With the latest from Marvel Studios, and my most anticipated film of the year, Captain America: The Winter Solider almost in theaters, I thought I would look at the comic storyline that inspired the film.
While there are elements in this graphic novel that I’m sure will come into play during the movie, the two storylines seem to have quite a few differences based on what the trailers have shown. So read on to find out more about this status quo-shattering Marvel story that became one of Captain America’s best stories of all time without fear of movie spoilers!
A Game-Changing Tale
The Winter Soldier is seen as one of the most influential and outstanding Captain America stories ever made. Written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Steve Epting, the 14-issue story has not only influenced comics that came in its wake, but has become viewed as one of the character’s essential stories. Most obviously, it was chosen to be the basis for Captain America’s second film from Marvel Studios, despite there being decades of stories to choose from.
Perhaps most importantly, the arc is best known for altering a major piece of Captain America’s essential story. While Cap was introduced in the 1940s as part of supporting U.S. troops during World War II, he was brought into modern comics by Stan Lee in 1964. The character was ushered into the modern age when he was discovered frozen in the Atlantic Ocean by The Avengers. Readers discovered that Cap and his WWII teenage sidekick Bucky Barnes were caught in an explosion midair over the ocean when trying to disarm a bomb planted on a plane. The explosion threw Steve Rodgers into the ocean, where he froze, but it tragically killed Bucky. The death of his sidekick haunted him in the decades of stories afterward and was viewed as one of the few irreversible comic book deaths.
But that all changed in The Winter Soldier, where Bucky was shown to be alive, but turned into the titular character, a brainwashed assassin working for the Soviet Union and then the corrupt Russian general Alexander Lukin.
Of course, the major change to comic history was met with uproar from fans at the time. But the detractors were silenced by the quality of the story and the way that Bucky’s return was handled by Brubaker. This is not some cheap resurrection for the sake of sales and doing something different. It’s a masterfully told tale that excels on every level.
A New Approach to Superheroics
Of the many influences that Brubaker’s Winter Soldier brought to the stories of Captain America, the tone and overall focus of the series is one of the biggest. Gone are the high tales of superheroes fighting massive aliens and colorfully costumed baddies. Instead, this story (kicking off a new volume for the hero) and the dozens of issues that followed had a far more grounded approach. Brubaker’s storytelling style and Epting’s art made the idea of a man running around in a red, white, and blue outfit seem realistic.
All this realism applies to the focus of the story as well, which revolves around terrorism and political espionage. The Winter Soldier is a covert assassin, working to subvert and empower Lukin, who he answers to. There are high stakes at play, but the action and the motivations remain more in line with real world concerns, even though they are played through the lens of a superhero comic.
Brubaker also subverts expectations at several turns. The very first issue introduces the Red Skull, who is plotting his ultimate revenge against Captain America by using the Cosmic Cube. But at the very end of the issue, he’s assassinated. Killed by who we will eventually discover is The Winter Soldier. Red Skull is Captain America’s greatest enemy of all time, but here he is the instigator for the plot, rather than the major threat.
Additionally, those expecting The Winter Soldier to be shown as not actually Bucky are proved wrong. This is truly Bucky Barnes. Not an imposter, not a twin or clone, and not someone who has accidentally gained his memories. Those wishing for the decades-old status quo to remain intact had no choice but accept the return of Cap’s long-thought-dead partner.
Breaking Down Captain America
Captain America may be the strongest, fastest, and most athletic man on the planet thanks to the Super Soldier serum that courses through his veins, but he is not invincible like Superman. And here he’s at his most vulnerable. Thanks to The Red Skull’s use of the Cosmic Cube before his death, Steve’s memories have been tempered with, causing him to experience post-traumatic stress disorder-like flashbacks. It not only makes him vulnerable in battle, it has him questioning everything about himself.
Thanks to government intel, Steve learns that Bucky was recovered in the Atlantic Ocean shortly after his seeming death by a Russian general that held a grudge against both Captain America and the U.S. Bucky not only lost an arm in the explosion, but suffered brain damage during his time in the ice. He was given a robotic arm and brainwashed to become a ruthless assassin mindlessly obeying the commands of the USSR.
As The Winter Soldier, he was sent on covert wet ops, secretly killing high profile targets and leaving little trace. Between missions, Bucky was placed in cryostasis, keeping him frozen for months or years at a time between missions. Because of this, he has only aged a few years in the decades since WWII. It’s a tormented life that he now leads, not knowing who he once was and forced to do terrible things.
Confronted with the fact that not only could he not save Bucky, but that his old friend has suffered for decades, Steve finds himself pushed to the mental and emotional limit. Of course, this is Captain America, and seeing a chance to save and redeem his friend, he will stop at nothing to succeed.
The Winter Soldier Arrives
After battling terrorists and exploring his past, this 14-issue story arc culminates in Captain America and his long-time friend/partner The Falcon confronting Bucky. But this isn’t about defeating a villain, it’s about redeeming a friend. Cap now has his hands on the Cosmic Cube, which in the comics can alter reality according to the will of the person holding it, and after a brutal battle, uses it to restore Bucky’s memories.
The redemption of Bucky is not without its costs, however. The combination of remembering who he is and knowing every act of violence he committed as The Winter Soldier is too much for the brainwashed assassin. Bucky seemingly kills himself by crushing the Cosmic Cube, resulting in a massive explosion. Though thought dead, Bucky’s alive and trying to cope with his trauma, although he will remain haunted.
The Winter Solider story arc had major effects on the Captain America series as a whole. It wasn’t long after that Brubaker decided that Cap should be killed in the comic. In his absence, the recovering Bucky took on his identity per Steve’s wishes. It was both a bold decision and one that fell in line with the history of death, legacy, and rebirth in comics. While Steve eventually returned, Brubaker was in no hurry to return things to the status quo, leaving Bucky as Captain America and making Steve the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.
There was also no attempt made by other writers to retcon this story. Bucky being alive and well as The Winter Soldier is an established part of Marvel Comics canon and multiple writers have incorporated the character into their own stories. What once was seen as a major violation of comics’ lore is now a vital part of modern comics.
The story also managed to make great use out of a huge roster of fantastic supporting characters. Sharon Carter, The Falcon, Nick Fury, and Iron Man all play vital roles in aiding Cap on his quest. Forced to question everything he thought true and faced with an old friend turned deadly enemy, Captain America is in dire need of friends.
On the other side, the heroes face a bevy of villains, each with their own motivations. Beyond the titular character, Red Skull, Lukin, agents from AIM, Crossbones, and Sin provide more than enough of a challenge in the narrative.
Each of these characters adds something important to the overall story. It’s a testament to Brubaker’s writing that the narrative never feels overcrowded, despite having so many different character moving in and out. Since almost all of the people at play have a long and storied history in Captain America comics, there is a real sense of history and in-depth characterization, without ever devolving into heavy-handed exposition as to why they are important in Steve’s life. As Brubaker continued the story into subsequent arcs, each of these characters played an especially important role.
While the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier will surely take elements and inspiration from this story that started it all, it’s unknown how much will be the same. Lukin, Iron Man, AIM, Sin, and Red Skull (maybe) will not be involved, and Hydra seems to be the organization behind The Winter Soldier’s actions. But it seems as if the movie will keep the comic’s emphasis on Cap and The Winter Soldier and the inseparable bond they have, both as enemies and old friends.
Will the film surpass the original story? We’ll find out on April 4.