This is a review (sort of) of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It is VERY FULL OF SPOILERS almost as much as it is full of FEELINGS. And it won’t make any sense if you haven’t seen it yet.
It’s a redundant statement to say that Marvel/Disney are making great superhero films right now, it just doesn’t even need saying. Last year’s crop of the superlative trauma saga Iron Man 3 and the family space-science romp of Thor 2, both of whom had the hard bill of following up Avengers, was terrific enough. Lightning striking even twice to make really, really good, intelligent films about superheroes after the success of Avengers seemed implausible. And yet.
I went and saw The Winter Soldier last night- it’s an extraordinarily good film. I feel messed up by how good it was, how thrilling and current and brave it was, in a way it feels like superheroes are for. How sassy, how cynical it was, how it’s a film entirely about revolution. How extraordinarily well Anthony Mackie can act with subtle facial expressions and how incredibly much I want a Falcon suit. How extraordinarily, morbidly realistically the grim world it inhabited was, how amazingly great the portrayal of interpersonal relationships was in it.
The Winter Soldier is a huge, exploding-battleships-raining-from-the-sky, global-political-conspiracies, massive cast film that is entirely about intimacy. About trust and closeness. The central trio of Captain America, Black Widow and the Falcon have an extraordinary dynamic that is all about them growing closer, empowering each other, saving each other. For a solo film, it’s about a team- that’s right and good for a Captain America film, he’s a soldier and he needs a unit.
Superheroes, mostly male (onscreen- the gender balance improves in the comics) are often defined against their romantic paramours- what would Superman be without Lois? Spider-Man without Mary Jane or Gwen? Even the lonely, dark Batman of the Nolan films is torn up about love and it’s used as a motivator.
The Hulk films are about romance, about how you live with and as a monster. The Iron Man films are about how co-dependency not only might not kill you but might be the thing that saves you and Tony and Pepper and the thing between them that makes them both stronger. Around all the family tension, beautiful space god Thor has beautiful space scientist Jane Foster, both reminding the other that being brought down to earth doesn’t mean being brought low. (And Thor is a rubbish space boyfriend but aren’t they all) And even Avengers had the tender, intimate-without-being-obvious moments between Black Widow and Hawkeye.
Even Captain America, who’d barely stuttered through adolescence in his first film, got a romance with Agent Carter. A good woman to flirt him into his own, a powerful soldier to teach him tactics. And then he got fridged so that she could start SHIELD with Steve’s sacrifice to keep her grimly on an idealistic path.
This film had a kiss. A desperate act in a moment of tension and fear and co-dependence. Except it was just that- Natasha asks Steve to kiss her to escape the notice of Crossbones, citing that psychologically people look away from public displays of affection, so he won’t examine the hipster couple close enough to realise who they are. It’s kind of a hot kiss, for a tactically necessary one but I may be biased due to the way I find both characters repulsively attractive and it’s certainly couched as effective and practical, if perhaps not 100% as clinical as that sounds.
And Black Widow and Cap have a really intimate relationship in the film- they grab the front of each other’s shirts to snarl at each other, shield each other, care for and comfort each other, tend their wounds together. And it could have gone there, sure. But it didn’t.
There’s lots of mentions of romance- Black Widow even explicitly brings up the idea that Steve should ask out his neighbour, who turns out to be Agent 13, his long-term on/off girlfriend in the comics. But he doesn’t. They have an important moment but it’s as allies, as acknowledging each other as being on the right side in a secret war.
Steve builds relationships in the film- his hospital bedside mixtape creator is Sam Wilson, the person he apologetically turns up at the house of because everyone he and ‘Tasha know is trying to kill them. Sam is an instant friend to him, a shared understanding and a sense that they can make each other braver, comradeship and sass and comfort. He can trust Sam, Sam can trust him- it’s a different bond to the one that, say, Tony Stark and James Rhodes share because Steve has never fucked up Sam as much as Tony can fuck up Rhodey- it’s more like Thor’s relationship to the Warriors Three, they just know that they are better together and that that’s what they need. But it’s not romantic, Steve doesn’t seduce Sam, they just bond. They have an incredibly strong and near-instant trust but that also means that if Sam or Steve screwed up that trust, their bond would significantly alter.
Romantic relationships are the ones you do the irrational stuff for. They’re the ones you don’t just take bullets and chances for, they’re the ones that without, you don’t know how you’ll live. They’re often kind of fucked up, frankly, in the superhero community but that’s probably because being a superhero is quite a fucked up occupation. Being a superhero who slipped forward in a seventy-year sleep to find a world he’d saved needed saving again.
I say there isn’t a romance in this film; that’s bollocks. As per the title of this; there’s no modern romance but my god there is quite a scene in the 1940s. And for all the central trio of the film being a unit on a solo billing, there is that one other character sharing the title. And if most of the film is about the closeness between comrades, there’s a big vein of it that’s about distance.
There’s a colossal romance at the heart of it that just doesn’t quite go explicit. The romance, the fridged girlfriend, the irrational motivator for Steve is Bucky. The person Steve would rather die than fight, the person Steve nearly sacrifices millions of lives because he can’t bring himself to fuck him up. The soft-focus flashback, the passionate pleas- I was genuinely surprised when they didn’t kiss, in the old Brooklyn scene. It just… seemed so obvious that they were going to, everything in the scene, in the way that cinema has made me understand these things, was clearly leading to Bucky tenderly kissing Steve against the door.
Now, I’ve read a lot of fanfiction. I describe myself as a ‘raging queermo’ so perhaps I am looking at things through the wrong eyes but I genuinely, honestly, heartfeltly thought not so much that they were going to go there but that they went all of the way there. Bucky is Steve’s shit faux-Soviet boyfriend. Their love is awful. I mean, Bucky is barely in this film- maybe a couple of seconds of recognition in a Hydra bunker but mostly what’s there is The Winter Soldier, who is not Steve’s anything. So maybe it isn’t a romance yet, too one-sided outside of memory. But it’s kind of extremely prominently there. Which is something that in a just and sane society wouldn’t be extraordinary but showing a homoromantic Captain America in 2014 is depressingly still quite a bold move.
And yes, I guess since they didn’t smush their tongues onto each other’s faces it could be left ambiguous. You could watch this film and just think ‘oh that’s interesting, they’ve set up Steve/Agent 13’ but… I don’t think that’s what they set up. I really, really don’t.
I don’t know, if they recover Bucky, what is going to happen. I don’t know if I want Marvel to do this but all the reasons I can come up with for them not doing it are based around fear of how it would be executed, when they’ve proved that with this run of films, they seriously have the goods. So maybe I just need to trust them and also ask them to, whatever they do, not let this bit of groundwork peter out.