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Friday, 11 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes

Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the "gritty" superhero we never knew we wanted.
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 superhero movie that probably should've had more dialogue and fewer action sequences. But if you go by Marvel/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 audiences and people who are familiar with the comics, 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 to be a "failure," but there's clearly a gap between people who came into the movie already invested in the Winter Soldier's backstory, 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 really 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 just subbed in 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 Cap movie, when Steve and Bucky were growing up together in Brooklyn.
I've written already about how lonely and miserable Cap is in this movie, 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 had been living in each other's pockets 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. Peggy went on without him -- she had to.

But Bucky's absence is more like (to use a rather inappropriate analogy) a missing limb. Not only did Bucky never get anything remotely approaching a happy ending, but Steve never really got any practise in 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.
Even in the 21st century, Steve is still living in the middle of a war story -- or a post-war story, with Steve failing to get the closure he needs because he never really "came back" from WWII. The movie 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 mostly action sequences and espionage subplots, particularly 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 already been in the 21st century for about two years, and we don't really 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 kind of 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, 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 Cap 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 basically the first time Steve has ever 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 that 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
Before, Steve had resented Bucky for his physical strength and the way he was able to get into the army while Steve was repeatedly marked down as physically unfit for duty. After he becomes Captain America, the tables begin to turn, with Bucky probably recognising that Steve's strength and heroism comes at a price (to their friendship, at least). But in the end that resentment between them doesn't matter, because whichever way you flip it, they define each other. 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 -- which serve as a constant reminder of how closely their stories are intertwined. Even if 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, not only can he not 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 effectively committing suicide 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 overall 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 the second time, one thing that really hit me is how brilliant Sebastian Stan's performance is. 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 really stands out because his fighting technique is just 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 the 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 still never really gives the impression of being unpleasant in the way that Alexander Pierce, Sitwell, or any of the HYDRA footsoldiers are. 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 very easy to understand and empathise with as a character, but he's still an unnecessarily 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 vaccuum, 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 shrivelled husk of my former self. Thor and Loki's relationship is probably 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 for this movie.
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 and comicbook character, while the Winter Soldier shapes things from the shadows, carrying out anonymous assassinations on behalf of HYDRA.)

The Winter Soldier's facial expressions are almost childlike here, and the way he passively accepts that mouth guard tells you everything you need to know. He could probably kill everyone in the room within 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, sure that he recognises 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.

Continued in Part 5: Worldbuilding in the MCU.

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Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the "gritty" superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: Hydra, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon.

24 comments:

  1. YESSSSS. I can't even respond in an eloquent fashion; that is what Bucky Barnes does to me. LIFE IS PAIN.

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  2. This was an excellent write-up. Agree with every word. Oh god everything hurts. During that fight on the helicarrier when he yells "shut up!" I just...my ghost is writing this because I died of a broken heart then and there.

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  3. shannon windley11 April 2014 13:10

    i read a article where Sebastian Stan described getting his inspiration for the character from Alzheimers, as someone who works with the elderly it really shows, he goes from docile to violent with minimal provocation and that adds a sense of tragedy to his character arc.

    http://badassdigest.com/2014/04/02/sebastian-stan-captain-americas-winter-soldier-reminded-me-of-an-alzheimers/

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  4. laughingacademy11 April 2014 15:22

    "But I knew him" BROKE ME. He's so bewildered by the concept of a category other than "handler," "target" or "bystander."

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  5. Nope, I am done. I am just 100% done with my feelings right now. I kept expecting Bucky to flip out and kill everyone in the room during that scene and when they strap him in and he starts screaming...

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  6. All of Tumblr's feels have been crammed into one glorious post. Thank you. SEBASTIAN STAN FOR ALL THE AWARDS. *runs off to build own igloo of tears*

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  7. motleypatches11 April 2014 22:41

    And you catch that small smile AT ALEXANDER PIERCE when he said "But i knew him." This writeup is excellent. Now I realise I'm so invested in the Captain America series because of the heartbreak an potential for mending...............

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  8. I know next to nothing about what will happen in the next cap film but if it continues to escalate the Steve/Bucky feelings I will probably end up rolling about and keening on the floor of the cinema since I was TEARING UP JUST FROM BUCKY STANDING IN FRONT OF A CAR, what the hell.

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  9. All your write-ups are genius. I saw this film two days ago and I am still crying. I may never stop. And it is wonderful.

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  10. Yes, this, so much! I haven't even read the comics (though fandom had taught me a thing or two about them), but after seeing the films, the thematic importance of Bucky/The Winter Soldier was so obvious to me that I was floored so many people didn't see the way he's woven into so many more scenes than the ones he's actually in and/or mentioned. And you've really summed up his storyline beautifully.

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  11. Huh. I was actually a bit disappointed by the film's handling of Bucky's storyline - I felt it rather underplayed everything, and it didn't have the emotional weight it should have done.

    I mean, this is about Steve being confronted by the fact that his closest childhood friend and war buddy, who he hasn't seen for 60 years (less for Steve, but still) and believes to be dead, is in fact still alive and has been brainwashed and turned into an assassin sent to kill him. Logically, that should have him collapsing into a catatonic emotional wreck! But Steve just looks a little glum for a while. I guess he holds himself together better than most people.

    But judging by this post and the comments, you and many others apparently felt the Bucky storyline had the impact I didn't feel from it. (And you do a good job of explaining why, despite the relatively little screentime Bucky had. It didn't occur to me before reading this, for example, that Steve actually *wants to die* at the end of the movie.) After reading this, I'll have to watch the film again with new eyes.

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  12. The most emotional scene for me was the reunion with Peggy Carter, it was sad that they never got to be together.

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  13. partytimexelent12 April 2014 21:24

    This was amazing DO NOT STOP

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  14. "The way he passively accepts the mouthguard" YES, yes, a million times yes. This is the part that broke me, personally. I was already kind of breaking at "but I knew him" but when he just lies back and lets them stick in the mouthguard because this torture is so routine for him that he doesn't understand a universe with anything else...god, what a brilliant scene and what a great review. Thanks for writing this.

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  15. "Sebastian Stan's entire acting career of weeping while being emotionally abused by unpleasant father figures has all been leading up to this role..."



    I have never read a more accurate statement in my life.

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  16. Abdelkhabir Mission Dismay14 April 2014 03:37

    i like it :)

    http://auto-binary-signals-review-1.blogspot.com/2014/04/auto-binary-signals-review.html

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  17. I don't have the background of the comics themselves, but I have to say TWS was just heartbreaking. I told my boyfriend when we left: That dude was AWESOME! Like you said, you barely get to see his face, but when you do, he just seems so completely lost. It was amazing and sad and terrifying all at the same time. And yes yes yes, when he passively accepts the mouth guard. Whoa.

    And yes, CATWS feels like a love story but the one between Cap and Bucky. They're closer than brothers because they chose one another, and I don't think Cap *can* move on without Bucky.

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  18. I'll leave a better comment after I've finished sobbing and hiding in the bathroom. All of this. ALL. OF. THIS.

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  19. Totally agree. I think it's wrong to say Steve "gave up" or he was suicidal. He never stopped fighting to try and save Bucky, to try and get through to him. He was willing to die for it, in the same way he was willing to die to save millions of people. But he never gave up.

    Also let's not forget poor Steve is very resilient but not immortal, he'd been stabbed and also shot by Bucky at least 3 times, at least one of which was clearly meant to be quite serious. He did everything he could to finish his mission for the "greater good" by changing the chips in the Helicarrier before he focused on Bucky. So Steve still did his duty and put saving millions of lives before something that near and dear to his own heart. Steve did everything he could to save millions of people, himself and Bucky before he "stopped fighting".

    I thought one of the movies strong points was showing how strong and tough Cap is while still making you feel he could be endangered(as well as other characters). While he may be able to do all sorts of things because of the Super Soldier Serum, sometimes those things hurt and hurt alot. Jumping from a 15 story window may not kill him(if he lands on his shield) but it hurts, getting shot might not take him down as quickly as a normal person but it does affect him and it hurts. When he got shot all those times, I was worried about him along with the tension of whether he'd be able to get the chip in place in time.

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  20. I was so, so happy with how they handled Bucky's story. Not that the character progression was happy -- it's downright tragic -- but because they steered clear of all the unfortunate tropey cliches that could have ruined it. I saw an interview somewhere where Sebastian Stan mentions that he took his cues from people with advanced Alzheimer's, where they can go unpredictably from confusion to lashing out in a heartbeat. Given the audio used for the final clip of him being in the Smithsonian, I have to wonder if he suffered another violent breakdown which they cut away from /o\

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