Comics vs. Film: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’

By April 4, 2014
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Today, Captain America: The Winter Soldier hits theaters nationwide and pushes forward the narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, serving as the last traditional superheroic stop before the next major team-up blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron. (This year’s Guardians of the Galaxy looks far from traditional.) The Winter Soldier serves as the second solo outing of Captain America on film in this universe, and is largely a direct sequel to the characters and events of 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. In many ways, though, this new film feels most directly connected to 2012’s The Avengers, since many of the supporting characters from S.H.I.E.L.D. make a prominent return, along with the scale that the organization brings with it. Also, since this film doesn’t take place in a period setting like The First Avenger, the 2012 team-up film feels more closely related to the new sequel, while the events of Cap’s first solo film really do feel very far away.

Cover art to Captain America (vol. 5) #1 by Steve Epting, writer Ed Brubaker's first issue and the opening shot of the "Winter Soldier" arc.

Cover art to Captain America (vol. 5) #1 by Steve Epting, writer Ed Brubaker’s first issue and the opening shot of the “Winter Soldier” arc.

To give this film a brief review, I’ll be succinct: this is, if not the absolute best, then definitely one of the best films that Marvel Studios has produced thus far. It has a very interesting contemporary political message, and the characters are all extremely relatable and human and interesting. The film felt very real, and while CGI was obviously employed in some areas, it appeared to be minimal for a film of this scale, which is terrific. This film is also far more comparable in its scale to The Avengers, easily feeling bigger than both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Basically, The Winter Soldier is a hell of a film for audiences to receive in the month of April, and is quite a roller coaster from beginning to end.

Though, like most movies from Marvel Studios, the film takes both its title and many principle characters and situations from a comic book arc. In fact, as I alluded to in an earlier piece here at GeekNation, the comic book arc introducing the character of the Winter Soldier is probably my favorite Marvel Comics story ever, at least to date. So, as you might imagine, a rather large fan of the comic book story may have had a few impressions about a feature film that shares its title.

Well, I do. Here they are.

Please note that spoilers lie ahead for both the original story and for the new film, specifically as it pertains to the identity of the Winter Soldier himself. If you don’t know that detail and don’t want to know, you should stop reading and come back either when you’ve seen the film, read the story, or (preferably) both!

 

The Comic Book Story

Fans were rather shocked and surprised to learn the true identity of the Winter Soldier, alluded to on this cover to Captain America (vol. 5) #11 by Steve Epting.

Fans were rather shocked and surprised to learn the true identity of the Winter Soldier, alluded to on this cover to Captain America (vol. 5) #11 by Steve Epting.

The story that introduced the Winter Soldier was told in Captain America (vol. 5) #1-14 (with a one-issue intermission at #10). While the new #1 issue seemed to set up another interesting confrontation between Cap and his ultimate foe, the Red Skull, fans everywhere were rather shocked that the final page of the issue featured Skull’s lifeless corpse, as he was assassinated by a mysterious, shadowy figure. Eventually, we learned that the Skull’s assassin was known only by the moniker of the “Winter Soldier,” a legend and ghost that had been whispered about since at least the 1950s, maybe even before then.

After an altercation involving Steve Rogers’ girlfriend and highly skilled S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter, Sharon tells Steve that she got a look at the Winter Soldier’s face, and that he looked like Bucky Barnes — Cap’s long-dead brother-in-arms during World War II. In the explosion that sent Steve into his “deep freeze,” Bucky was believed to have been instantly killed. Rogers goes to Nick Fury with this theory, and all he can do is confirm that the Soldier exists — even Fury has been unable to ascertain his identity.

Of course, by the end of the story we discover that the Soldier is in fact Bucky, his arm-less form having been fished out of the icy waters by the Soviets, and leaving the young soldier an amnesiac. Seizing on this, the Russians condition his body and mind, affix to him a bionic arm, and cryogenically freeze him. They only thaw him out when a target needs to be eliminated, and the Winter Soldier has been continuously frozen and thawed for several decades.

When the story first hit the racks in 2005, fans were at first divided over the possibility of bringing Bucky back to life. Unlike a lot of comic book characters, he was one of the few to “stay dead” for a significant amount of time, and certain fans thought there was a purity in that. As Brubaker’s story unfolded, though, it was seen as a massive reinvigoration and a tale of high intrigue and espionage, all with Captain America at the center. The story of the Winter Soldier was a tragic one, since the good man that Bucky Barnes was during the War was perverted and used by various world powers and megalomaniacs in order to accomplish the unthinkable.

This story arc stands as one of the freshest reinvigorations of the Captain America character in comics, and would also go on to lead to a brand new element of legacy when a new Cap has to fill the void left by Steve Rogers in the future.

 

The Translation to Film

Cap sees some new, powerful weapons from S.H.I.E.L.D., but doesn't feel safer. He feels worried.

Cap sees some new, powerful weapons from S.H.I.E.L.D., but doesn’t feel safer. He feels worried.

As a film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is rather far from a direct adaptation of the original story. It’s quite easy to see that the overall tone of the source material inspired the tone of the film, but many of the details are different. The comic book arc was firmly planted in the lore and mythos of the Marvel Comics Universe, harking back to the days of Captain America, Bucky, Namor, and the Human Torch storming enemy bases as the Invaders. Cap has been an Avenger for years, has pretty fully acclimated to his new era, and serves as both a beacon of hope and the last line of defense for his nation, and even his planet. Conversely, The Winter Soldier as a film is fully steeped in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Cap has served only with the Howling Commandos and the Avengers, is fully entrenched in S.H.I.E.L.D. and its way of doing things, and is still largely adjusting to the new era that he finds himself in (it’s absolutely priceless when he adds Marvin Gaye’s music to “the list” of things he needs to catch up on — like Star Wars).

This is also a Steve Rogers who looks at the current intelligence and security apparatus of the United States and other world powers, and doesn’t like what he sees at all. The exploration of how the world has changed in regards to its nations’ defense systems has been explored in other areas, but it wasn’t an element of the original Winter Soldier comic book arc. But hey, this movie has to be – and do – a lot of things, and it all feels like a natural extension of the events we’ve seen in previous films.

The winter Soldier himself is wonderfully translated from page-to-screen, played terrifically by Sebastian Stan.

The Winter Soldier himself is wonderfully translated from page-to-screen, played terrifically by Sebastian Stan.

As for the Winter Soldier himself, this is one part of the film that seems torn right out of the books. He’s Bucky, he can’t remember who he used to be (at least at first), and he’s committing terrible acts of terrorism and murder on behalf of his powerful masters. While some of the major players in this story are different than the original comics, what we learn of the Soldier’s tenure as an assassin doesn’t contradict anything that we know from the original character, and in some places even alludes to many unexplored aspects of his past in the film that has been either implied or confirmed in the comics.

Bucky’s story here is just as tragic as the original story, though it doesn’t have nearly as much finality in the film. By the time the credits roll, we’re left with a sense of where things might go for Bucky in the future, but it kind of leaves us hanging. Still, it manages to be satisfying.

One very respectable way that this film feels very evocative of the original story is in its rather fundamental changes to the status quo not just of Captain America’s corner of the Marvel U, but in the entire Marvel U itself. While they’re both telling their stories to get to some different places, they feel oddly in tune with each other from a tonal perspective, and I doubt that’s no accident. It shouldn’t come as much surprise that Ed Brubaker, writer of the original comics story, has heaped mountains of praise on the new film even before its release for its own thematic aims, and in the careful ways it ties itself to his original story without being a slave to it. The writer even shows up in it!

Overall

As a comic book film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is terrific. It takes the Marvel Cinematic Universe in an entirely new direction, it tells a thematically important and timely story about what could happen if we let our overriding desire for security run away with itself, and brings to life one of the most interesting and engaging Marvel characters in decades. There are also some cool surprises along the way (I’ve omitted the mention of the primary nefarious organization, the actual villain of the film, and several translated characters from Marvel lore, like Falcon and Agent 13, along with the mention of a strange doctor), and in many ways feels like a natural and high-aiming follow-up to both Captain America: The First Avenger and to The Avengers.

We learn a lot of new details about Black Widow and Nick Fury, get a greater idea of how Steve is getting used to the modern era, and even some important Marvel Cinematic Universe history from the era of Steve’s long sleep. If you’ve been at all interested in this universe and its characters, then The Winter Soldier is both a necessary and interesting film to watch, and good enough on its own to tide at least this comic book geek over until Avengers: Age of Ultron.

And of course, don’t forget to stay after the credits — all of them.

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.