I like comic books. I don’t always like comic book movies. I don’t rush to a message board to complain every time a movie turns an awesome Jack Kirby design like Galactus into a giant cloud, but one of the recurring problems with comic book movies is that they often pointlessly change the source material in ways that diminish the story and characters. Just think about what the X-Men movies did to Cyclops.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t immune from messing with the source. Marvel has mostly been smart in their changes, though, tweaking specific plot points while maintaining the fundamentals of the major characters. In fact Marvel movies rarely straight-up adapt comic stories — they draw heavily from the work of many comic creators, mashing up story beats and characters from various eras in a way that’s often seamless.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier might come under extra scrutiny from comic fans, though. It shares its name with a specific storyline that’s less than a decade old and extremely popular with both readers and critics. If any Marvel movie could draw fanboy ire over storyline changes, it’s this one. And there are changes — lots of them, in fact. Those alterations from comic book page to movie screen don’t derail the film at all, but they’re worth talking about.
Comic book and movie Spoilers from here on out, buddy.
If you haven’t heard yet, the mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier is actually James Buchanan Barnes, aka Bucky. In the comics Bucky was Captain America’s teenaged sidekick during World War II. In the movies Bucky is Steve Rogers’ best friend from childhood and a member of the Howlin’ Commandos, Captain America’s wartime posse. (In the comics, of course, the Commandos are lead by the ageless [and very white] Sgt. Nick Fury, and form the original core of S.H.I.E.L.D.) Bucky seemingly dies during World War II in both the comics and the movies — in the former via Baron Zemo’s exploding drone plane, in the latter by falling off a train and down a mountain during a battle. There was a saying in comics that only Bucky and Uncle Ben stayed dead, until writer Ed Brubaker bought Cap’s sidekick back in 2005, over forty years after the character was killed.
The basic origin of the Winter Soldier is largely the same — the KGB recovered a frozen and almost dead Bucky, and used brainwashing, cybernetic enhancements and memory-wiping technology to turn him into a highly classified black ops commando. In the comics he stays under control of the Soviets, emerging in modern day as an agent of former Soviet general and Kronas Corporation head Aleksander Lukin, who intends to use the Soldier and the Cosmic Cube (known as the Tesseract in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) to enrich him and his company.
In the movie the Winter Soldier was created by the Soviets, but in time becomes a covert agent for Hydra controlled by former S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Alexander Pierce, and an invaluable tool in Hydra’s plan to launch high-tech genocide satellites and destroy SHIELD from within.
The Winter Soldier’s comic book debut is connected to the deaths of two characters that aren’t in the movie. One of them, Cap’s former sidekick Nomad, doesn’t even exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet, and probably never will. He’s murdered by the Soldier in one of his earliest appearances. The Red Skull also dies early in the first Winter Soldier storyline, before merging his consciousness with Lukin and eventually becoming the dominant personality within their shared body (uh, it’s a comic book). There’s been no indication that the Marvel films will use the Skull outside of the first Captain America film and its World War II setting.
The main storyline in the Captain America: The Winter Soldier involves Hydra’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the agency’s ultimate destruction. None of that appears in the Captain America comics that featured the Winter Soldier character. However, that storyline is similar to one that ran in the “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” comic that was published from 1989 through 1993. In that story Hydra and rogue Life Model Decoys (super realistic androids whose existence make it hard to take any supposed S.H.I.E.L.D. agent death seriously) secretly took control of S.H.I.E.L.D., ending in the agency’s dismantling. There are no LMDs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the Winter Soldier movie adds a veneer of surveillance state paranoia that wasn’t present in the comics, but it’s the same rough outline transposed to the screen.
The shocking twist of the Winter Soldier’s true identity comes straight out of the comic. So does the Soldier’s initial anguish and confusion over that truth and Captain America’s heart-breaking concern over his former sidekick’s plight. That’s the crux of the character and his relationship with Captain America, and the movie nails it.
The Winter Soldier also introduces the Falcon, Captain America’s sometime partner, into the Cinematic Universe. This version of Sam Wilson shares the name, general abilities and basic personality of the comic version, but his backstory is completely revised, and he no longer has a mental connection with an actual falcon named Redwing. In fact Redwing doesn’t exist.
This Falcon is a former soldier who was in a top secret wing-suit program in Afghanistan. He uses the flying suit and his skill with guns to help Captain America and Black Widow in their fight with Hydra after a rom-com style meet cute with Steve Rogers while jogging around Washington DC. In the comics Wilson was introduced in the late 60s as a former thug turned unwilling stooge of the Red Skull who met Cap on an island ruled by five crazed former Nazis called The Exiles. He helps Captain America escape, and then moves back to New York to become a social worker and part-time superhero. It’s a bummer that Redwing isn’t in the movie, but the new origin is a big improvement on the goofy original.
Arnim Zola returns from the first film, and although it’s not a perfect recreation of Jack Kirby’s insane original character design, it’s still a nice homage to the King. In the comics Zola is one of Jack Kirby’s weirdest designs — he’s a hypermuscular dwarf with a camera where his head should be and a giant face on his chest. In the movie the scientist’s brain has been downloaded onto 70s era computer technology, meaning miles and miles of tape and a massive greenscale monitor that displays his face. There’s a camera on top of that monitor, slightly recreating that classic Kirby look. He’s basically a man reincorporated into one of Lost’s DHARMA Initiative sets. It’s an utterly absurd concept, but almost feels somewhat plausible compared to the madness Kirby created.
Other characters from the last fifty years of Captain America comics appear in the movie in contexts and situations that don’t exist in Brubaker’s Winter Soldier storyline. The Black Widow is revealed to have worked with the Winter Soldier during his Soviet hitman days, but she doesn’t play as significant of a role in the comics as she does in the movie. S.H.I.E.L.D. mainstays Fury and Maria Hill also aren’t involved in the Soldier’s return in the comics.
Sharon Carter, Cap’s S.H.I.E.L.D. agent girlfriend, is a central figure in Brubaker’s story, but only appears in a few scenes in the movie, and has barely met Steve Rogers yet. The Batroc of the movie is a grittier version of the goofy Silver Age villain. Crossbones, a loyal henchman to the Red Skull who figures greatly in Brubaker’s comics, appears in the film under the character’s real name, Brock Rumlow, as a prominent undercover Hydra agent within S.H.I.E.L.D. At the end of the movie his badly burned body resembles the comic design of Crossbones, but that name is never used in the film. Jasper Sitwell, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who has appeared throughout the Marvel films, also deviates from his obnoxiously square and by-the-book comic inspiration by betraying the agency for Hydra.
So the movie bears little resemblance to the comic story that shares the same name. None of these changes alter the major themes of Brubaker’s comics or the impact of Bucky’s return, though. In fact Marvel has deftly squeezed that most important aspect of Brubaker’s comics into the Cinematic Universe, introducing new threads for the next Captain America movie, while also introducing a major change in the Marvel status quo with the destruction of SHIELD.
Garrett Martin is the games editor for Paste Magazine and has written for the Boston Herald, Joystiq, Edge, GamePro and others. His multiple longboxes are hidden deep within his basement. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.