So I started this right after Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out earlier this month then got busy with a real-world thing and didn’t finish it. But now it is finished and even though the movie is three weeks old, fuck it, I still want to talk about this.
After I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I started having the sneaking suspicion that I needed to re-watch Man of Steel. I hadn’t seen Man of Steel since it was in theaters last summer, but when I saw it I liked it way more than expected. I had some issues with it, but I was just so relieved that it wasn’t a disaster and that they managed to put together a Superman movie that worked more than it didn’t. It has some problems—it’s definitely too long, there are some gaping logic flaws, particularly Lois Lane lacking proper motivation at times, and that ending is too. damn. much—but overall, I still liked it.
I don’t mind a morally ambiguous Superman. I don’t mind a Superman who maybe doesn’t like the human race all that much. I don’t mind a Superman who’s willing to break the villain’s neck if that’s what it takes to stop him. But I do mind that Superman never seemed to realize that lives were being lost—by the thousands—as he face-punched his way through downtown Metropolis. Superman can be boring and square and pre-Man of Steel I worried about making him work for modern audiences—Superman Returns couldn’t manage it—so I didn’t mind that the way Zack Snyder & Co. made Superman interesting was to make him unsure, unresolved and even hesitant. I’m fine with a wishy-washy Superman (after all, his dad once told him maybe he should’ve let a bus full of children drown, so some inner conflict is expected). I’m less fine with a Superman who is so massively negligent.
Which is why, even as I wanted to re-watch Man of Steel, I kept telling myself not to. I’ve re-watched The Avengers since I saw Man of Steel, and one thing that stood out sharply are the scenes showing the Avengers trying to alleviate civilian casualties. Of course people were dying, but there is at least an attempt to corral the damage and limit civilian exposure. Captain America creates a perimeter with the police, and later the camera lingers on first responders evacuating people to safety. It crossed my mind then that no analogous scene exists in Man of Steel. Sure, Perry White saves Jenny Olson from some rubble in one of the most over-killy invocations of 9/11 in recent memory, but that’s as close as it gets. At no point does anyone take a moment to try and mitigate the carnage. It bothers me that Superman punches Zod through buildings when he could have just as easily zipped to a corn field and thrown down in relative seclusion.
But, even with my better sense begging me not to, after seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I did re-watch Man of Steel. And man, do I regret it. Because I LIKED Man of Steel, I would defend it when people shit on it, and I still think components of it do work. But if The Avengers made me side-eye it, then The Winter Soldier is pretty much a straight-up fatality. Marvel made the Superman movie Man of Steel wasn’t.
Superman and Cap are very similar characters—they’re both morally upright Ubermensch conceived to fight Nazis—and they’re prone to the same issues (boring, square, vanilla). I worried about Man of Steel for the same reasons I worried about Cap every time he geared up for a cinematic appearance—they’re old-fashioned characters that don’t easily fit into our preferred cynical version of superheroes. Man of Steel overcame that by making Superman himself cynical, but about half the audience rejected it. A lot of the comic book fanbase and lovers of the original Richard Donner movie were disappointed—here’s one of the best reviews from that lot—but a lot of casual fans were turned off, too. Something about Dour Superman didn’t quite work, and The Winter Soldier perfectly illustrates why.
I. Steve Rogers is depressed and suicidal
First, The Winter Soldier holds up to repeat viewings—you probably need a second viewing just to appreciate all the effort put into the Winter Soldier himself. So the re-watchability index is high. But what really struck me about The Winter Soldier is that in it Marvel takes their Boy Scoutiest hero and turns him into a deeply depressed, suicidal mope who never loses sight of his moral code. In order to make Superman work in their desired context—i.e., gritty, dark, Nolanesque—Man of Steel had to dispense with his morality. But The Winter Soldier never betrays Cap’s inherent goodness, they just show us a good man beat down so far he kind of really wants to die.
There’s a lot of evidence of Cap’s profound depression throughout the movie—he point-blank tells Sam Wilson he no longer knows how to be happy—but the key moment is when he lets his shield go during his climactic fight with the Winter Soldier. It’s the closest Steve Rogers is ever going to come to surrender—it’s essentially a suicide play. He knows the Winter Soldier can and will kill him and he gives up his best means of defense. And given how deeply lonely and cut off he is, a point made several times over, such as his incredibly depressing trip to his own Smithsonian exhibit and that heartbreaking scene with an aged Peggy Carter, it’s a perfectly understandable moment. By that point, we understand that not only would death be a relief to Cap but that death is also very hard for him to come by. It would take another supersoldier like the Winter Soldier to accomplish it.
But that moment isn’t just about Cap’s death wish. It’s also the singular instant in which his character is perfectly realized. Cap’s world has grown unfathomably grim. He’s already questioning SHIELD and its motives by the time he learns that it has been irreparably compromised by his vintage nemesis Hydra, and that his “death” in 1945 was, ultimately, completely pointless. He didn’t wipe out Hydra back then; far from it, the end of the war provides the plum opportunity for Hydra to sink its hooks into SHIELD. There’s simply no escaping that everything Cap fought for then and now has been corrupted. But amidst all that, Cap’s moral code remains intact because he can’t kill Bucky Barnes.
Captain America kills people. In fact, I’m pretty sure he decapitated a dude with his shield at the beginning of the movie. So it isn’t a matter of whether or not Cap can or should kill. He’s a soldier—sometimes he kills people. In that regard, Marvel has an easier time of it because their Boy Scout is slightly less Boy Scouty than DC’s, since Superman has a stated no-kill policy (even though he has killed people in the comics). But Cap has a line, and killing his best friend, even if that friend no longer remembers him, is out of the question. Maybe especially because Bucky doesn’t remember him—as the Winter Soldier he’s a weapon, not a person, which incites equal parts fear and pity. So Cap surrenders.
The Winter Soldier understands the difference between a morally compromised character and morally compromising a character. Cap’s whole world from Bucky to SHIELD to his past so-called heroic deeds have all been corrupted, but he himself remains true to the character we’ve come to know both through the comics and his previous appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They show us a good man who remains good until the end, no matter what happens to or around him. That’s where The Winter Soldier derives its conflict, from a character of black and white morality trying to live in our shades-of-grey reality. The theme of The Winter Soldier in short: Let’s crank the moral ambiguity to eleven and see how Cap handles it. They essentially create a situation in which Cap HAS to cling to his moral code because it’s quite literally all he has left in a world he doesn’t especially want to live in anymore.
II. Bucky Barnes is the real protagonist
A bit of an odd statement, since we’ve not really seen a whole lot of Bucky thus far in the MCU. He’s only been in the Captain America movies and he’s always been framed in context to Steve Rogers. In The First Avenger, he’s very much the sidekick—not quite a Robin, but not exactly an equal partner, either. In The Winter Soldier he’s basically the Terminator, a mindless assassin with like, ten lines in the entire movie. But one of those lines is the key to not only Bucky Barnes as a character but also what looks to be the groundwork for a much longer story that will play out over years, and it’s not the iconic Who the hell is Bucky? from the comics. Instead it’s this line: But I knew him.
It’s the line the Winter Soldier repeats upon being questioned as to why he failed to kill his target, Steve Rogers. By this point, we’ve already seen the Winter Soldier fuck shit up and we’re already scared of him, but in his interrogation/recovery scene, he’s shown for what he really is—an abused dog. Beaten and tortured, with no agency, no will, and a voice that cracks with disuse—the Winter Soldier is pathetic, almost childlike in the obedience he shows his abusers. Mega props to Sebastian Stan for tapping into so much vulnerability in so few words and with only a few minutes of screen time to work with, but he does it and makes it abundantly clear just how low Bucky Barnes has been brought.
But that one line cuts through the Winter Soldier and reveals Bucky Barnes underneath the decades of trauma and torture. “But I knew him.” Not “he knew me”, which is the obvious line because it’s Steve who recognizes Bucky, not the other way around. And yet, in that moment, Bucky resurfaces. Steve Rogers is ingrained so deeply in his psyche that not even years of abuse could fully dislodge him. Read that as a latent slash love affair if you want, but I see it as a confirmation of Steve’s innate goodness—Bucky did Steve’s dirty work their whole lives so he had to privilege Steve’s superior morality as justification for the bad things he did in Steve’s name. The First Avenger makes that point—Bucky beats people up for Steve, and later he kills people for Steve. You could make the argument that Captain America shares some responsibility for the Winter Soldier because he’s the one who first indoctrinated Bucky Barnes to the idea of doing someone else’s dirty work.
One of the issues of bringing Captain America to a modern film-going audience—the same issue that plagues Superman—is that Cap is, at heart, boring. There’s never any question that he will do the right thing, always, at any cost. The superheroes that have worked best on film are the ones capable of generating their own internal conflict, like Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark. Bruce Wayne is so complicated his antagonists don’t need any motivation at all (see also: The Joker). And Tony Stark’s entire through-story is about him fighting his own demons, so it doesn’t really matter who his antagonist is, because he’s always his own worst enemy (which is why that Mandarin twist in Iron Man 3 worked). But Cap is not at war with himself, so he needs an outside source of conflict. Enter the Winter Soldier.
Ostensibly, Captain America is our hero, but Bucky Barnes is HIS hero, so what does that make Bucky? It makes him the emotional heart of Cap’s story, the one person for whom Cap will—and has—risk anything, the one person he cannot live without. The First Avenger shows us Cap throwing away his cushy USO gig to rescue Bucky, and then, just days after he believes Bucky has died, he’s pulling his first suicide play, crashing in the Arctic. This isn’t meant to demean his relationship with Peggy Carter, which is meaningful, it’s just a bit of perspective. A life with Peggy doesn’t outweigh a life without Bucky.
The Winter Soldier reinforces that, showing us Cap mourning his best friend, unable to stay out of that museum exhibit because it’s where Bucky’s image is preserved—it’s no coincidence the footage shown of Bucky is that of him laughing and smiling with Steve. He lost Peggy, too, but he has proof that Peggy went on to have a full and rewarding life, and his stilted attempt at hitting on his pretty neighbor shows that Cap is at least willing to entertain the notion of falling in love again. But there’s no solace for Bucky’s loss. He’s just gone, with no legacy beyond the one he lived in Captain America’s shadow.
So we’ve spent two movies getting to know the two sides of Bucky Barnes—Steve Roger’s best friend and the Winter Soldier. Next time we see him, we’ll have to meet yet another “new” Bucky, the one made up of whatever is left after the Winter Soldier is through with him. Which is why it’s clear that Bucky is the real protagonist. He isn’t illuminating anything about Steve Rogers, but through Steve, his belief in and enduring love for Bucky, we come to care about Bucky, too. Cap’s character is a fixed point, that’s the driving message of The Winter Soldier.
But Bucky undergoes transformation in each of his two appearances; The First Avenger is worth re-watching just to observe how well Stan fleshes out Bucky with relatively little material to work with. He starts the movie as a grinning ladies’ man and ends it as a sniper who can barely smile, and by The Winter Soldier his ability to smile is long gone. That the filmmakers chose to end the movie on Bucky’s visage is all you need to know that it’s his story we’re really concerned with. Cap is Cap is Cap. But Bucky is fluid, an evolving character whose struggle is not with the world in which he lives but with the man that world has forced him to become. Bucky Barnes is the one undergoing the Hero’s Journey, not Captain America.
III. Superman is either a savior or he’s not
And then there’s Superman, a character faced with many of the same challenges as Captain America. Since The First Avenger was a mixed bag, and Man of Steel was a mixed bag, I thought that was about as good as it could get when it comes to the Boy Scouts of superheroes. They’re just a little too boring and wholesome to really fit with what we like in our superheroes today; namely cynicism and charisma. But then The Winter Soldier WORKED, and in doing so it gave us a Captain America who, though profoundly depressed and challenged by a world he kind of hates, remained true to his character. And suddenly Superman looked a little worse for wear.
The main issue with the new take on Superman is that Man of Steel spends two hours building up Superman as a Christ figure only to use its last half-hour showing us that he’s a wantonly destructive person who’s negligent toward human life. And that actually would have worked if they hadn’t spent the first two-thirds of the movie establishing him as a protector. But they did spend all that time telling us he’s supposed to be a savior of humanity only to then have him recklessly cause the deaths of thousands of people. It’s just not consistent. People would still bitch about it “not being Superman” if he was a hugely powerful superhero who doesn’t fully grasp the damage he’s doing, but at least it would have been consistent within the movie’s narrative.
Snyder & Co. confused compromising the world around Superman with compromising Superman himself. It’s not killing Zod that does it—that moment actually feels justified—it’s just the complete disregard for loss of human life occurring throughout the third act. Yes, it is realistic that if two hyper-powerful beings flying through the air engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight, they would topple buildings and people would die. But it isn’t realistic that Superman would so damningly forget himself and endanger more people than necessary by not simply luring Zod to a remote location for their showdown. Lois and the Army guys are working on shutting down the machine destroying the city center. There’s no reason for Superman to be there, except that the filmmakers really wanted to show city-wide destruction with no thought to what that means for the characters.
You can’t even blame that on a DC/Marvel divide because Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies were very concerned with the effect of superheroes on normal people. The Dark Knight trilogy, almost to its own detriment in the end, cared a great deal about how a superhero would impact the lives of the people who live in the city he occupies. But even though Nolan executive produced Man of Steel, no such care was shown in that movie. (I am pretty well convinced Nolan didn’t have a lot to do with Man of Steel, in the end.) Our new problematic Superman is simply the fault of filmmakers who fundamentally either misunderstood or just plain didn’t care about the character. I trend toward the latter—Man of Steel is enamored with its own violence and destructive displays, at the cost of pretty much everything else. Typical Zack Snyder, really.
It’s not all terrible, though. Many decisions made regarding Superman work. He’s confused, torn between the ideologies of his two fathers—hide from people who would fear him or stand before them as a shield and savior. He’s a little cynical and doesn’t like people much—his travels have exposed him to some pretty shitty people. That all plays, and for the better. But they betrayed the fundamental element of Superman’s character—that he saves people—by having him directly contribute to wanton loss of human life. He couldn’t save everyone, no, but the damage could have been drastically reduced by prioritizing that aspect of his character.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier took the shine off Man of Steel, but it’s not hopeless for Superman. They’ve still got Henry Cavill in the role, and he was born to play that part. And even though Man of Steel doesn’t really hold up and there were some fairly large missteps, there is also a lot of potential still to be mined, not least of which are the consequences of the destruction of Metropolis. It would salvage something from Man of Steel if it turns out that is the catalyst for Superman’s no-kill policy. And I’m still okay with a Superman who gets his hands dirty and doesn’t really like people, just so long as those things don’t override the established moral code of the character. If you tell me the guy is a Christ-like savior, then ultimately that is how he needs to behave. The Winter Soldier proves that a morally upright superhero can operate within a morally conflicted world, and that that can be a compelling story.
What isn’t compelling is a character so inconsistent that he’s never morally upright nor a cynical/reluctant hero. I think you can walk that line but you have to be so careful and deliberate in your choices, showing exactly what is motivating the change from morality to cynicism, or vice versa, so that the character’s fundamental raison d’etre remains truthful. Staying true to motivation was prioritized in The Winter Soldier and now we have not only a terrific on-screen Captain America but a PHENOMENAL Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier. But none of that care or deliberation was shown in Man of Steel and Superman suffered for it.
TL; DR – Don’t re-watch Man of Steel.