Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. Thor and Jane Foster. Steve Rogers and…? Who is the significant other of Captain America? The fact that I can ask that question is one of the greatest strengths of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The Winter Soldier has three primary female characters: Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp), with the most prominent presence being Widow. Black Widow, at almost every point in this film, is portrayed as an equal to Captain America. She is strong, holds her own in a fight, and generally gets shit done. Maria Hill is brought in to the story by Nick Fury, and is giving orders to Cap in the climax of the film. Agent 13 is ordered by Nick Fury to stay close and protect him.
And Captain America ends up romantically involved with none of these characters by the closing of the film. He certainly has some touching moments with Widow, but in the end, they don’t amount to anything, and that is of great benefit to the film. The filmmakers’ decision to leave out a romantic subplot in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is just one of the many great points that elevates it above and beyond what Marvel Studios has done before.
In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark is forced to take action against Aldrich Killian once he kidnaps Pepper Potts and starts to inject her with the Extremis formula. Earlier in the film, he puts himself in peril, sending his Mark 42 armor onto Pepper so that she may safely escape while his home in under attack by the Mandarin’s helicopters. In Thor: The Dark World, the entire plot of the film is motivated by him trying to save Jane Foster from death and from Malekith.
What we ultimately get when a character is motivated to action for romantic reasons, is a missed opportunity for real character development. Of course they’re going to move to save their woman. What man wouldn’t? But it robs us of a chance for our character to deal with a real moral dilemma, like Captain America must do in his newest outing. He, personally, must come to terms with what he believes in, how he sees the world, and what the true meaning of freedom is. What we don’t see is Winter Soldier kidnapping a helpless damsel, and forcing Captain America’s hand. Every decision he makes is his own, and because of it he is in a totally different place at the end of the film than he was at the start. His ideals are challenged, and he evolves accordingly.
For all of those pushing for Marvel to give a female hero their own standalone film, I will point you in the direction of this film for proof of concept. There are some really great ladies in this film. Scarlett Johansson has at this point become completely confident and comfortable in her ongoing role as Black Widow, and squeezes the most out of every scene we get with her, so that she is much more than just a pretty face or token female Avenger. We don’t get a whole bunch of scenes with Agent 13, but the ones we do get, VanCamp infuses them with enough vigor and gravitas, that there’s plenty to be excited about in her inevitable return in future Marvel films.
To close, why do so many filmmakers find it so necessary for our male protagonist to have his significant other motivate his actions in the film? For me, it seems to just be the lazy, easiest ploy to make the character relatable. As I said before, what wouldn’t most men do for their lady? But is it that difficult to fully flesh out a character beyond their romantic trappings, and make him relatable in his own right? Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t seem to think so, and that is just part of why it is the best Marvel Studios film to date.