I’m reviewing the old MCU films in preparations for Infinity War. The Star Wars fiasco of this past Christmas has me very concerned for my favorite franchise’s future (you’ve killed Star Wars for me Disney, don’t do in the MCU for me!). But even if the worst happens, it can’t take away the genius of what’s come before. I’ve watched a few and have some thoughts to come, but this afternoon’s viewing demanded this reflection.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is where the superhero film transcends itself. Prior to the Russo Brother’s entrance to the MCU, we had seen the hopes of the genre proved. Let’s list them off quickly:
- Iron Man proved that a superhero movie outside Spider-Man and X-Men could actually be successful.
- Incredible Hulk proved failed potential franchises could be righted.
- Thor proved, falteringly, that the crazy side of the genre could work.
- Captain America: The First Avenger proved the spirit of the Golden Age was still very much alive.
- Avengers proved the team-up film could not only function, but do so wildly well.
Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, it must be admitted, made one wonder if we’d reached the pinnacle and were just milking the leftovers of the prior films.
Then we got Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s a superhero film full of ostentatious action and over-the-top set pieces fused with a spy thriller questioning the extent of government reach and trust of authority. But it’s even more. It embraces the opposing extremes of Golden Age Black-and-White morality funny books with post-Iron Age Shades-of-Gray relativism while, wonder of wonders, confidently denouncing nihilism. It gives a slam-bang, explosion filled, beat-up-the-bad-guy tale animated with the beating heart of redeeming a broken human soul.
God, I love this movie.
I want to talk about two of the above three. Recognizing Winter Soldier to be a spy film is old hat by now, and I think it hides the real aspects which help the film move into transcendent heights.
It starts with the way it embraces the tension of morality. Comic books have, historically, a chequered moral past. In the Golden Age, when the funny books first came out, they were extensions of penny dreadfuls — overly simplistic morality tales with bright colored pictures depicting the action. I’m of a piece with Chesterton in my opinions of such stories — Better that a young boy be questionably fired with fantasies of righting wrongs, than be emasculated by moral relativity for the sake of so-called “peace”.
However, in the attempts to “grow up” in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, much of the morality tale beginnings were chucked and overturned. It began innocently enough, with desires for greater social awareness forcing superheroes to see the “challenges” of their line of thinking. Guys like Alan Moore, perhaps unintentionally, tore apart the optimism of earlier ages in works like Watchmen, and by the time of the 90s, anti-heroes were the order of the day.
Winter Soldier, in Steve “‘Captain America” Rogers’ confrontation with the contemporary world, grabs both ends of this moral scale and crashes them together. Rogers is the embodiment of the Golden Age, an optimism about doing the right thing and always believing “to the end of the line” in the goodness of the human soul. Some might cite the man’s use of force as a strike against this, but that’s part of Rogers’ whole package. He can fight and even kill because he recognizes a higher good. This isn’t some “greater good” Orwellian nonsense, but the solid, down-to-earth Common Good of a people. Every time he throws his shield he knows it’s in defense of real, flesh-and-blood folk.
This is made all the more apparent when he’s confronted with those who’ve given in to a morally gray outlook. Nick Fury and Natasha “Black Widow” Romanov are compromised from the very beginning of the film. Natasha is “comfortable with everything” and so has become just a tool for a utopian ideology. Fury embodies that ideology, willing to put a gun to the world’s head to keep it safe, enslaved to fear so it can be “free”. Both are swiftly consumed by their own actions. Fury, for all his utopian ideology, is shown by the end of the film to have only been a pawn for those with a darker, though still parallel goal. Hydra recognizes Fury is demanding the world give up its freedom for the sake of “freedom” and just rips off the mask he’s tricked himself is a real face.
Fury and Natasha don’t come out of the film looking heroic, though they make amends for their faults. In the end, they’ve both lost their place in the world – both are now just spies without a flag. But let’s be honest, most of us sympathize with them. Most of us are moderns who believe in moral compromising for the sake of some perceived moral good. It’s the genius of the film in letting you have that sympathy while putting before you a model which shines with the luminosity of unalloyed truth. Steve may gently wag a finger at the two, but his real response to their own cynicism is just doing the good.
Which is where redemption is found. Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes is the face of Hydra’s goal. He’s been made a tool for the organization, not just by manipulation like Natasha, but by brainwashing. He’s a creature of perfect order, following every one of his superiors’ commands to their violent end. Really, lacking that freedom by which a man does good, he’s no longer fully human.
But he once was and Rogers knows he still can be. There’s a great flashback in the middle of the film. It’s the 1940s and Steve’s parents have just died. Bucky meets him on the way home and invites him to come live with him and his family. Steve says he fine and he can make it on his own. Bucky just responds “sure, but that’s the thing. You don’t have to. I’m with you ‘til the end of the line.” It’s a moment which humanizes the future Captain America, showing a moment where he could have turned in on himself but another helped him to keep from that solipsistic despair.
And that’s where the movie is driving towards. The climax of Winter Soldier isn’t the end of Hydra’s plans. That’s only the eye-candy. The real climax is Rogers offering Bucky the same exit out of solipsism, of breaking out of the despair Hydra’s forced him into.
Note, it’s not a completed act.
This is where Winter Soldier really transcends on a level of craft. It doesn’t go for the quick, Bucky “finds the light” ending, but the tougher and incomplete beginning, just cracking his shell. By the time of Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios knows it’s no longer making just a sequence of interchangeable films, the same characters going through the same adventure with different accents like the 007 movies. It’s actually serializing storytelling, so it allows plots to remain dangling, or better put, to only hint at the promises of future completion.
The Russo Brothers are the perfect pair to pull it off. Their prior work on TV, and I highlight especially Arrested Development in an odd fashion, revealed a penchant for setting up this kind of serialization. While often comedic, setting up a joke which will pay off in a few episodes, they’ve successfully transferred those skills to the drama of superheroes, and we see the redemption of Bucky Barnes given this opening into the future. It isn’t just tied up nicely with a bow, but is respected as the long work it’ll be.
Still, getting back to how the film is thematically transcendent, it all starts here with a moment of grace. Christian grace (or “Chris”-tian grace, if I may be a tad blasphemous…).
Steve Rogers is a model of all that was great about the Golden Age, but the Golden Age is over. We now live in a world in the ruins of that time, our morality compromised as we seek to overcome greater and greater dangers by any means we think is right. The worst of it has left us brainwashed and lost without meaning — everything Bucky is.
We can’t go back. We have to create something new from the ashes. Rogers knows that, so he doesn’t demand we just become little robotic models of him. Instead, he joins us in the ashes of our self-destruction — “I’m with you ‘till the end of the line” — and gives us a light forward. Bucky isn’t argued into his beginning arc of redemption, he isn’t shown the error of his ways. He instead is shown a friend who will even die at his very blows for the sake of saving his lost soul.
And Rogers is plunged into the water, recalling his own 60+ year sleep in frozen water. And, if I may say so, hinting at signs of baptism. Rogers is a Christ-figure, one coming from a better time to save us from our own. That he needs others to aid him, well, types are only shadows of the fulfilment they point to.
Upshot to all this: Captain America: Winter Soldier is genius. And if anyone says superheroes aren’t a properly Christian past time, you show them this move.