Monday, March 31, 2014

Who the BLEEP is the Winter Soldier?

So, this week comes writing a series on Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

First things first, here, from beginning to end, are the videos we’ve seen so far.

First is the initial trailer, from back in October:

Then the Superbowl trailer, with a cameo by the creator of The Winter Soldier, Ed Brubaker.

And TV Spot #1.

And another spot with the phrase "Fury's last words." Sam Jackson still has several contracted Marvel films... and Nick Fury has more life model decoys up his sleeve than an army of Phil Coulsons, so....

Then a clip that apparently spoils the end of the film.

Followed by a ton of Black Widow. I approve.  I heart Redheads.

Marvel UK's "Three Days of Captain America"

Then... even MORE Black Widow.  I want a movie, and I want it called "Black Widow: Budapest."
So, if you want to know what exactly all this is about, and why a lot of people kicking around the internet are interested in this film, well, let's take a look.

Step 1, day 1: Who the BLEEP is the Winter Soldier?

This paragraph pretty much only exists to tell you to STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS. Seriously. This is your last chance. 

Abandon all hope of surprise, ye who enter this blog. There is no meaningful way to discuss the Winter Soldier storyline, or the movie that’s arisen from it, without spoiling at least a few really big plot points. So if you've somehow avoided all the chatter about this movie so far that’s spilled the Winter Soldier’s identity and backstory, and you don’t want to know walking into that theater who he is and why he’s fighting Steve Rogers, then


And if you didn't see that coming, I'd be surprised.  

Now, then, where were we?


To explain who the Winter Soldier is and why he matters, come with me now to those glorydays of yesteryear -- 2004 -- when Marvel Comics relaunched the monthly Captain America comic book with a brand-new #1 issue.

With crime-comic writer Ed Brubaker, the comic quickly established itself as a combination of superhero adventure and spy thriller. The story begins with a mysterious ex-Soviet general, Aleksander Lukin, killing a Russian agent sent to disrupt his plans.

Lukin then orders his men to give the body full funeral honors -- he's not a supervillain, he's actually something of a patriot and a soldier.

After that, Lukin meets with the Red Skull, who wants to buy some decommissioned Soviet super-weapons generally found in Cold War comics.

There’s only one thing Lukin won’t sell—a tank containing the shadowy figure of a man with a metal arm. Lukin says he won’t part with that unless the Skull is willing to trade the Cosmic Cube (the Tesseract, if you watch the movies), which can reshape reality. 

The Skull says that a) he doesn't have the Cube and b) he wouldn't give it up if he did, and c) soon he will have it again, blah blah blah world domination—it’s your standard Red Skull rant.

What are we going to do tonight, Skull? 
Fast-forward to five years later. At the end of the comic, after some scenes establishing that Captain America is having some personal problems and that the Skull has some big plan in the works--reassembling a broken Cosmic Cube and powering it up. 

We’re all very focused on the Skull as he takes a call on his cell phone while he’s fondling the Cube.... yes, sounds dirty, doesn't it? It's the Red Skull, he's a freak.  Anyway.

The phone call is from General Lukin from five years ago, making one last offer. The Skull turns him down flat, goes into his usual rant—

—and then suddenly has a fist-sized hole through his chest from a sniper’s bullet.

The Skull falls to the floor, dead. Lukin had made him an offer Skull shouldn't have refused.

A shadowy figure enters the apartment and takes the Cube from the corpse’s hand … at which point we see that the hand picking up that Cube is made of metal. Whoever was in the tank, he’s out in the world now. And he’s working for Aleksander Lukin.

From here on out, what looked like a story about the Red Skull trying to take over the world AGAIN becomes a story about Captain America trying to figure out who killed the Red Skull, and why, and why do we care, it's the Red Skull? Let him rot.

And then it becomes a story about the Winter Soldier.


CSI: Marvel
Still a better concept
than Agents of SHIELD

It’s up to one of Marvel's other super-spies to who figures that out.

In the course of all the running around and spycraft in this story, SHIELD agent, and Steve's girlfriend, Sharon Carter gets captured by the Winter Soldier and used as bait. 

Cap’s already rattled by this point because Lukin has been using the Cube to mess with him from a distance. Cap’s beginning to doubt his own recollection of important battles and major events in his life, especially the day that his partner, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, died and Cap himself was frozen in ice.

He’s just remembered a long-forgotten detail—that Bucky didn't get blown up because he insisted on defusing a flying missile, but rather because he got his clothing snagged while trying to jump free, as Steve ordered him to do.

Bucky died because Steve wasn't there to save him.

Hmm, wait, doesn't Retcon sound an awful lot like how Bucky bought it in the movie?  Hmm. Yes it does.

Did I see Brubaker's name in the credits for The First Avenger? Yes, I did.

Funny that.

So, Steve becomes Catholic, and incredibly guilty.

And then Sharon tells him that she got a good look at the Winter Soldier’s face … and she’s dead certain that he’s Bucky.

Hilarity, chaos, and complete and utter anarchy ensues.

Steve doesn’t believe it at first, but when he encounters the Winter Soldier in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing (which the Soldier set off), even he’s struck by the resemblance—even if the Winter Soldier is not:
Who the hell is Bucky? It becomes a theme.


Remember how long
this lasted?
Yeah, bringing Bucky back from the dead was a bit of a big deal.  True, people who die in comics don’t usually stay dead. It's standard comic-book death: Superman didn't stay dead. Two dead Robins have failed to stay dead. Jean Grey of the X-Men has died so many times that we've all lost count, and all stopped caring.

But there are a few exceptions. Characters who not only stay dead, they must stay dead, so the theory goes. 

Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben is THE classic example of this. If Uncle Ben isn't dead, Spider-Man isn't motivated to be Spider-Man.

Bruce Wayne's family?  They are going to stay dead, dead, dead. If they could become more dead, they would.

Bucky was one of those permanent corpses. His death, ret-conned into Captain America’s backstory when the character was revived in the 1960s, turned a World War II patriotic hero into a tragic figure in keeping with Marvel's five hundred other tragic figures.  Because, you know, you can't simply have a hero be a hero because he's a good man. Heaven forbid.

And, this being marvel, Captain America just had to have a tragic backstory.  After all, isn't the “man out of time” schtick good for just so long—eventually, he’d have to adjust to life in the “future” and he’d be just another superhero, right? But a superhero who’s constantly reminded of his greatest failure—that his partner, best friend, and surrogate little brother died because of the very screwup that made him immortal—that’s a story that fits in with everyone else's tragic backstory. Because this is the freaking comic book industry; even Superman has been ret-conned so he was given some similar trauma.

So, according to this accepted comic book wisdom, Bucky has to remain dead.



It turns out there’s a way to make a warm breathing Bucky even harder on Steve Rogers than ice cold Bucky. It turns out that Bucky also got the Captain America on ice treatment; even though the missile took his left arm, the freezing water preserved his body.

Remember when Bucky fell from the train in the Captain America movie, and fell into freezing water? Yeah, there's a reason for that.
I'll take you all with one arm

Anyway, a Russian submarine picked up his body, thinking he might be Captain America. But they got the wrong hero on ice. A Soviet general named Karpov had the frozen corpse studied, during which time, the Soviets revived Bucky. Like Jason Bourne, he was missing most of his memories, but he could thrash anyone who got too close, even with only one arm.

Basically, Bucky makes Jason Bourne look like a pussy, especially when he's played by Matt Damon.

By this time, the Cold War was raging. Bucky had basically been a teenage commando, trained in wet work that Captain America wasn't let near with a two-foot tactical baton. So Karpov fitted Bucky with a metal arm and some basic Cold War 101 Ipcress brainwashing, and used him against American targets.

"They will never see me coming."
No, wait, they used that line.
But Bucky was too stubborn—the longer he was out of the deep freeze, the more his real personality tried to reassert itself. So, Karpov put his assassin into stasis between missions and reprogramming him on each awakening. They called him the Winter Soldier in part because of these regular deep freezes, and because Russia has always relied on "General Winter" to win a lot of their battles. When Karpov died, Bucky was put back on ice for a couple of decades—until he was found by Karpov’s protégé, Alexander Lukin.

And for Steve, this is actually worse than thinking Bucky was dead... because having your friend come back as a cyborg zombie assassin is pretty much nightmare fuel.

Steve knows that Bucky would want Steve to kill him rather than let him remain a zombie assassin. And as everyone in the story points out to Steve at some point, there's no Bucky under all that programming. He came face-to-face with Captain America, in full costume, and didn't recognize him. He didn't even know his own name:

It’s appropriate, then, that there’s one dissenting voice in the chorus of “just kill him already”. That voice belongs to a character who’s been controlled by the bad guys before, and who might be Captain America’s best friend in the present day—Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon. 

So, let's save Bucky.


Cap, the Falcon, and SHIELD track the Winter Soldier, and the superheroes go in before backup can arrive.

Because you don't want to see this
from the business end.
What follows is a running fight between Cap and the Winter Soldier. It comes to a head after Bucky expresses surprise that hitting Captain America in the head with a cyborg arm doesn't actually kill him, and Steve realizes that the ex-Soviet killer is still trying to kill people. This comes as a shock, somehow, and Steve challenges Bucky to shoot him in the head if he really doesn't remember their past relationship.

Luckily, Captain America can dodge bullets pretty well, and grabs the Cube.

And then, well …

There's an important lesson comic books can teach writers. It's that there is no easy answer to a problem. Ever.

Two things about the Cosmic Cube.

One, in the comic universe, you can touch it without being blown away.

Two, it's your standard untrustworthy wish-granting device, an old-fashioned jinn, or one of the fae. It will misinterpret pretty much anything you say, if it can. So, with only a second or two to make his wish before the Winter Soldier tackles him again, he goes with:

Sounds good, right? Impossible to screw up? Well...

Yup. This will end well.
PTSD level flashbacks.
NOTHING can go wrong here.
Turns out that suddenly regaining your real personality after being a cyborg zombie for 7 decades is not terribly good for your mental health.

Yeah. NO ONE saw that coming, right?

Oh, wait, everyone’s been saying this all along.

The Bucky grabs the demonic cube and then poof, all that’s left is a little pile of ash. To Sharon and the Falcon, it looks pretty simple: Bucky couldn't live with what had been done to him, so he killed himself. Steve is unconvinced.

And he’s right. For the next year’s worth of comics, Steve is alternately battling the Red Skull and trying to find Bucky. Yes, the Skull got better. Are we surprised?


Once Bucky has his memories back, he ends up doing some cloak-and-dagger work for Nick "I am a bastard" Fury and avoiding Steve, apparently because there’s no good way to have a conversation about how you murdered a bunch of innocent people, tried to shoot your best friend in the face, and then faked your own suicide.

And then Steve gets himself assassinated in Civil War.  If you don't know it, I've got a rant for that.

Along the way, Bucky runs into an old girlfriend... And Hawkeye is going to be pissed.  Apparently, Bucky and Natalia had a thing back when the Winter Soldier was a combat instructor for the Black Widow program. So there’s that.

And Bucky becomes Captain America, because someone has to be.

Alex Ross is a badass.
He's the artist.
The “Bucky Cap” stories focused on Bucky’s ongoing quest for redemption, his struggle to live up to Steve’s example, and his complicated relationship with Natasha. She acted as his liason with SHIELD, pointing him at trouble spots

The Bucky-Widow relationship was actually a lot of fun. The fact that Bucky and Natalia were both strong, complex characters with their own clashing agendas, but that they still clung to each other emotionally kept the story from ever degenerating into something that made one or the other secondary.

Then they killed Bucky AGAIN so Steve could resume being Captain America, just in time for the movie to come out.

Bucky, of course, gets better; he's too popular to kill now.

And, post-Avengers film, Black Widow has had Bucky mind-wiped from her brain, because fans liked her and Hawkeye in the film.

As much as I love the Marvel films, I hate it when it messes up the comic books.

1 comment:

  1. Just for the record, I was not one of those fans who were shipping Black Widow and Hawkeye. Bah. 'Course, I also don't like Hawkeye, but you've already heard my opinions on the practicality of bow-wielding superheroes.

    Now, Black Widow and Cap, that I can see. It would basically be like Widow and Bucky in the comics, only better for both.


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