Ghosts of the Past

Despite The Winter Soldier’s conflicting politics, the way its plot interacts with its characters is where the film eventually shines. While its outlook on power leaves much to be desired, the individual perspectives driving the plot and how they interact with a changing world — make the film engaging. Whatever the story has to say, it never says it in a way that’s boring.

Almost every dialogue exchange comes from a place of opposing viewpoints, building on characters bit-by-bit as they respond to larger events. You could write an entire essay about any individual scene (I considered it; the film is meticulously detailed) and Steve Rogers having to recalibrate his loyalties works as a character-centric theme, regardless of the film’s political specifics. As a narrative idea, it’s enough of a blank slate that you can project your own politics onto it.

The first scene that stands out in the film, both from an emotional and structural standpoint, is Steve Rogers visiting his long-lost love, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Rogers was lost to time during World War II. After his apparent death, Carter had to move on without him. Seventy years later, while still in his visage from the 1940s, Rogers continues to visit Carter at her nursing home, seeking advice from the woman who owed him a dance, but has lived a full life since.

Now a soldier for S.H.I.E.L.D., Rogers tells Carter that he wants to keep doing the right thing, though he no longer knows what that is. Not only does this scene articulate Rogers’ confusion about the current state of the world, it establishes the urgent need for him to find his place in the present, given his relationship to the past.

Natasha Romanoff jabs Rogers about being a fossil at the Smithsonian. He accepts his place in this dynamic, joking about barbershop quartets in return, but the museum has, in fact, idealized him and his comrades in the form of an exhibit. Rogers, a man who once charged into battle draped in the American flag, now works from the shadows, for men who compartmentalize secrets and carry out covert missions that they dare not put America’s name to (or rather, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s).

Rogers’ new uniform is stripped of all colour, inspired by the outfit he wore in the comics after giving up his American mantle. The ideals of the past are a compass he can no longer cling to. While not seen in The Winter Soldier, the physical compass Rogers carries with him, in both prior and latter films, holds Peggy Carter’s picture; she is his only constant, tethering him to an old-world morality he can’t help but question.

Rogers’ museum trip leads him to Carter for guidance, but Carter is old and ill. She keeps forgetting Rogers is still alive, and still lost in an unfamiliar time. To Peggy Carter, Captain America is still frozen in an era where colours were bright, where answers were easier, and where the world made a little more sense. The past remembers Captain America, but the present is forgetting Steve Rogers.

Who the Hell is Bucky?

Only one other living character knew Steve Rogers when he was a scrawny kid from Brooklyn. Unbeknownst to Rogers, his best friend Bucky Barnes survived his own icy plunge during World War II, and was captured by the other side. Brainwashed and taught to kill without remorse, Barnes was turned into an embodiment of America’s own covert crimes and secret power grabs, though the film daren’t frame him as such.

Barnes is now the Winter Soldier, H.Y.D.R.A.’s key assassin, shaping history from the shadows, like some super-powered CIA operative. He’s framed as a dark mirror to Captain America, following orders without question, but their dynamic as dueling sides to a nation’s ethos is never once explored — it would likely never have received the U.S. military’s go-ahead even if this was intended. An unfortunate (but inevitable) consequence of a film about speaking truth to power having to satiate power itself.

Barnes’ memory, and thus his morality, have been wiped. He is everything Rogers fears he may become if he loses his way, an outcome that enters the realm of possibility once answering to any authority begins to feel risky. Luckily, Captain America isn’t alone in his fight. Steve Rogers is a fixed point in a rapidly evolving world. His narrative function is not to change, but to change those around him, especially those who find themselves lost and in search of purpose.

This means changing Natasha Romanoff, the former K.G.B. assassin who still gets her hands dirty. This means changing Sam Wilson a.k.a. The Falcon, a former soldier trying his best to stay righteous after letting his wingman die. And it means changing S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, a man whose secrets have secrets, and a leader whose inability to trust people makes him an unwitting pawn.

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