Steve Rogers doesn’t have a life. Don’t believe what he tells the Black Widow as they flee from a Hydra infested S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The last time he kissed a girl was 1943, and when he laid that smooch on Peggy Carter as they sped down the Red Skull’s runway, it was most certainly his first (or second cuz he did fall under the spell of Natalie Dormer’s bunker groupie).
Rogers was a sickly kid from Brooklyn who only had contact with the opposite sex if Bucky could rummage pity partners from his own conquests. You can scientifically inject the muscles into the boy, but you can’t extract the boy from the muscles. As he fumbles all over himself to reassure Natasha of his not un-dead love life, we see that she’s totally not buying this fossil’s sexual bravado. I’d easily put money on Rogers’s virginity being firmly intact up to this point in the franchise.
All Rogers has is Captain America. As we explored a few days ago in The First Avenger, his entire purpose has been to put the welfare of others before his own. It’s so extreme that a sarcastic jerk like Tony Stark might even call it his kink. He was so desperate to put himself on the front line that he blindly trusted his body to a mad scientist, and when that preposterous experiment actually succeeded, he threw his entire super being into personally ending the Second World War.
For all his success alongside the Howling Commandos or amongst the S.H.I.E.L.D. strike team, Captain America cannot forget that all his heroics come from a bottle. He always had the will, and it is a trait to absolutely celebrate, but it’s the super soldier serum that finally gifted him the ability to truly fight the good fight he was so eager to join. No Avenger, no other person, understands this except for his pal, Bucky Barnes.
Bucky knew Cap before he was Cap. Rogers assumed he had lost his friend at the bottom of a canyon after their assault on Zola’s train went sideways. But, you know, dead is not dead when comic books are involved. Bucky’s return as the Winter Soldier sleeper assassin cuts into Rogers in ways his teammates cannot comprehend.
When others are ready to pull the Winter Soldier limb from limb, Rogers will sacrifice everything (see even further proof in Captain America: Civil War) to protect the Bucky who once offered him the comfort of his couch cushions after his mother’s funeral. Bucky was always Rogers’s protector, picking him off the floor of alleyways, finding dates willing to have their toes stepped on, and constantly failing to steer him away from the army recruitment center. As Rogers tells Natasha and Sam as they’re being carted off to their execution by Hydra goons, “Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky.”
In the comics, the death of Bucky was as revered as the death of Uncle Ben. You play with their bones and you risk altering the heroes born from their tragedies. When writer Ed Brubaker resurrected him in 2004 as the brainwashed Winter Soldier, the fan community (myself included) was deeply conflicted. Bucky’s death served as a tremendous emotional motivating factor for Captain America’s man out of time. Bucky was the pain of the years Rogers lost. You can’t mess with that.
While I absolutely adore those comics, and how Bucky’s restoration spawned years worth of espionage intrigue and WW2 backstory, The Winter Soldier film trumps the source material in using Bucky’s twisted rebirth to painfully underscore Rogers’s isolation. The soldier wakes from the ice, blindly accepts the mission of Nick Fury, and discovers that his beloved American dream has been perverted into a nightmare. The simplicity of the Allies versus the Axis is no more. Hydra. S.H.I.E.L.D. S.H.I.E.L.D. Hydra. It’s all messed up.
His own strike team eventually turns against him, flailing over themselves to pin the super soldier to an elevator wall. Captain America must smash his way through these lugs, which just yesterday, he saw as co-workers. The men he’s been taking orders from are the same men who have corrupted his BFF. Steve Rogers in The Winter Soldier has lost everything. He is a man without an identity.
When we first meet Rogers in the film, he’s running laps around fellow veteran, Sam Wilson. “On your left.” It’s good to see Cap delighting in his absurd ability, teasing a fellow soldier in the showiest of peacock strutting. Collapsed on the National Mall, Wilson reaches out to Rogers sensing the cloistered lifestyle that resulted from his defrosting. “It’s your bed, right? It’s too soft.” Rogers nods, the marshmallow back at his apartment simply doesn’t have the comfort of those French foxholes.
Through shared military experience, Sam Wilson gains access to the thoughts that have terrified Rogers since he stood gob-smacked within the Times Square of 2011. Both men lost their wingmen in combat, and they’re looking to find fulfillment beyond the battlefield. Wilson has found some meaning in helping veterans cope with the mental trauma that they brought back from overseas, and Rogers is jealous. The Avengers are not enough. S.H.I.E.L.D. is certainly not the army of yesteryear. When Wilson asks him, “What makes you happy?” There is no answer.
He can’t even find it at “Captain America: The Living Legend and Symbol of Courage” exhibit at the Air & Space museum. Being within walking distance to a monument of newsreels rejoicing in your very existence has got to be one of Dante’s circles of hell, right? Rogers listens to the audio tour explaining his purpose, “The story of Captain America is one of honor, bravery, and sacrifice.” A tourist child recognizes him, and he puts his finger to his lips. He belongs in the display case, not out parading as one of Fury’s costumed thugs.
Why did Rogers enlist in the first place? He told his mad scientist, Dr. Erskine, that he didn’t like bullies. No doubt. Skinny Steve had spent a lifetime getting his butt handed to him over quarrels of morality. What really tortured him though, was the idea of enjoying an apple pie while others died on his behalf. While Bucky suited up and got jumped by Hydra. That he couldn’t take. That’s what put him under the needle.
I have a friend who served for several years in the army in the wake of 9/11. He never agreed with the politics that put him over in Afghanistan, but he is incredibly proud of his veteran status. I once asked him why he did it. Why didn’t he find a way to bail the hell outta there when it got to be so horrendously awful? He said he didn’t fight for the President or even the country. He fought for the man next to him.
Just when Steve Rogers discovers how far removed his world war is from the current cold war being waged by Nick Fury, the Winter Soldier appears to remind him why he donned the flag in the first place. Bucky was and always will be the man beside him. It’s a bromance that can’t be matched by the Black Widow’s flirtations, or even Sam Wilson’s knowing friendship. It’s a brutal affair that can never be understood by anyone else but them…and the Winter Soldier is so effed in the head, even he’s robbed from the relationship.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier drags Rogers out of the past and offers no distractions with space dragons. It presents a rudderless Captain America, and it gives him time to think. By the credits end, he may still not know what life beyond the costume would be, but he has a mission of mercy to accomplish. A buddy in distress. It’s a purpose.
What Captain America: The Winter Soldier Contributes to the MCU:
- Sam Wilson a.k.a. The Falcon – Cap needs a wingman. If anything is clear in this film, it’s that. Anthony Mackie manages to lay the awe for Rogers on thick without appearing lesser for it. He will have to work hard to wedge his way between Cap and Bucky, but it will provide for some serious humor in Civil War, and potential melodrama when Cap eventually gives up his mantle. Also, his 20th-century catchup recommendation of Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man soundtrack is an MCU highlight.
- Brock Rumlo a.k.a. Crossbones – Frank Grillo’s S.H.I.E.L.D. strike team commander begins the film as seen-it-all badass no longer impressed by the heroics of the super soldier he’s tasked to escort. He’s got the charm that comes with Grillo, but when The Winter Soldier reveals the great Hydra conspiracy, the actor excels when he’s allowed to add contempt to his charisma. There’s a sense that Crossbones envies Cap’s abilities and has been waiting this entire time to prove himself a physical equal. Chump gets taken out by a wingless Falcon.
- Agent 13 a.k.a. Peggy Carter’s niece – Rogers can’t even trust the girl next door. Everywhere he turns there’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent waiting in the wings. She’s cute and doesn’t have a lip piercing, and that makes her the only female currently compatible for Rogers. But she’s Peggy’s niece…that’s…uh…creepy. I know it works in the comics, but it’s just weird here. Of course, they don’t reveal this important bit of information until Civil War, so I guess we don’t have to dwell on the ick factor here.
- Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch – They’re not mutants, they’re miracles? Sure, ok. Loki’s glow stick of destiny has been repurposed by Baron Von Strucker and somehow it’s mutating…uh…changing normal Sokovian twenty-somethings into vengeful, crazy supervillains. For now.
What Captain America: The Winter Soldier Withholds from the MCU:
- Alexander Pierce a.k.a. Not The Red Skull – Right up until the end credits tag, I was waiting for Robert Redford to rip off his face to reveal the OG Hyrdra baddie. It was not meant to be. Pierce is there to represent the corruption of Captain America’s America. He’s the personification of good intentions run amuck. Hearing Redford whisper “Hail Hydra” was Marvel Studios announcing to the world that they were unstoppable. They’ve got Sundance, kids. Game over.
- Georges Batroc a.k.a. The Leaper – Cap’s opening showdown with Georges St-Pierre might be my favorite action sequence of the entire MCU. You can feel every fist thrown by the mixed martial arts master, and Cap’s vibranium shield can barely take the punishment. His machismo lure to fight mano a mano only goes to further Rogers’s honorable might. “Let’s see.” Indeed. I’d love to see this ass kicker return to pester down the line.
- Armin Zola – Toby Jones’s diabolical doctor gone full WarGames. When the U.S. government attempted to fold his brain into their own agenda they invited the first serpent to slither into S.H.I.E.L.D. He lived as long as his biology would allow, but he downloaded his consciousness into a supercomputer. Surely he also uploaded himself into the internet a la Ultron, and like The Leaper, I’d like for his villainy to return one day.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting – This might be my favorite superhero comic of all time. Watch my hyperbole, but I love it. Outside of Bucky’s resurrection, the film and comic have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Brubaker and Epting are dealing with The Red Skull, the Cosmic Cube, Doctor Faustus, Union Jack, A.I.M. infiltrators, and Tony Stark’s Civil War. It’s a political thriller packed with wacky Marvel ideas and heaps of unreliable backstory. The Steve Rogers found here is very much the one found in the films, but the Winter Soldier may be an even more complicated creature. It’s certainly a Red Skull unfamiliar to cinematic audiences, a real terror worthy of his demonic visage. If you don’t quite get the Agent 13 stuff of the films, this is a good place to work out that romance.
Read more from our series on the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
- Day One – Iron Man is Marvel’s Villain Problem
- Day Two – The Real Civil War Began in The Incredible Hulk
- Day Three – You Can Count on Iron Man 2 to Pleasure Itself
- Day Four – The Marvel Cinematic Universe Finds its Worth in The Mighty Thor
- Day Five – Captain America is the First Selfless Avenger
- Day Six – The Avengers is Burdened with Glorious Purpose