on the helicarrier, when Steve finally gives up. For the first time ever, he backs down from a fight. Why? Well, he certainly can't bring himself to kill Bucky. But there's also the fact that fighting Bucky no longer serves any purpose. Steve doesn't really have anything to live for if Bucky doesn't remember him, and he's already fulfilled his mission by bringing down the three HYDRA helicarriers. Bucky isn't the "enemy," he isn't a bully, he's just a malfunctioning weapon who can't help what he's been programmed to do.
This is the point where I flush all my emotions down the toilet and go to live in an igloo made of frozen tears, because what the hell. This is a goddamn SUPERHERO MOVIE where the denouement is the hero surrendering because he can't cope with living in a world where he's killed his best friend. Earlier on when Steve tells Sam that he doesn't want to kill Bucky, he's not just saying that he can't kill Bucky, he's tacitly admitting that he might even fuck up the whole mission and endanger millions of lives because he can't use lethal force against his friend. Then Captain America just casually drops his shield into the Potomac, because he knows he isn't coming back from this.
Watching CATWS for the second time, I was really struck by Sebastian Stan's performance. He may not have as big a role as Nick Fury or Black Widow, but by god does he make his limited screentime count. In particular, every one of his action sequences stands out because his fighting technique is so much more brutal than anything else onscreen. Steve's fighting style is designed to be this combination of extreme gymnastic ability and slightly old-fashioned martial arts techniques, and Black Widow's style is beautifully fluid, but in the end the Winter Soldier is just terrifying.
Compared to the badass but relatively generic hand-to-hand scenes between Steve and various HYDRA goons, the Winter Soldier is a whirlwind of pure death. He tears the steering wheel right out of Steve's car. He skids across the road, using his metal hand as a brake. Hilariously, he stands right in front of Fury's car to blow it up, which kind of does away with the Winter Soldier's image as an invisible ghost.
In the middle of a film that's all about shades of grey and working out who you can trust, the Winter Soldier is simultaneously the scariest character in the film... and never really "evil." He's single-minded and brutally violent, but he never gives the impression of being unpleasant in the way of Alexander Pierce, Sitwell, or any of the HYDRA footsoldiers.
I've seen a handful of comparisons with Loki because they are both, I suppose, "ambiguous villains." But to me they honestly seem like polar opposites. The whole point of Loki is that he's easy to understand and empathize with as a character, but he's a cruel and malevolent person. Plus, most of his decisions boil down to, "Because I want to." Beside him, the Winter Soldier seems like a motiveless vacuum, devoid of emotional responses or desires until Steve shows up to knock a hole in the wall between Bucky and his memories.
So yeah, by the time we get to the two or three scenes where Sebastian Stan actually gets to act with his face and voice, I am a shriveled husk of my former self. Thor and Loki's relationship is one of the most fleshed-out and compelling in the MCU, but the death and resurrection of Bucky Barnes still manages to be a goddamn operatic tragedy in about a tenth of the screentime.
This entire movie is basically a set-up for Steve's quest to find the Winter Soldier and bring Bucky in from the cold in the next movie, and their tiny handful of scenes together is enough for me to pack my belongings and move to a cabin in the woods where I can cry in peace. But before I do that, let's talk about why Sebastian Stan deserves 500 Oscars.
First up, well done for managing to illustrate the true meaning of Bucky's Red Room/HYDRA mind-wipes in just one scene.
The Winter Soldier's relationship with Alexander Pierce is a direct parallel to Steve's relationship with Nick Fury. Steve is able to doubt Fury's trustworthiness because he has such a solid bedrock of moral certainty, but Bucky never had that luxury, even back when he was fully himself. Now, Bucky's mind is a quicksand, and Pierce may be the only vaguely familiar face he knows. Having imprinted onto Pierce like a baby duckling, why not believe him when he says the Winter Soldier "shaped the century"? (Yet another parallel between Steve and Bucky, by the way: Captain America shaping the world as a heroic icon, while the Winter Soldier shapes things from the shadows, carrying out anonymous assassinations on HYDRA's behalf.)
The Winter Soldier's facial expressions are almost childlike here, and his passive acceptance of the mouth guard speaks volumes. He could probably kill everyone in the room in seconds, but instead he just lies back and lets them torture his brain to mush for the hundredth time. Before now he seemed like such an intimidating figure, but this scene shows the Winter Soldier what he really is: a little kid or a blank slate into which people insert their own goals and missions, fully-formed.
"But I knew him," he says in miserable confusion, certain that he recognizes Steve's face from somewhere. But Pierce, the voice of God, refuses to explain any further. THIS IS JUST. TOO. UPSETTING. Sebastian Stan's entire acting career of weeping while being emotionally abused by unpleasant father figures has all been leading up to this role, and I for one am not amused.
Just in case the general emotional trajectory of this movie was to cheerful for you, the happy ending is Steve Rogers waking up in hospital after voluntarily falling to his death. Good news, Steve! Your best friend is alive enough to only half beat you to a pulp. And now he's wandering around D.C. trying to get his memory back, looking even less healthy than he did when he was in full brainwashed assassin mode. If Captain America 3 doesn't include at least one emotional embrace and/or scene where Falcon forces Bucky go to therapy, then I'm leading a mass revolt on Marvel Studios HQ, you mark my words.
Part 5: Worldbuilding in the MCU
Part 6: Costuming and design: Steve & Bucky
Part 7: Costuming in CATWS: Nick Fury, Black Widow and S.H.I.E.L.D.
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