In honor of the release of Age of Ultron, I wanted to discuss my impression of the Captain America films. I adore these films. There are so many layers, that they can be analyzed from almost any framework, but the point of view I’d like to discuss is a deeply emotional one.
The movies are about loss. Most specifically the loss of those things that ground and anchor a person, in the world.
This movie could’ve just been called Captain America: The Lost and the Lonely
Steve Rogers, is a profoundly tragic and lonely character. It’s not like he can just make friends with a person. Are they friends him because of his famous name? How does he relate to people when he’s almost a hundred years culturally out of date? The only reason he becomes friends with Sam Wilson is because of Sam’s approach to him,( which is a masterclass in how to approach the wary and awkward nerd.) Because Steve is still very much that shy, awkward art student that Peggy, rather uncharitably, accused of not knowing how to talk to women.
Sam is a counselor at the VA, and has probably been through more than a little counseling himself. He knows that the only reason that someone is out jogging that early in the morning, every morning, is not necessarily because they love exercise. Its because that person has trouble sleeping. He knows this because it’s what he does, when he can’t sleep. But he can’t just ask Steve, directly. What he does, is hint, “I know you’re having trouble sleeping, but not because you’re under stress. Its because your bed is too soft. I can sympathize. I have that same problem.” He doesn’t approach Steve as a soldier. He approaches him as just another guy, which is important.
As a Super Soldier, Steve has got to be used to a certain amount of hero worship and/or challenging behavior from other men. There are always going to be guys who want to test their manhood against The Ultimate Soldier, so it must be exceptionally difficult to make friends. Spending all of one’s time around admirers or people who consider you a challenge, has got to be exhausting .(It also doesn’t help that he’s completely out of touch with modern Pop Culture, although he’s catching up. He’s got a list.)
Sam is also a caregiver. Its the reason he was in the military in the first place. He was a Para-Rescue, so he has that military background but without all the macho oneupmanship that can be prevalent in such environments. This is a man who knows and is comfortable with his worth and feels no need to challenge Steve to prove that worth.
What he does, is offer sympathy, compassion and empathy. “Hey, I know what it’s like, because I’ve been there.” And since he knows something about Steve’s history, he asks how it must feel to be walking around, after what he’s been through, giving Steve an opportunity to open up to him, which Steve unhesitatingly does, (but not completely, because …men). I think Sam’s manner catches him off guard, after which he clams up, until the second time they meet, when Sam gets a glimpse into just how ungrounded Steve is.
Because Steve is a profoundly lonely and depressed man. Everyone he knew is dead. Everyone who knew him before he became a hero, is dead or incapacitated. The places he’d lived and things he’d done for fun, either don’t exist anymore or are just dusty relics in museums. No one alive knows who Steve Rogers is. No one, now alive, ever knew that person. The modern world only knows The (living, breathing, walking around) “Legend”. He is a man who is not grounded. He is just drifting.
Steve Rogers doesn’t know who Steve Rogers is.
He floats around the city during his off hours or whenever he gets tired of exercising alone in the gym, which he has to because , who is he going to spar with? He goes to the Smithsonian because it’s the only place he can see the face of his best friend or hear the voice of his first love. He tries to fill up all the empty hours, until his next assignment from Shield.He visits the VA, to chat with the only person he’s met and spoken to, outside of his job. He still doesn’t know how to talk to women. He has no memories leading up to now, no mementos or keepsakes from places he visited or people he knew. He has amassed none of the accumulated flotsam that takes up so much space in our lives and homes, like birthday gifts, cheap souvenirs from expensive trips and all of the many odds and ends that drift into various kitchen drawers, from a life he built. He went to sleep and when he woke up, everything was gone.
He’s almost as self-less as Bucky. The two of them are horribly diminished without each other.
One could argue, from watching the first movie, that he never had a chance to build a self, either. That explains his answer to Sam, when he asks him what makes him happy. What does he want to do with his life? I don’t think Steve has ever thought about it, or ever developed Steve Rogers, beyond being honorable. Honor is all Steve seems to possess.
And who is going to be friends with someone so honorable that he can shame even the strongest personalities? He gets Fury to explain his motives just by being outraged. He can shame Natasha with just three words, and get an entire fleet of heavily vetted, military personnel to mutiny, based solely on his say-so, (including that little Jewish IT guy who refused to follow Rumlow’s order to launch. I’m willing to bet that guy has never committed a more radical act in his entire life. But he’ll do it for The Captain.)
This is a man who can derail the the entire Winter Soldier program with one word.
James Buchanan Barnes is a lost man and Steve is the one who lost him.
Bucky is the man on the left.
One of the nicest touches in this film, is the Russo Brothers attention to detail and not the just the details of their own film but the previous Captain America film,as well. In the first film, if you pay close attention, you will notice that Bucky Barnes is almost always framed as standing or seated to Steve’s left. From the first time we see the two of them together, to the last time we see Bucky alive, and Steve reaches for him with his left hand, Bucky’s always “on the left”.
This is also the first line of the second film and a recurring theme throughout. Every time Steve says it, it is to remind the viewer of what was lost.
I’m going to proffer a theory. I don’t believe it’s a radical concept, because it makes perfect sense to me, (but some people may have trouble wrapping their head around the idea), that Bucky became the Winter Soldier, the moment Zola began his experiments on him. The next 70 years was simply a continuation of what began in the first film. In the first film there’s a marked difference in body language, demeanor and attitude from the Bucky who is beating up loudmouths in an alley, to the Bucky that Steve rescues from Zolas lab. The Winter Soldier was always an element of Bucky’s personality, but since that element was used as a force for good, (protecting Steve), fans of the movie’s may not recognize it as such.
Did he know what had happened to him? Did he sense something different about himself other than the trauma of being tortured? It’s subtle, and most of it happens in the background, but if you watch carefully, there is a very real difference in his character, for the rest of the film. He’s quieter, colder, darker. That steely, focused, glint has already appeared, in his eyes. He starts the movie as an angel of light – halo and all. He’s Steve’s savior! At the beginning of the movie, we’re seeing him through Steve’s eyes, and we spend the rest of the movie watching the slow fall of this character, into the man we see in The Winter Soldier film
Bucky fell long before he fell.
Much has been written about the tragedy of this character and his infantilization in the second film, so I won’t go into that but I do see someone who is being kept in a permanently lost and confused state, except when he is given a purpose, by his handlers.
Bucky is not a psychopath. He doesn’t have a split personality. I don’t even think he’s suffering from PTSD, at least not in the manner that much of the Internet seems to think he is. What’s been happening to him is memory suppression, not mind-wiping, as it becomes obvious, during the film, that none of his memories are gone. Since one’s memories make up such a huge part of a person’s identity, and his have been suppressed for so long, he has even less of a sense of self than Steve Rogers.
What I see, is the erasure of Steve Rogers from Bucky’s personality. In order to get Bucky to be their puppet, Hydra suppresses his memories of Steve and slots their organization into that place in his personality, where his memories of Steve rightfully belong. They erase Steve and take his place and they have to keep doing this because Steve keeps pushing them out of that space. They have to keep doing this, all the time, because those memories want to be free. Which is why, once he encounters Steve, in the flesh, up close and personal, Bucky is so easily derailed by the utterance of his own name.
Like Sam, Steve says all the correct things, at just the right times. He TELLS Bucky what his name is. He doesn’t say to Bucky, “I know you.” He says Bucky knows him. He tells him what he knows Bucky knows. He tells him what Bucky should know, and he keeps hammering that knowledge home, at every opportunity:
“YOU know me. YOU’RE my friend. YOUR name is James Buchanan Barnes.”
Not : “I know you. I’m your friend. My name is….”
Notice the difference?
The only use of “I” in their final conversation, is Steve telling Bucky what he’s going to do, which is NOT fight him. After his objective is reached, Steve stands down. In the flashback, we see Steve and Bucky in the same positions as their last position in their fight. Steve is below Bucky’s eyeline and Bucky’s arm is reaching out to him in nearly the same position, when Steve says that important phrase.
And this fight is also notable because Steve was famous for never backing down from anybody, and regularly got his ass handed to him, when he was Pre -Captain Steve. I’d argue that he’d never raised a hand to Bucky in his life.
Imagine how stunned and horrified he must feel, to see that the man he’s been trying to kill and tried to kill him, is his brother. They’ve known each other since they were children. Bucky is his family in ways he can’t even express.
“Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky.”
I’ll argue that Bucky, pre-war could never have become the man he was without his love for Steve and it informed everything he became after he left Zolas lab. If it weren’t for his love for Steve, Hydra would have had a lot harder time bending him to their will. The leverage just wouldn’t have been there. Dr. Erskine told Steve that his formula made a man more of what he already was. We learn what kind of man Steve was before Dr. Erskine, but what was Bucky before he met Zola?
At the start of this movie, Steve and Bucky have a huge hollow space, where the other should be and while Hydra tried and failed to fill that space in Bucky,
Steve’s is still on the left.
Things that make me smile:
Steve, picking up a garbage can lid, like a shield, in the first movie.
The opening scene of The Winter Soldier. Steve picking on Sam.
Sam saying “Hiya doin?'” to Natasha. Natasha flirting back.
Steve calling Natasha “Nat”.
Steve jumping without a parachute. A callback to one of the Ultimate Avengers books.
Natasha saving both Steve’s and Sam’s lives in the car. She looks as if she’s just jumping into Steves lap but she simultaneously pulls Steve’s head out of the path of a shot and kicks Sam to the side, to avoid another. If you blink, you will miss it, as it all happens in about three seconds.
Bucky using his metal arm to memorable effect in the highway fight scenes.
The Winter Soldier’s uniform is a replica of one of the uniforms Bucky wore, in the first film.
Sam, quietly, with no fanfare, taking care of business on the bridge. The assassins seem to have forgotten all about him and he takes full advantage of that, taking out several of them. He walks into that fight with a knife and walks out of it with a gun.
The contrast between Natasha’s approach to combat and Steve’s approach, in the mall. Natasha, suiting her position as a spy, relies primarily on stealth to get through confrontations. Steve’s more forward and direct approach is entirely in keeping with being a soldier.
Steve jumping out of the elevator and landing on his shield.
Steves frosty response of “Neighbor.”, to Sharon at Shield Headquarters.
It turns out that Steve’s neighbor is actually named Sharon Carter and she is the grandniece of Peggy Carter, Steves first love.
Steve managing somehow, to hunker his entire, 6 foot something body, behind that little shield.
Sam telling Rumlow to shut up.
Seeing Jenny Agutter again, throwing down and kicking ass in Shield headquarters, only to find out it’s actually Black Widow.
Sam’s sheer joy and skill at flying. He is awesome!
Fury’s pimp- strut, back into the Shield offices, from his chopper. Fury thinks like a grand champion chess player, he’s got plans, within plans, within his contingency plans.
That little tech guy, who defied Rumlow’s order to launch, is one of the bravest men in the entire movie.
The phrase on Fury’s tombstone is that famous line from Pulp Fiction. “The path of the righteous man…” Ezekial 25:17
The use of Marvin Gay’s Trouble Man, in the soundtrack. That song belongs to Nick Fury.
Here, enjoy this while you contemplate the end credits of this post!
This movie has two, (count ’em, TWO!) Black male heroes, in one movie. Those are so few and far between, that’ it’s notable when that happens.
ETA: Things that make me cry:
Steve joking about his loneliness, to Natasha, in the helicopter.
Bucky’s lost expression in the vault when he says he knows “that man on the bridge”. How he looks Pierce in the eye and the look of defiance, on his face, as he complies with his “treatment”.
Bucky’s theme on the soundtrack, which consists of nothing more than a long, electric scream. It appears whenever he’s on screen. That is the primal scream of a mind that’s been impriosned for decades.
Steve’s stunned and vacant expression when he realizes who the Winter Soldier actually is. He is so shocked that he allows himself to be taken prisoner, by Hydra, without a fight.
Steve has probably never hit Bucky in his life, and in their first fight he doesn’t know that’s him. But in their second fight, Steve has a mission to perform and warns Bucky he won’t let him stop him. And he doesn’t. He intentionally hurts Bucky, for what is probably the first time in his life, to save other lives. That had to hurt Steve, too.
Natasha’s broken expression when she realizes Fury is dead. That is reciprocated later when we see Fury’s reaction, to Natasha being unconscious, after she electrocutes herself. The two of them have a profound bond of some kind.
Steve not having any answers to Sam’s questions when he visits him at the VA.