You know it, and I know it. Superhero films are fun. They’re fast. Action-packed. Colorful. They feature inspiring journeys, by relatable protagonists—many of whom I love. Yet, even given my fondness for the genre there’s one superhero film which rests deeper in my heart than any other. And that would be… well, what else? The Winter Soldier.
Winter Soldier is mine, “my” movie, for so many reasons. I could go on all day about the smart dialogue or the compact, tightly executed themes; the gritty Cold-War feel or even the precious bundle of sidekick sass that is Sam Wilson, aka Falcon. In the end, though, my loving this film boils down to one simple fact. The story takes what’s usually made complex and grand and laser-focuses it into something personal, intimate. Even something small.
So many superhero films follow the same familiar, epic sweep—the Chosen One who hears of some mass threat and sallies forth to save the world. Or a band of Chosen Ones (Avengers, Justice League…) It’s a timeless theme; but to be honest, I’ve always struggled with it. It’s tough for me to emotionally invest in something as mindbogglingly huge as saving the entire world, right here, right now. But Winter Soldier doesn’t do this. The Winter Soldier grabbed my attention—and stole my heart—by keeping the focus small. Yes, technically there’s an existential threat. The globe is in danger from some Scary Evil Plan the details of which escape my memory. But that conflict stays in the background. The foreground, meanwhile, is filled with the tiniest of micro-conflicts: one-on-one relationships. Personal bridges to build, or heal. This story isn’t even about building a team… it’s about building an army of two. And as G.K. Chesterton said—four may be twice two, but two is not twice one. Two is two thousand times one.
Steve Rogers starts this movie without a friend in the world. Sure, he may work with the Avengers, with S.H.I.E.L.D; but he doesn’t yet trust them. Doesn’t trust Natasha. Doesn’t trust Fury. He hasn’t seen their hearts, yet, and isn’t sure if he wants to. But, as the story unfolds and the stakes climb ever higher, careful, tentative interactions become raw. “Can I trust you with my life?” becomes “Can I trust you with my fear?” The barely professional becomes deeply personal. Obstinacy turns to empathy. And our Captain America comes out on the other side with two new friends he thought he’d never make.
The central conflict, though, lies not with a new friend, but an old one… the Winter Soldier himself. James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes in a former life. Like Steve, Bucky survived a fall into the ice; but, unlike Steve, the bad guys found and brainwashed Bucky into a lethal human weapon. When the pair meet again after seventy years on a highway overpass in the middle of a firefight, it’s Bucky playing the role of Public Enemy #1; and his best pal is the man who’s trying to stop him.
Some call it habit. I prefer to call it loyalty. Either way, Steve Rogers will never turn his back on an old friend. He stops Bucky from completing his brainwashed objectives—and then, he quits. Drops his shield and refuses to fight the Winter Soldier any more. He knows his friend is still in there, somewhere; and no matter what’s been done to him in those seventy lost years, Steve has faith in his friend.
Could I do the same? Could I lie there and take it while my best friend pounds the stuffing out of me, screaming “You’re my mission!” and still love them—trust them—enough to respond, “Then finish it”? I don’t know; but what I know is, I’d at least try.
Sometimes it’s not really about saving the entire world. Sometimes, the person who most needs your help is the person closest to you. Bucky had it right after all: that person is your mission. And being there for them, no matter what… now, that’s what I call a superhero.