Introducing the Winter Soldier: The creation of a truly terrifying Marvel villain

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-poster-buckyA couple weeks ago film critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a plea for fellow critics to include discussions of form in their film reviews, to at least mention how the language of film is helping or hindering the movie being reviewed. It was an eloquent point well made, and also apropos of what I want to talk about in re: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I’ve already reviewed the movie (available here and spoiler free), so what I want to get into now that we can talk about stuff without people yelling SPOILERS (seriously, if you haven’t seen it, stop reading now) is how all of the elements of filmmaking worked together to bring to life the Winter Soldier, the most memorable, bone-crunchingly scary villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.

A genuine complaint often lodged against Marvel is that other than Loki there haven’t been any really memorable villains in the MCU (I would argue that Loki isn’t so much a villain as an anti-hero). But in The Winter Soldier we finally get a villain worth his salt, a one-man wrecking crew who exists solely to fuck shit up for our heroes. And, more importantly, here at last is a villain that the hero legitimately struggles to defeat. Can’t defeat, in fact. The climactic fight between Captain America and the Winter Soldier ends in a draw with Cap giving up, unable to win and not willing to keep fighting his childhood best friend, Bucky Barnes—the man captured and brainwashed after World War II into becoming a legendary assassin with no name.

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The lion’s share of the work is done by Sebastian Stan, who with this performance finally sheds the last of his Gossip Girl twatness. Did anyone have a clue he was THIS good an actor? The guy has barely any lines and half his face is obscured by a featureless mask for two-thirds of the movie and still he gives a complicated, emotional, haunting performance as the Winter Soldier, and he does it mostly with stares. The look on his face even as he submits to the torturous conditioning that keeps the Winter Soldier in line and the final, post-credit tag in which an incognito Barnes attempts to reconnect with his true identity stand out as two superlative moments. Especially that last scene—our final impression of the Winter Soldier is that a hell of a lot of people are going to pay for what was done to him.

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Besides the strength of Stan’s performance, there are a lot of good decisions going into how the Winter Soldier appears on screen. He’s never in a hurry—we only see him running once in the entire film. Instead, Stan moves with measured precision and in a couple places, notably the highway ambush and the attack on the Triskelion at the end, the scenes cut between Captain America frantically running from point A to B while the Winter Soldier casually strolls to his destination, stopping only to kick people into jet engines. That contrast is subtle but it makes the Winter Soldier seem more in control—he’s already there while everyone else scrambles to catch up.

But when it comes to hand-to-hand combat—of which there is plenty—suddenly the Winter Soldier is all explosive action. The camera work for much of the movie is the workmanlike style common to most TV directors transitioning to film. It’s not bad but it’s not inspired, until the action starts. Co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo (Arrested Development, Community) stage their action sequences very well—Falcon’s (Anthony Mackie) introduction is one of the most triumphant hero reveals in the MCU, ranking right up there with Iron Man’s first flight.

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However, when they frame Cap and the Winter Soldier engaged in combat they use shaky cam and normally I would complain about it, but the way they apply it here serves to underscore how fast and powerful these supersoldiers really are. The camera struggles to keep up with them as they toss each other around; it would be sloppy but that particular style only comes into play when Cap or the Winter Soldier are fighting. It’s specifically used to suggest that they’re moving slightly faster than the human eye can track—a neat practical effect in place of resorting to CG blurs.

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The framing of the Winter Soldier is very deliberate throughout the film. He’s never revealed straight on in full frame. Instead he comes in at angles or is glimpsed through fire and smoke—our first-ever look at him is as a distant, shadowy blur. The effect is unsettling—you never know where he is or where he’s coming from, which unnerves the audience as much as it does the heroes. And he is always preceded by violence. He doesn’t show up and then start shit—shit is already started by the time he emerges. Violence is a harbinger for him; he is not a harbinger of violence. It’s a subtle difference but it serves to highlight that he is not the product of violence but its cause, once again emphasizing his control over the action on screen.

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And then there’s sound and music, two of the more subtle cues in filmmaking but also among the most effective for directing audience attention. Composer Henry Jackman (Captain Phillips) repurposes Alan Silvestri’s Sousa-esque brass fanfare for Cap’s theme but the Winter Soldier’s theme is a thumping techno track. And there’s a singular element in the theme, an electronic skreel that is isolated and used throughout the sound design to signal the Winter Soldier’s arrival—any time the action has anything to do with him, whether he’s the perpetrator or not, this distinctive howl rises through the sound. Unfortunately I can’t find an isolated sample, but you can hear it at the 3:25 mark on the soundtrack excerpt below. It’s the last sound we hear in the movie as the Winter Soldier contemplates Bucky Barnes’ past, which is INCREDIBLY OMINOUS.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is “just” a superhero movie, but in it we can see how the entire language of film, visual and aural, emotional and technical, can be used to build up a truly great, memorable character. The Winter Soldier is so well devised that it’s almost a shame he’s destined for redemption—I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him in Terminator mode, laying waste to anyone who gets in his way, without moral conflict to slow him down. Sebastian Stan deserves a lot of credit for acting through silence and overcoming a faceless mask to communicate the inner life of a man who’s supposed to be mindless, but without the editing, framing, sound and music working in his favor, too, the Winter Soldier wouldn’t be nearly so frightening. With all those elements working together, though, we’re given a steadily rising sense of dread and an unpredictable killing machine—a chilling, unforgettable villain Marvel can be proud of at last.

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12 thoughts on “Introducing the Winter Soldier: The creation of a truly terrifying Marvel villain

  1. Trisha M.

    Sebastian Stan grew up in communist Romania. Spent his first 8 years there, pre-Revolution; then spent 4 years in Vienna, an immigrant, before moving to New York state, an immigrant again, in a bigger, culture-soaked place. No mention of a father, just a mother. He obviously used all of that in his performance. And having looked through photos of him now that I’m crushing, he has the coloring and look of a heavy drinker in a lot of them, kind of sweaty and flushed.* It’s how he can play a villain so well. In real life, he struggles to keep a villain in check.

    *I know a drinker when I see one. Not saying he’s an alcoholic. Those are drinkers who go to meetings. He doesn’t.

  2. Emily

    It’s fascinating. If you go back to the first movie, Sebastian Stan’s acting is at the same level. The sequence where he gets rescued from the factory in particular is very strong. The eye just tends to slide right over it, because he’s so clearly a supporting character.

    I’m not sure how much of this is innate star power. Chris Evans was a supporting character in The Losers, but he’s the most memorable thing about the movie (I forget that Idris freaking Elba is in it). That’s more an ensemble piece, though.

    Sebastian Stan clearly has the presence to fill up the frame when called to. Or maybe it’s the eyeliner. Either way, I can’t wait to see the character’s trajectory.

  3. Yas

    Here is how I look at the marvel franchise so far in terms of villains.
    Iron man : tony Starks villains are justified. He is kind of a dick so he attracts villains.
    Thor: Loki is all sugar and spice and everything nice. He is like an emo teenager who just wants love and attention.
    Captain America : first a nazi scientiest without a face, then winter soldier, a lean mean killing machine who really, unlike Loki who just wants the throne of Asgard or every villain from iron man who is just really pissed off at stark, has no personal vendetta or goals. Captain America might not be the strongest avenger in terms of super powers or likability, but it’s the one franchise that always has the best or at least most interesting villains. I can’t wait to see what they are going to bring to cap 3.

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  5. Zach.

    I feel that the use of the word, “Villain,” is out of place in this article. A villain is someone who is inherently evil, doing bad things to others. The Winter Soldier in this movie was not that. Was he an Antagonist? Definitely. But he was not the villain.

    The true villain in the film was Alexander Pierce, who hired The Winter Soldier, as a tool, to take out Nick Fury.

    As for Loki being an anti-hero, all I can do is quote Steve from The Avengers. “Son, just don’t.”

    1. I’m actually working on a theory about the delineation Marvel is making between “villains” and “supervillains” in their movies. I’m not all the way there with it yet, but essentially I think they create single-serving “villains”, like Vanko and basically everyone Iron Man ever faced, and characters whose antagonism introduces greater, long-term conflict, like Loki, Pierce and Thanos. It’s basically “masterminds” versus, as you put it, “tools”. In context of Cap 2, I would say the Winter Soldier is a villain. He doesn’t have any agency, true, but stopping him is a chief objective of the plot because he is doing a lot of really bad stuff. But in a larger since he doesn’t qualify as a supervillain because he isn’t masterminding anything and ultimately, he’s redeemable. He’s a villain in this piece, but not in the larger arc of the MCU.

      I’m still working on it.

      1. Aleisha

        I agree with most everything stated here except The Winter Soldier being called a villain. And Sebastian Stan will fight you on calling Bucky a villain. Alexander Pierce is the villain. I understand what you mean when you say that The Winter Soldier is a villain because the chief objective is stopping him. But you are getting your terms wrong. The Winter Soldier is not a villain he is an antagonist. In the dictionary the definition of villain is: “A cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime.” The definition for antagonist is: “the adversary of the hero or protagonist of a drama or other literary work.” So Bucky/The WInter Soldier is not a villain. He’s an antagonist.

      2. I accept your reasoning–the Winter Soldier is an antagonist. I think “villain” works, too, though, at least for this installment. Superhero stories are inherently binary–good vs. bad, hero vs. villain. Cap 2 effectively pairs each good guy with an equal but opposite bad guy: Nick Fury vs. Alexander Pierce, Cap vs. Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson vs. Brock Rumlow. Only Natasha doesn’t have a direct villainous counterpart (because she’s fighting all of Hydra, down to an ideological level). Pierce is definitely the big bad, but in this movie at least, the Winter Soldier fits the bill of a comic book villain. Bucky Barnes is NOT a villain, I agree. But then, Bucky Barnes isn’t really the Winter Soldier.

        ETA: I think people really object to calling the Winter Soldier a villain because they don’t want Bucky to be a bad guy, but Bucky is basically offline here. The Winter Soldier IS a bad guy. Doesn’t mean he can’t become something else later.

  6. fakescorpion

    You lost me when you said Bucky is a villain and Loki is an anti-hero. Seriously?!?! Bucky is an anti-villain at worse and Loki is an anti-villain at best.

  7. Yvonne

    Hi Sarah, been following your Marvel posts on Laineygossip, and been trying to find a way to ask you the OTHER guy you really want to see as Dr. Strange. May I ask who would that be? Many thanks!

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