Massive spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Michael and I have a tradition of going out to the movies frequently. It’s our special sibling tradition. Last week we went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Confession time: I don’t really like Marvel movies. There are exceptions, of course, like Thor…but for the most part I don’t really get involved with them. I should explain that for me, stories are like people and those that I like, I invest in. I build a relationship with them; I spend hours exploring their depths, their subtleties, their themes. And Marvel movies feel more like product than art to me…like they are made to pull in cash and not to explore an idea. I loved Thor because it was felt about brothers. Even then, it still felt a bit hollow to me.
Not so The Winter Soldier. As soon as I first heard the title, something felt different; the combination of those three words made me think of mystery and sadness and something precious that’s been lost. I wasn’t mistaken.
I loved this movie and, more so than any Marvel movie to date, I’ve invested in it. If Thor, my previous favorite was about brothers, the Winter Soldier is about friendship. In a refreshing turn, they withhold a romance from this movie, so as not to distract from the critical relationships in The Winter Soldier: Steve and Bucky; Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce.
That Pierce would betray and attempt to kill Fury, his own friend, was bad enough. That he would use the man who had once been Steve’s friend to do it is pure evil. Even in the world of story, there’s no good reason to spend so much effort to brainwash Bucky…except that he was Captain America’s best friend. “Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky,” Steve says mournfully and that has to be the reason Hydra spent so much effort to turn Bucky, to strip Steve of everything. Bucky as the Winter Soldier is the perversion of everything Steve wanted to be. In the previous Captain America movie, Dr Erskine asked pre-serum Steve if he wanted to be a soldier to kill people and Steve replied no, he just didn’t like bullies. So Hydra took his best friend, a fellow soldier of honor, and striped him of everything but the killer. Gone are the motivations, the reasons why, the drive to protect those weaker than himself. They even take his voice. The man who once Bucky is now nothing but Pierce’s weapon.
You can trace Bucky’s return to humanity in his few lines of dialogue and the gradual destruction of his uniform. First Natasha shoots off his goggles: he must now look at his victims with his own eyes. Then Steve rips off his mask and we realize it was never a mask. It was a gag. It’s only after the mask comes off that he really speaks and even after, his speeches are short, mostly questions and statements of fact. “Who is Bucky?” “Who was that man?” “But I knew him.” He says everything in flat tone, no inflection. Sebastian Stan does a terrific job of containing the emotion. His facial movements are sparse and it’s only in the eyes that we see the raging confusion. But his tentative questions go unanswered…the only response he receives from his master is the cold command “Wipe him and start again.”
He is sent out again and while the mask remains off, it’s almost more painful for Steve, for the audience…because Bucky’s face has become the mask. “You know me,” Steve pleads, using almost the same words the Winter Soldier used earlier with Pierce. And the response “No I don’t!” about broke my heart because it is the first to be spoken above a monotone. There’s a world of emotion in these three words, battering around the inside of a man who has forgotten how to feel…has forgotten how to be a man. The next line “Shut up!” is a desperate plea for everything to stop. It’s so much easier not to think for yourself, to take orders without question. Freedom is a hard responsibility and the cost is high. His transformation echoes the question of security raised in the film. Can humanity be trusted with its own freedom? Wouldn’t everything be simpler, neater, if we were all unquestioning like the Winter Soldier?
The bad guys started losing the moment the Winter Soldier uttered his first question…because this is what it means to be free. Yes, the world would be “safer” if we were all gagged and labeled. It’d certainly be quieter. But the freedom to use our voices means the responsibility to use our minds. Free will is meant to be exercised. That’s why God gave it to us. The heartbreak of that final fight is a man caught on the edge and what he does with Captain America is a metaphor for what he does with his life. Mission: a black and white world and the ease of letting others decide the course of your life. Friend: a riot of colors and questions and choices. What kind of world do you want? One in which we strip a certain few of questions and morality and send them to do the dirty work? Or a world in which we all bear the responsibility to make hard choices and live with the consequences? Do we lock our questions behind a mask or do we find our own voices, no matter how broken?
In the end, Bucky dives into the Potomac after a drowning Steve, in a scene that strongly invokes the imagery of a baptism. And even though he walks off and leaves Steve, we can see that he is truly and only Bucky. Confused, broken, but full of questions and seeking answers. His own answers: not Hydra’s, not SHIELD’s, not Steve’s. His own.
The Winter Soldier never came out of the river.