Captain America: The Winter Soldier – A Change in the Status Quo

Grade: A

Grade: A

When Captain America throws his mighty shield… it looks really cool.  Captain America: The First Avenger was a necessary story to tell for Cap, it’s his origin story. It’s a good movie, that really captures the look of the 40s, and retells his creation rather faithfully – and, more importantly, with feeling. Winter Soldier, on the other hand, turns the superheroics up to 11. Captain America is now truly the character the fans of his comics know him as. He is not perpetually a man out of time, he can’t be. This movie has Cap acclimatize, at  least somewhat, to the current reality (even using the internet). Neither can he be a naive ultra-patriot in the modern day – this may have been not only commendable, but necessary during WWII, but that is certainly no longer the case as the world is no longer so black-and-white. Not even in the Marvel Universe.

The movie starts off with Rogers working for S.H.I.E.L.D. on covert missions. He is not fond of the nature of some of the work, but when there are hostages to be saved, he is fully on board, and throws himself into combat with energy we have not seen with the captain so far. There were jeers when The Avengers was coming out that he’ll be slightly useless in such a powerhouse team-up, but those complaints can now be put to rest, I think. Joss Whedon did a great job of giving everyone something to do in The Avengers, but he basically had Cap in the role of a regular action movie hero – fighting, jumping, running from explosions efficiently, to be sure, and against opponents most regular people could never withstand, but not really get into super-powered territory that often. Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed the character’s fighting style slightly and subtly, and pitted him against the right opponents to really show his skills off for the first time. here, he is blisteringly fast, devastatingly strong, and extraordinarily resiliant. In the very first action sequence he takes out multiple thugs with a single throw of his shield, stealthily infiltrate a ship, and take out Batroc the Leaper while barely breaking a sweat. This is, simply put, good action cinema – exciting, fast, and convincingly lethal.

Captain Rogers is, however, questioning the true motives of S.H.I.E.L.D., which seems to be using him as they would any other asset – aiming him at the enemy and releasing, telling him little aside from that. He pushes for Nick Fury to divulge exactly what is happening, and gets snippets about a project that is set to eliminate potential hostiles before they even manage to cause any harm – finally, Fury says, they will be ahead of the curve in their war for peace. Cap sticks to his ideals, but does seem to be leaving the scene questioning whether he should stay with the organization, leave, or potentially accept that he is in a dirty world, where dirty deeds may be necessary to save lives. Before he can do this, however, Fury is attacked, and assassinated in Steven Rogers’ own apartment, pitting him against S.H.I.E.L.D. and their head Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) who assume he must be hiding something. Cap goes on the run with Natasha Romanov, Black Widow, and start uncovering the truth behind the intelligence agency, HYDRA, and the mysterious Winter Soldier that keeps popping up.

The handling of the Black Widow in this movie is spot-on. She was definitely a player in The Avengers, but the character really comes into her own here. In a movie that is essentially about trust (both personal, and in government/authority), the themes would not have resonated as well at all without her presence. Black Widow is not only currently the best superheroine in cinema (never relegated to the role of a damsel in distress), she confident, and intelligent in a way that Captain America is NOT. He is certainly no dummy, but she is the super-spy, and when the pair go on the run, Captain America simply does not have the guile to do it on his own. It is refreshing to see such a strong female character in superhero movies (also flanked by Agent Hill, played by Cobie Smulders, and Agent 13, Emily VanCamp). I hope this sets a good example, and Marvel realizes what they have on their hands well enough to give Widow a solo feature. The Phase 3 movies are being announced soon, and it can’t be all white straight male superheroes again, come on!

The Winter Soldier is appropriately menacing to give Cap and his allies a challenge. Given that he is not the primary threat, but more of a henchman, I must question whether his appearance in the title is truly justified. I like what the Russo brothers did with the Brubaker source material a lot, but I can’t help but notice that the central plot is really not about Captain’s relationship with the Winter Soldier at all, but rather with S.H.I.E.L.D., the modern world, even the concept of who he is. This is one of my only criticisms of the movie, and it’s more of a criticism of the title, truly – the way he and Falcon decide to go after him in the final scene suggests that The Winter Soldier would be a better title for the third movie. This is, of course, a minor gripe. Sebastian Stan does a fine job  – better, in fact, than I expected, given how disarming and utterly non-threatening his Bucky was in the first movie. This is, of course, the nature of the twist, and it is entirely to his credit that Stan pulls it off.

Anthony Macky’s Falcon is a lot of fun – and while the word sidekick may be anathema for the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, their relationship certainly approaches it (Falcon says, about Cap “I do what he does, only slower”). He does not have a ton to do outside of the giant action scene in the final act in terms of action, but just as Captain’s counterpart – the modern soldier, who had left the military behind, he is a valuable addition to the Marvel Universe.

Speaking of additions, there are numerous ones on display here. Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre)  may easily return as a hired gun. Crossbones (Frank Grillo) is heavily burned and injured, but presumably both survives and has a major bone to pick with Captain America. Digitized brain Arnim Zola is seemingly destroyed, but could easily have been backed up in another fascility to return. His scene in the movie was probably my favorite, incredibly imaginative and injecting original details, while simultaneously extremely faithful to the comic version of the character. It only occured to me now that the Russo brothers brilliantly introduced a very recognizable and interesting character from the comics for a single scene to deliver the exposition. It’s brilliant, and I for one am filing the trick away for future use (though I can’t imagine where this could be used outside of the Marvel movies). Baron Strucker also makes an appearance, as do Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, in the mid-credits scene.

The biggest change by far, however, is that the movie does not return to the status quo! The storyline does not take the simple and boring route of “everything is well, something goes down , superhero fixes it, eveerything goes back to normal”. Captain America actually changes things! Marvel Universe will literally never be the same! I’m extremely curious to see how the universe proceeds, particularly with the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show (name change?).

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not my favorite Marvel movie of all time, that remains The Avengers, which is so close to the feeling of reading a superhero comic, it’s crazy. Cap 2 is very, very solid, however – an awesome political/espionage thriller with superheroes. Nearly every Marvel movie has been of a slightly different genre, or embraced different tropes, and this one is a very solid entry in the canon.

How I Switched to Marvel Comics

Over the past year, I have found myself reading more and more Marvel comics. Part of it is simply increased familiarity with the characters, I admit. I know enough to be able to separate between the movie and comic universes, but simply have not had enough access to the reading material to really familiarize myself. In that sense, me reading much more Marvel comics is a success of their cinematic universe. I don’t know that any particular marketing grabbed me, but to the extent that The Avengers could be considered advertisement for the far less lucrative comics market, it succeeded.

That being said, I did not run out immediately after watching a movie to buy a bunch of Captain America back issues. Marvel, just like their competition, do suffer from the painful issue of having such deep backstories for all of their characters, that the barrier of entry is simply too high for most. That same history is, of course, what makes it enticing, and I’m certainly not advocating reboots. I AM making strides in understanding and appreciating more of that history, but the true revelation for me was that I can, and do, enjoy certain pockets of the Marvel universe as standalone stories.

From Hellblazer #1, Art by John Ridgway and Lovern Kindzierski

From Hellblazer #1, Art by John Ridgway and Lovern Kindzierski

First of all, I’d like to address why I wasn’t reading Marvel comics to begin with. When I initially started reading comics, I simply wasn’t into superheroes; or at least the traditionally colorful ones. The first graphic novel I read was James O’Barr’s The Crow, which suited my teen angst well. I then transitioned into Sin City, following the 2005 release of the movie. I enjoyed comics, but I was fearful of being stereotyped. Comics, I had decided, weren’t for kids as a whole, that was just the Spider-Man stuff. I was wrong, I know, but give me a break – I was 16, the main interest in my life at the time was Metallica. Later that year, I saw the Constantine movie, and realized I simply could not get enough of this mage who so skillfully defies Lucifer himself. Or, at least, I wasn’t getting enough from the movie, so I was excited to find out it was based on an ongoing series! The first issue, drawn by John Ridgeway, seemed… old. But cool, like a chronicle of magic in the late eighties. At first, I thought Constantine was a bastard, and of course he was; but he was my bastard, and I knew he’d do the right thing in the end, great personal sacrifice be damned.

In my later reading, I got really into, and really sick of Spawn, became a die hard Gaiman fan, began worshipping Miller and then was decimated to find out about his personal views… When it came to superhero comics, however, my choice seemed to be spelled out to me and were static: 1. A lot of my favorite comics were from Vertigo, and I knew DC owned them; 2. Batman. In the competition between the big two, I sided with DC not because I read many of their comics, but because I read any of their comics: Batman, and their indie imprint Vertigo’s titles. I knew about mainstream comics, I thought, but really didn’t read them much at all.

DC’s New 52 offered me a way in to their main universe, however, and I jumped in. Reading from 1 to 5 monthly titles since the reboot. While I really like Snyder’s Batman, and Swamp Thing certainly has very cool moments, my faith in DC began wavering with, once again, my original favorite comic character – John Constantine. I found out he was in the Justice League Dark team, and naturally had to check it out. I tried, I really tried to like that version of Constantine. I’m not a negative guy, I actually thought the Keanu Reeves version was descent, aside from the obvious differences. I realized very quickly, however, that this was no longer the character I loved. I like the idea of the magical character being in a superhero world, but he can’t himself become a superhero, and unfortunately in his current comics his powers are pretty much akin to Zatanna’s – “Denialpxenu gninthgil morf sregnif!” There’s no real reason why Constantine fights the Cult of the Cold Flame in those comics, except that they’re bad guys. Once again, I appreciate the need for some background knowledge in most comics, but this is New 52, everything should be explained, right? Satisfied to continue reading the Hellblazer monthlies, therefore, I promptly dropped JLD. Imagine my dismay, when I found out Hellblazer was being cancelled and replaced with Constantine, a DC Universe book. I tried to remain optimistic, even picked up more of the JLD comics to try and get into this version of the character, but none of those comics grabbed me. For about a minute, I wasn’t sure I would continue reading any mainstream comics at all, prepared to retreat to the indies, where it’s safe…

Variant Cover of Young Avengers #1, Art by Bryan Lee O’Malley

What changed that, is me seeing the Bryan Lee O’Malley variant cover for Young Avengers #1. I was already a huge Scott Pilgrim fan, resulting in me purchasing the comic solely for the cover, which is the only time I had ever done this. I’m really glad I wasn’t lead astray, because I now strongly believe that comics like Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen represent the future of comics. The characters, while being respectful of the old guard of superheroes they are emulating, are modern, and have modern relationships amongst them. Which is why, despite me having not previously had absolutely any awareness of who the characters were, I was engaged completely from reading the first issue. I love that the comic’s lineup is not exclusively male, and that it is definitely not hetero-normative. I love that gay characters are given the space to just be a really adorable couple, without their relationship being a major stumbling point for the plot. I love that Captain America’s counterpart in the comic is a latino girl without that being overexplained or publicized and discussed by the media at large. I got the sense that these characters were people, living their lives (as super-powered as those lives may be). And the story, and the storytelling is REALLY COOL! I keep seeing things in that comic that I had NEVER seen in comics before, both in Gillan’s writing and the art by Jamie McKelvie;and while I’m not, as I’ve established, an expert, I have read a lot of comics since 2005. Reading this comic is almost akin to watching a modern music video, having only seen pre-eighties cinema before. It’s jarring, and you can question the value of the content all you want… But it’s vibrant, and I feel alive when I read that comic.

I have found similar experiences in Deadpool and Hawkeye, for completely different reasons.  Deadpool is funny to the extent that superhero comic have no right being, and a friend just told me he teared up two pages into Fraction’s Hawkeye #1. Fraction’s FF is similarly wonderful. I understand if I end up being mocked at my shock, but I actually didn’t realize that could be done in Marvel superhero comics, which is why I haven’t been reading them! I’ve since gone back and have been systematically familiarizing myself with the Marvel universe at large, and while it isn’t all gold, the characters and stories are actually really interesting and complex. I can follow, understand, and empathize with these characters, which I had found increasingly difficult to do in DC.

So there it is. I did not mean to put down DC comics with this article in any way, because I certainly do still enjoy a lot of DC comics. Vertigo is putting out more Sandman, which I can’t wait for. Snyder’s Batman is, once again, great, and there is nothing DC is currently getting wrong they couldn’t fix by hiring, and keeping the right writer; the key to which is, I believe, let them do interesting, character motivated stories. And I’m sure there are many great titles I’m just not reading! So, let this be an assignment to my readers – what else should I be reading, on either of the big two, that makes me excited about comics? Because let me be honest – I just don’t have the time and money to be reading comics I don’t love.