Shenandoah Peterson, known as Salem to some, is 26 years young, living every day with a head full of horror movies and a precocious cat. They have been what can be considered writing for roughly 13 years, but found a love for comics and film long before then. You can find them on Letterboxd (necronomicons), if you’re interested.
“Like you said, he’s a ghost story.”
“Well, let’s find out what the ghost wants.”
Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m no stranger to horror. So it should come as no real surprise when I say, after countless viewings of this particular film, I’ve realized one very important theme to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s ninth installment.
Though a gripping action film — equal parts startling political thriller and captivating spy drama — Captain America: The Winter Soldier is chock full of one of my own favorite personal topics: ghosts.
Ghosts of the past, ghosts among us, ghosts of legend. These are some of the chilling components that help mold what would eventually become our much more mature, secondary phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We’ve seen gods and monsters. We’ve seen our heroes rise to meet their monikers. But in The Winter Soldier, we are shown characters both old and new, and in a world after a timely Avengers team-up, the question remains: What’s next? Quite simply, it’s these people, the overbearing weight of their pasts and how to move forward despite them.
Each member of the ensemble in The Winter Soldier carries a ghost. And while these specters threaten to waylay our heroes (and wayward assets; trust me, we’ll get to that later), they at times also act as their own unique, driving forces in those characters’ courses of action. In a way, the past has its own role in the cast; without it, our heroes might never have been able to push their way through to the future.
In The Winter Soldier, we are once again given the opportunity to examine Steve Rogers for what he is — a man simply making do with what time and circumstance have given him. Many years have passed since his time in World War II and the world went spinning madly on without him. Now, all he is left with are his memories and missed opportunities. In previous films, we’ve seen Steve’s heart and strength. For the first time since his initial appearance in Captain America: The First Avenger, we come to know the state of his mind. In this, we witness his internal and external struggle with the modern world. We see he is in mourning. The life he left behind waits in curated exhibits and soon-to-be-empty hospital beds. Steve himself is a ghost meant to play a role spread out over time and stories told.
As Steve strives to adjust to his new surroundings, his world is very quickly upended. What appears to be the sudden death of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury leads Rogers and Natasha Romanoff to the front door of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s insurrection and the insidious truths that lurk behind it. The horrific HYDRA, a faction drawn upon and inspired by Hitler’s way of thinking, has been infesting the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D. since the beginning. Once again, the past proves distant and incapable of amendment; the poltergeist they’re left with is poisonous and its reach is vast. Utilizing it as a propellant, the only way Steve knows how to go is onward.
Steve begins to establish new bonds, befriending Sam Wilson, a United States Air Force pararescue specialist. Like Steve, Sam is dealing with the death of a friend and comrade lost during a military mission. Steve finds something kindred in Sam, the two quickly forming a close bond. Sam joined the Department of Veterans Affairs, now working with other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. (Again, that theme — as simple as a few people sitting in a room, working together to discuss their own, personal ghosts.) Sam chooses to use his past to effectively make better his present, to improve upon and go another direction. In doing so, he becomes a key player in Steve’s life after only a short amount of time.
Of course, everyone knows Natasha, but no one really knows Natasha. That’s always been a key point with the MCU’s interpretation of Russia’s Black Widow. She rarely airs her grievances aloud and keeps her past to herself. And yet, with only a brief glimpse into her world — I’m sure you’ve seen the popular Avengers quote “I’ve got red in my ledger” once or twice — we already know her secrets have secrets, and what haunts her goes levels-deep.
Still, she works alongside Steve, bantering effortlessly and revealing a carefully constructed vulnerability that she pauses to gauge on more than one occasion. You’re left wondering what’s crafted and what’s reality, but little of that matters — as nefarious traitor Alexander Pierce attempts to interrupt Natasha’s role in the dismantling of S.H.I.E.L.D. / HYDRA, going so far as to say, “If you do this, none of your past is gonna remain hidden. Are you sure you’re ready for the world to see you as you really are?” Her retort: “Are you?” Instead of being waylaid by her past, Natasha sets her ghosts aside, shifts them so she may succeed at the task at hand.
Fury and Pierce exist as interesting parallels. Their history is briefly mentioned but still pivotal to this ghost story. Where a past indication of Fury’s actions is visible (the loss of one eye), Pierce’s is represented by his comparative position of power. Fury and Pierce work as two opposing forces, but their past keeps each in consistent rotation of the other. The actions of what came before push Pierce forward, allowing him to cater to his own hubris and HYDRA’s agenda. Fury, however, is driven by these same actions to undo HYDRA’s forthcoming plans. By film’s end, Fury is considered a ghost of his own and he has the headstone to prove it.
Finally, we have the living legend himself. James “Bucky” Barnes was Steve’s nearest and dearest friend, a casualty of their war on HYDRA and Red Skull’s nefarious search for ultimate power … except for the fact he’s alive and unwell, thoroughly conditioned to act as HYDRA’s very own secret weapon throughout the span of many years. This “Winter Soldier” shakes Steve to his core — his reemergence alone setting Steve’s course for several movies to come — and haunts him to the point of diverting his attention from the plan, only to course-correctly and hopefully save two birds from one stone.
And yet the Winter Soldier is haunted entirely by one word: Bucky. “Who the hell is Bucky?” has graced both pages and screens, but the ghost is disoriented and put out of his element. He begins to show signs of apprehension, his work visibly affected by this one word that turns his orders into mutable phrases over his ears. Slowly, but surely, the Winter Soldier begins to develop a sense of self-awareness, knowing now Steve holds a piece of him he cannot simply obtain. Going so far as to save Steve from a plunge to deep waters, the Winter Soldier disappears — an urban legend once more, but keeping the ghost of Bucky close in search of answers to that same question.
Over the course of The Winter Soldier, we watch as ghosts become tools of storytelling. Some are tools of the past warped into weapons. Some become sinister catalysts for the downfalls of the haunted. Others are a simple compass meant to point in one direction — forward, leading to the film’s well-earned, final feeling of hopefulness. And yet The Winter Soldier is also a surprisingly effective illustration of how the past’s revelations can be dangerous. Something important can always be found there. Not all of it is good.
Further still, The Winter Soldier can all boil down to a brief scene between Steve and Peggy Carter as she rests in her hospital bed, her elder eyes gazing upon the still-youthful love of her life. The past is alive and well before her — a thriving entity to which she can never truly return. For her, that chapter has closed. That time is over. Pulling his hand to hers, Peggy tells Steve: “The world has changed and none of us can go back. All we can do is our best, and sometimes the best that we can do is start over.”
It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching moment that sets the tone for the remainder of the film. And as The Winter Soldier draws to a finish — and the foundation of S.H.I.E.L.D. crumbles — the curtain closes on the past. Our heroes are inspired to begin again, to enter a new age with their pasts behind them and the answers ahead of them.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week as Midwest Film Journal’s own Mitch Ringenberg joins us to discuss Guardians of the Galaxy.
PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”
Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey
The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers
Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer
Thor (2011) — Aly Caviness
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — Sy Stiner
The Avengers (2012) – Craig McQuinn
Iron Man 3 (2013) – Rachael Derrick
Thor: The Dark World (2013) – Will Norris