Exo-7 Falcon, Classified

A social worker-turned superhero in the comics, the film version of Sam Wilson is a military veteran who retains the core of his comicbook counterpart. He’s first and foremost a helper, working to counsel other veterans afflicted by guilt and regret, since his own guilt over failing to protect his partner caused him to leave the field.

Wilson is the closest thing the film has to a direct line to American militarism. While he’s part of a fictional air rescue program, he’s also unequivocally framed as a returning Afghanistan veteran. He speaks to other former soldiers in the hopes of helping them re-adjust, and he does so as part of the Department of Veteran Affairs.

This is the only time a real branch of the U.S. military is seen in The Winter Soldier. However in real-life, the V.A. is tasked with helping returning soldiers deal with disability, P.T.S.D. and thoughts of suicide (among other issues), but Wilson’s conversations with Rogers’ are limited to the kind of beds they sleep on and being behind on popular culture, neither of which seem to impede their daily lives.

Just as Iron Man 3 promptly drops its P.T.S.D. story, there’s little sense that either man has any lasting trauma from war. This calls to mind the heated on-set exchange between Iron Man director Jon Favreau and Department of Defense liaison Phil Strub, during which Strub objected to a line of dialogue where a U.S. soldier mentions suicide — a continued problem afflicting U.S. veterans.

Despite the common thread between Wilson and Rogers — their inability to adjust as returning soldiers — the actual nature of this problem, beyond minor inconveniences, is almost entirely obscured. Wilson is written as having a vague sadness about him (Mackie’s performance is heartfelt), though Wilson never comes across as a man who was forced to watch his friend die in battle (For that matter, neither did Rogers during the final act of Captain America: The First Avenger).

When Rogers comes asking for his help, Wilson doesn’t hesitate. His journey isn’t as complicated as Fury or Romanoff’s — rather than a solider or spy with shady dealings, he was explicitly a rescue operative — but he serves as an embodiment of the kind of change Steve Rogers can inspire: the desire to fight for good.

Like a kid getting to see his favourite superhero up close, “Dude, Captain America needs my help” is reason enough for Wilson to take back to the skies. The decision, however, comes far too easily in a story where Wilson and Rogers’ first interaction is about the lasting effects of war.

As one might expect from military propaganda, the personal fallout of war doesn’t seem that bad.

Fighting the Good Fight

Among those willing to resist H.Y.D.R.A. is a low-ranking technician played by Aaron Himelstein. He’s tasked with launching H.Y.D.R.A.’s gunships in order to — like the World Council’s nuclear launch in The Avengers — kill millions to protect billions. The character has no superpowers, nor any real stature or with which to retaliate. Yet he struck such a chord with many fans because he fought back regardless.

“I’m not gonna launch those ships. Captain’s orders.”

With a single line, delivered not fearlessly, but while cowering at gunpoint, a nameless featured extra embodies everything that makes Captain America great. Steve Rogers, the little guy from Brooklyn, gives other little guys the strength to stand up.

“Captains orders,” repeats Sharon (Emily VanCamp), a formerly duplicitous agent who finally chooses a side. Soon, the whole room of technicians draws their guns on a H.Y.D.R.A. strike team, led by Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), resulting in a staff full of ill-equipped heroes doing what little they can to resist.

While the scene can’t be divorced from larger questions about the heroes’ and villains’ politics, it’s arguably on par with what is generally considered the best sequence in a superhero movie: the citizens of New York standing up to protect Peter Parker’s identity in Spider-Man 2. In both cases, the films in question dramatize the very narrative purpose of the superhero, a power fantasy aimed at providing inspiration and moral guidance.

Till the End of the Line

Captain America refuses to leave the crashing gunship without first freeing Barnes from debris. This isn’t the only thing that makes Rogers a hero. It’s also the fact that he lingers even longer to remind Barnes of the person he once was. The past is all but lost to Steve Rogers. He’s begun the process of tearing the old world down by destroying S.H.I.E.L.D., but he sticks it out with Barnes as the ship goes down, dropping his guard entirely. Like the room full of technicians, Barnes eventually does the right thing too, even though he’s far from who he once was.

The film’s third act, while as bombastic as any Marvel climax, is also a potent articulation of Captain America’s inner-conflict. Just as he learns to move on from the past, his only remaining connection to it returns from the dead, taking the form of everything he fears he might become. Captain America, the man out of time, is forever trapped between a past he can’t escape, and a world changing far too quickly.

Barnes doesn’t remember Rogers. He’s been subjected to too much torture, and has had his mind wiped too many times. But he saves Rogers from a watery grave, having been reminded of something deep within him. Steve Rogers is merely Barnes’ mission, a stranger who ought to have every reason to kill him. Yet he treats Barnes in a way he hasn’t been treated in decades: like a friend.

That’s why Captain America, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, ultimately work. Rogers isn’t just a hero on his own; whether Wilson, Romanoff, Barnes, or some nameless kid at a desk, Steve Rogers reminds these other characters of their intrinsic goodness, and becomes the moral focal point of the series in the process.

Rogers’ morality is eventually put to the test in later films, in ways that are more direct and more focused than this film’s half-hearted C.I.A. metaphor. The Winter Soldier is undoubtedly on a leash, prevented from fully approaching all the things its characters need to confront. They have some of their biases challenged, but those biases remain disconnected from our own.

Once again, the Marvel machine pays lip-service to change, falling back on a real-world status quo despite the upending of fictional norms. However, the film remains rooted in a story about unflinching heroism in ways few Hollywood blockbusters are. It’s more coddling than challenging in any significant way, but it’s undoubtedly effective at being “feel-good,” for whatever that might be worth.

By the time Avengers: Engdame arrives, Captain America will have clung to his moral compass — one that prevents him from trading lives — despite it having failed him. Is this the right decision? That remains to be seen, as does what lasting mark, if any, Steve Rogers will leave on the Marvel Universe.  

***

Expanded from an article published April 12, 2018.

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