This is an entry in an ongoing series where I am going back and watching the movies of the MCU again, sometimes for the first time since watching them in the cinema. If you want to check out my journey up until now. Then here’s a link with all of the posts thus far at the bottom.
After a few shaky entries, The Winter Solider felt like a statement from Marvel. One that put their foot down regarding a few major milestones that really established the MCU as it would grow and become more like the franchise as we see it now. It’s a movie that has no problem shaking up the status quo in dramatic fashion, it also normalises the inclusion of a wider, living cast for the future.
But that’s not what really struck me watching this movie again. The thing that got me the most was Cap’s story. A story not just of a man out of time, but one of a man too pure and good for the world he now finds himself in.
Now it’s personal
One of the greatest strengths of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that, while there are world/universal shaking events happening, the cores of the stories being told are personal ones. The Winter Solider is a movie with huge stakes, with millions of lives on the line. And yet that’s not the story we’re wrapped up in, we care about Steve Rogers and his best friend.
When I spoke about the first Captain America, I dove into how he was a fantastic execution of the Superman archetype. Unlike Tony Stark or Thor, Cap has no glaring character defects to overcome, no personal demons to exorcise. He’s the person he needs to be right from the start. The conflict needed from the movie comes from how a darker, more morally grey world deals with this figure of pure ideals.
The Winter Solider is a modern day cold war thriller. It’s a movie of a different time, dealing with subjects like preemptive deterrence, political sabotage and finding yourself unable to trust the government you once worked for. And in goes and plops the most straight laced guy right into the middle of it and gives him a real reason to stand up and say no. Well it actually gives him like three or four reasons, but one seems way more important than the others.
The revelation that not only has Hydra has infiltrated the upper echelons of Shield and the U.S. Government, but that they’re using Bucky Barns as their personal black ops hitman is more than a good enough reason for Cap to stand up and turn his back on the authority that he spent his entire life taking orders from.
The mixing of the Golden age and Modern Age
One of the best things about Captain America as a storytelling tool is how he represents a very different era in our history. Back during the Golden age of comic books, attitudes towards the government and society in general were very different. It was a time where people had a very defined view on both good and bad. Things were pretty black and white when it came to who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.
Today, things are very different. The entire world is a single streak of grey, with so many layers to every story and a deep complexity behind every single political and world issue, the general population’s view on good and bad have been muddled. In many cases, we find they’ve become twisted, with people doing very bad things utterly convinced that they’re in the right.
The stark contract between these two approaches is what makes Captain America such a great character in the modern era of not just comic books, but all story telling.
Cap is unquestionably the good guy, a figure of dangerously simple morals who finds himself in a time where he is being lied to from the moment he wakes up. Between the events of The Avengers and this movie, Cap is constantly surrounded by liars and spies. His nativity leads him to continue believing those around him are to be trusted, only to have everything come crashing down around him.
His one connection to the time he once knew suddenly comes face to face with him amidst the worst of everything happening to him, where he comes face to face with Bucky. Who, ironically, has become a tool of the most deceptive and untrustworthy part of the new world he finds himself in.
…you live long enough to become the villain
Cap’s entire existence in the modern era is a contraction. Nobody as pure or as morally just as him can exist in the modern era. Like I said last time, he’s an impossible standard, maybe even more so than a man who turns into a giant green rage monster or a talking raccoon.
In a modern era, Cap is the most dangerous kind of person. Much more so than the millions of potential criminals that Hydra’s murder algorithm has dictated needed to be murdered during their grand plan of control. Which is why this movie is the beginning of an arc for Cap in which he can’t continue to exist in the modern era as a hero.
During the events of this movie and then Civil War following it, Cap becomes the villain in the eyes of the government. Throwing everything away for the sake of a murderer and international criminal, to the point where he comes to blows with Tony Stark over it. And then eventually go into hiding as a vigilante.
And that’s the thing that makes this all come full circle. These stories are charged with emotion that comes from personal stories and personal stakes. Cap is being lied to by the people he trusted the most, then he’s betrayed by them, then he learns the organisation he spent the last few years of his life (from his prospective) fighting not only still exist, but are controlling the government.
Showing the face of a figure from his past just to rub salt in the wound. All culminating in the revelation that his best friend is still alive and has become the personification of the unjust morals of the modern era.
It’s never Preachy though
While Cap could lord the moral high ground over everyone, he never does. He just wants to do the right thing by the people in front of him. Which is why he still works. When it comes down to it, Shield and Hydra see people as numbers, marks on a chart.
Cap on the other hand is finding people and faces to forge connection with and doing what he does for them. He shows up at Sam’s meeting to lay eyes on the people who have been through war and see the faces of the people he needs to save.
It’s a fantastic reminder of how, as the world has become smaller, and the number of people within it has swelled, it’s become more difficult for us to empathise with out fellow man and easily dehumanise them because they’re of a different race, nationally or political alignment. None of that matters to Cap, as he is as pure and good as characters get.
I feel like I got way off topic in this one, but all in all, the Winter Solider is a fantastic movie. One that digs into the aspect of superheroes that I find the most fascinating, especially in the modern era: if you were to find yourself in a position of having the power to do something about evil in the world, how could you possibly know if your actions will end up helping or hurting those around you.
Captain America’s unwavering moral centre might just be his greatest power, and it will end up being both to his huge detriment, but also his greatest power as he story goes on. It’s still one of the best movies of the franchise.