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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Costuming and Design in Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- Steve & Bucky.

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. 
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes.
Part 5: Worldbuilding in the MCU.

The decision to set CATWS in Washington DC was a big departure from the visuals of the first Captain America movie. Compared to the sepia-toned beauty of The First Avenger, Steve's new life looks depressingly drab and grey. The car chases churn through DC traffic on concrete freeways, SHIELD headquarters looks like a cross between a multi-storey car park and an office block, and the Helicarriers are all cold, smooth glass and metal. The only hint of the warm colour-scheme of Steve's youth is when he goes to visit Sam Wilson at the VA, a comforting moment among the corporate cleanliness of the rest of DC.

Each Avengers movie has its own aesthetic, with Iron Man flitting between palaces of high-tech luxury, Thor living in a world of gold embossed armour and faux-historical alien weirdness, and Cap spending the entirety of his first movie surrounded by 1940s grime. CATWS was definitely the ugliest instalment in the franchise, which kind of worked in its favour because it highlighted Steve Rogers' isolation in 21st century DC.

Unfortunately, I don't think all of that ugliness was on purpose. One of my biggest problems with CATWS was the way they filmed the fight scenes, which I theorize was influenced by the fact that the directors have mostly worked on TV before now. The worst offender was the extended battle sequence that culminates in Steve unmasking the Winter Soldier. I know for a fact that Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan spent months working out and practicing their fight choreography for this movie, so why the hell were so many of the hand-to-hand combat scenes ruined by shaky camerawork and slowed-down frame rates?

Slowing down the frame rate is a technique you often see in fight scenes, and I think it's meant to make everything more chaotic and stressful to watch. In some instances this works out pretty well (i.e. violent battle scenes in films like Gladiator), and I suspect it's useful when an actor doesn't have much stunt training, which is why you tend to see it more in TV than in actual martial arts movies. However, I don't think it was an appropriate choice this time round.

Black Widow and the Winter Soldier's fighting styles are both meant to be very fluid and skilled, and part of that is lost when you edit everything into a rapid-fire slideshow of disjointed frames. This technique would've made sense if we were watching them fight from the perspective of a terrified civilian or something, but we're not. We're just watching a cast of characters who are physically adept and always keep a cool head in the heat of battle, and this kind of panicked camerawork doesn't work in that context. For me, it even detracted from the Winter Soldier's impact as a threatening presence onscreen. There was no reason for the filmmakers to shoot everything with a wobbly handheld camera behind someone's elbow, rather than pulling out a little and actually letting us see what's going on.

So, yeah: mixed feelings on the overall aesthetic, in part because I was dissatisfied by the way they chose to film the combat scenes. However, I did think the overwhelming greyness of DC worked in their favour. Aside from the first two scenes with Sam (running in the park and hanging out at the VA), our view of Steve's 21st century lifestyle was dominated by looming US government monuments and grey cinderblock. One of my favourite details was the fact that Alexander Pierce's brutally pared-down bunker of an office was decorated by a large picture of... the outside of his office. Seriously, it's literally just an aerial shot of the the Helicarrier bay, done in a tasteful grey to match the concrete walls of his office. TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE.

As for costume design, you will probably not be surprised to hear that I have A LOT of thoughts on this topic. First up: The Winter Soldier himself. He has one main outfit throughout the film, and the designer clearly put a lot of thought into it both from a practical standpoint, and as an opportunity for symbolism.

The Winter Soldier's primary costume consists of a leather jacket, reinforced combat trousers, and boots. From an in-universe perspective, the main thing we have to consider here is that this costume is obviously not Bucky's choice. It doesn't look like normal clothes because it's not for his personal comfort or convenience, it's designed for efficiency. Also, he probably spends a fair amount of time being dressed and undressed by other people, much like how his hair and nails are probably cut by some lab tech whenever he's defrosted from HYDRA's cryofreeze. Actually, his hair is the only thing that doesn't make sense in this context because long hair is not exactly practical in a combat situation, but I'll allow it because that's how he looks in the comics. Plus, the long hair makes him look less like 1940s Bucky and more like the Winter Soldier, hiding behind a curtain of sullen grunge misery.

From a design perspective, there are several things that I really enjoyed about the Winter Soldier's leather jacket. Looking back at Bucky's uniform in the first movie, it's clear that it was part of the inspiration for the Winter Soldier's costume. If you look at the button flaps along the front and the overall stockiness of the silhouette, you'll see a lot of similarities. Also, the straps across the Winter Soldier's chest make his jacket look kind of like a straitjacket. A horrible straitjacket that is probably his only item of clothing and is used to strap him down to various lab benches so evil scientists can wipe his brain and force him to murder more people. THIS IS THE MOST DEPRESSING SUPERHERO MOVIE OF ALL TIME. Ugh. Even the Winter Soldier's clothes are suffused with misery and horror, especially after you've seen him shirtless and strapped into that brainwashing machine, like a fragile sea creature whose protective exoskeleton has been forcibly removed.

I talked a bit about the mirroring between Steve and Bucky in one of the earlier installments of this review, and this is particularly apparent when looking at their respective costumes. In real life Chris Evans is only about an inch taller than Sebastian Stan, but in the first film they go out of their way to make Steve look far taller, to emphasise his change in stature. In the sequel, they concentrate more on making the Winter Soldier look as bulky as possible, helped along by Sebastian Stan's grim, purposeful body language.

I suspect that one of the reasons why Chris Evans has been cast in so many comicbook adaptations is his ridiculous physique, which is about as close to superheroic as you're likely to see in real life. Even without the punishing training regimen and padded clothing required for the Captain America role, he has that "martini glass" body shape of huge shoulders, a tiny waist, and long legs. His various costumes in the Avengers franchise tend to highlight that triangular shape, while Bucky always looks more like a rectangle.

Masks are a staple of superhero costumes, but hey, guess what? The Winter Soldier's is depressing as hell, just like every other aspect of his life.

While Steve's "mask" is more like a helmet than anything else (most obviously because he no longer has a secret identity to protect), the Winter Soldier's mask is basically a muzzle. Not only does it anonymize him with far more efficiency than the domino mask we often see him wearing in the comics, but it dehumanizes him as well, showing only a few slivers of skin to indicate that he's anything other than a relentless cyborg. With the goggles on he's almost completely faceless, and the muzzle serves to hide Sebastian Stan's expressive mouth. And while he does bark out a few orders during one of the fight scenes, that mask is not exactly conducive to friendly conversation -- possibly a subtle callback to the facial restraint we see Loki wearing at the end of Avengers. Not pleasant in the slightest.

Cap's costume has gone through several updates now. The one we see him wearing at the beginning of this movie is clearly SHIELD issue, and is about as "stealth" as you're going to get while still having a great big star emblazoned across your chest. The red part of the stars-and-stripes motif has vanished, and the star on Cap's chest has been modified to include what looks like the "wings" of SHIELD's stylised eagle logo.

This costume was based on Cap's uniform in the "Steve Rogers: Super Soldier" comics, and I think of it as the kind of costume Steve would be wearing in a Christopher Nolan-style gritty reboot. It's darker, it's "tactical," and it doesn't have the smooth, slightly cartoonish appearance of the costume we see him wearing in Avengers (which, as we already know, was personally designed by Cap fanboy Agent Phil Coulson). This costume choice is significant because we see him reject it towards the end of the film, symbolically breaking away from the morally ambiguous world of SHIELD and returning to his classically heroic roots.

Steve Rogers doesn't really have "dress sense," as such. If I ever get round to writing about the (brilliant) costumes in The First Avenger then I'll discuss that more in the context of his life in the 1940s, but in the present day, we mostly just see him wearing t-shirts and hoodies. Steve doesn't seem to care much about what he's wearing, as long as it's comfortable and clean.

His first outfit is a tight white t-shirt and workout pants, a variation on outfits we see him wearing in both of his other movies. The only difference is that this time the t-shirt isn't specified as being SHIELD-issue. He looks more 21st century than he did in Avengers (where we see him wearing pleat-fronted trousers like the old man that he is), but aside from that he isn't exactly a fashion icon. His most significant costume-related choice is his decision to don his antique costume from the Smithsonian, which is meaningful on several levels.

Wearing a brightly coloured jumpsuit with a great big target on your torso probably doesn't seem very practical from an urban camouflage point of view, but for Steve Rogers, it's perfect. Why is he wearing the costume? So people will know that he's Captain America. He's trusting that people will see him and rally around him, because that's the whole point of Captain America.

That Cap/Falcon conversation ("How do we know which ones are the bad guys?" "They'll be the ones shooting at us.") isn't just a snappy one-liner, it's a tactical decision. In a war where no one is wearing a uniform and anyone could be the enemy, Steve is consciously choosing to represent one side instead of sneaking into SHIELD headquarters in disguise. He'll be able to tell who the bad guys are because they're shooting at him... and loyal SHIELD agents will know that if you're shooting at the dude in the red, white and blue superhero costume , then you're the enemy.

There's also the possibility that the vintage Captain America costume helps Bucky regain his memory for long enough to stop murdering Steve in the face. Steve's 21st century hair, clothes and uniform would all render him well-nigh unrecogniseable to Bucky's distant memories of their life together, which are almost entirely subsumed by the Winter Soldier's conditioning. Cap's old wartime costume is the only thing that stands a chance of seeming familiar. Plus, it's kind of appropriate that we see Steve fall from the Helicarrier in the same costume he was wearing when Bucky fell from the train, and when he finally crashed the Red Skull's plane into the ice himself. 

Continued in Part 7: Costuming in CATWS: Nick Fury, Black Widow and S.H.I.E.L.D.

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  1. Every one of these installments is a delight.

  2. So this will total seven posts on The Winter Soldier? Not to mention your Captain America and Black Widow articles on The Daily Dot? I am in awe. All of the awe in the world is over here, in a rented swimming pool, and I'm sitting in the middle of it.

  3. i'm a disgrace. i should probably print them all out and submit them as a PhD thesis somewhere.

  4. Kirsten Thompson30 April 2014 at 10:35

    Excellent analysis, as always. Regarding Bucky's mask - yes, absolutely to all of it. A weapon does not need to have a cup of coffee, comment on the weather, or contribute to a conversation, and the Winter Soldier only needed to be a ghost, and ghosts only speak when they have unfinished business - Hydra kept mindwiping Bucky so that he would not remember his unfinished business.

    I would venture that Steve's choice of his 'old uniform' was very much a deliberate choice, not only in distancing himself from S.H.I.E.L.D., but also so that Bucky would have a better chance of recognizing him. After all, Sam noted that Bucky didn't know him, and Steve's reply was that Bucky would- because Steve would give him all the information and reasons he could in order to jumpstart Bucky's memory. And, remember, he also took off his helmet when he completed his mission - both because he was done, in every sense, but so that Bucky would see his face and the uniform at the same time. Which is when Bucky truly lost control and was desperately grasping onto the terrible familiarity of his mission over the unknown of somebody telling him that things were not as he assumed.

  5. Thank you for all of these wonderful posts! And I hope you do a costume post on CA:TFA at some point. I would be very interested to read it.

  6. Love this posts because I have not gotten over how good TWS has been! Also, I for one would love a costume post about TFA! Because more Peggy Carter please.

  7. It's maybe also worth noting that the World War II Cap suit is the only one we know he had any design input into. The USO suit, his regular Army uniform, the Avengers suit, all designed and issued by other people. It's unclear about the SHIELD suit, but we know he gave notes to Stark about what he wanted in that WWII Cap suit. And his street clothes are fairly nondescript.

    So, in addition to the WWII suit being a trigger for Bucky and it being the suit he wears as a soldier going into war as he explicitly references, it's maybe the one set of clothing he's ever had that he felt personally invested in. For a character in crisis, reclaiming that suit is maybe also partly about reclaiming his identity

  8. Bucky actually has two outfits! During the scene where he blows up Fury's car hes wear a very cute tailored jacket with lots of piping(not sure if that's the right term I am not a costume designer!)

    I love love love all your costuming posts!!!

  9. oh Cleveland, truly you make the drabbest and greyest DC we could ever dream of! I have to admit, as a Cleveland-transplant, seeing all the recognizable sites in the film made it much more enjoyable for me. I'd like to compare some of the street scenes in CATWS with street scenes from the Avengers and see if there are any landmarks that are similar (though they are supposed to be different cities, and countries too). I wonder how conscious the movie makers were of the potential crossover from filming in the same locations.

  10. Hi Gavia. Brilliant insights well presented. I love your blogs on the MCU.

    That said, I do have a couple things to add to this edition. You said that "The red part of the stars-and-stripes motif has vanished completely". Not quite so. It's there, in a broad stripe on the outside of each leg, but it's a dulled down, dried-blood-red, that's so muted that it's easy to overlook (QED). See photo included. In the comic book original version upon which the movie uniform is based, the red is much more blatant, but also with the same placement.

    You also wrote, "His first outfit is a tight white t-shirt [...] the t-shirt isn't specified as being SHIELD-issue." There's a big SHIELD logo on the left shoulder. It's tone-on-tone, but it's there. See 2nd photo provided.

    Thanks for letting me toss my 2 cents into the mix.


  11. One thing I noticed about the Smithsonian costume: it's very clearly NOT the original, nor even an exact copy. The fabric is thinner, there's less padding, the stripes around the midsection are wrong, and the corselet over Steve's chest and shoulders is fabric, not body armor. I think it's supposed to be the Smithsonian's attempt to make a Captain America outfit for the display, not recreate the actual armor he wore on the battlefield, and that's why it's so easy for Bucky to shoot and stab Steve.

  12. I only just noticed while reading this one how Bucky's mask is basically the inverse of Steve's - covering the bottom half of his face rather than the top half. (With the long hair/short hair adding another contrast.) I guess that was probably done to make him look cool and different, but you could also see it as a symbol that they're thematic opposites.

  13. I thought the first Captain America movie was okay. This one was AMAZING. I wasn't a fan of the comics, but I know enough people who are that I knew the backstory and so knew what was coming with the references to Bucky, and your analogy to Holmes and Watson is spot on.


    You are so right!

  14. DonnaBrazileRocks4 May 2014 at 15:08

    About CATWS being the most "drab" movie in the franchise so far, Linda Holmes thought of it a different way in the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. She noticed that the camera tended to linger on those really nice pastoral shots of DC, even through the windows of the literal military-industrial complexes he found himself in. It created a contrast between the beauty of the nature-infused infused DC setting to the cold steel and concrete of the new SHIELD installation, and she thought it meant something about the conflict between the spirit of America and American government and modernity. She also drew parallels between the way the helicarriers served as the final setting and how their design echoed warships and military installations of Steve's WW2 past.

    Personally, I thought the whole movie looked pretty nice, if gritty. As opposed to The Avengers, there was a distinctively different take on SHIELD here (found in the revamped badges, uniforms, and set-dressing) which I thought was not only much more aesthetically pleasing, but truer to the nature of this type of organization IRL and in the comic books.

  15. Your write up is simply awesome! Would you mind me doing a translation of this topic and share it onto the Chinese Fan Page?

    1. Yes, that would be fine! Just make sure to link back to the original blog post please. :)

  16. Dwight Williams15 May 2014 at 18:33

    The Art of the Film book recently released posits that Steve went through several variants of Howard Stark's WW2 design during the course of that war. The Smithsonian Suit was one that happened to survive relatively intact.

  17. I just wanted to drop a line saying you are inspiring as shit. And this recap has me tearing up and reaching for some tissues. Just. I have ALL the love and respect in the world for you. <3333

  18. Beverley Davis27 May 2014 at 15:54

    I finally saw the movie today and was floored by it. Yes I was stunned at how docile and hurt he was when they were readying him for the brain swipe. Broke my heart. I am also of the opinion that Winter Soldier and Into Darkness are the same movie....Marcus/Pierce, CA/CKirk, Khan/WS.....and a million other scenes that were identifcal. WS probably broke more hearts than Khan.....but hey.

    1. Yep. Your last comment would probably be right on target. And some of those broken hearts might've been right there in the brainwashing room. Rumlow really didn't look comfortable with what was about to be done to Barnes there. Or am I reading too much into the moment?

  19. ... so I take it you liked the movie, then?

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