Sorry to be away so long. It’s been an astonishingly bad year for me personally, in the midst of a bad year for the planet in general. I’ll probably post about it soonish — it’s a story that needs to be told — but all the matters right now is I’m back, the blog is back and we’re going to ease in with another MCU centered post, a one-off on a single fight from Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I was asked on Twitter to do a breakdown of the fight between Batroc the Leaper and Captain Steve Rogers and it struck me as a lovely way to get my feet under me again as that fight — though short and simple — is an example of why the Winter Solider is such a densely layered character study, trapped inside a big splashy action movie. (It also gave us the Stealth Cap Suit in action, to the eternal delight of all who surveyed it.)
It’s also indicative of why I respect the Russo brothers and the Captain America stunt team as possibly the best in the business when together.
I am not the biggest fan of hyper stylized action sequences. (That being said I’ve seen many magnificent ones and they have a place and purpose in action movies, as do all things. Craft used properly becomes art.) My preferences are for “grounded” action — I don’t mean realistic, realistic fights are boring, sloppy and either over in seconds or interminable. I mean sequences that respect the physics and internal consistency of the universe but use those restrictions to showcase interesting fighting.
The Captain America Trilogy — and Winter Soldier, the jewel of the MCU’s crown — is loaded down with all the things I love about modern action sequences. (The Elevator Fight remains one of the most perfect self-contained moments ever set to film and yes, I will fight you over that.)
But this fight – the opening salvo of the movie post the stealth assault by Cap on the ship – is light and fast, slight perhaps, but marked point by point with sharp telling details.
I am using the version of Winter Soldier currently broadcast on Disney+ and all times are from their count.
In any case, let us beginning at the beginning here. Captain America (Steve Rogers) has chased a mercenary leader, Batroc, out of the wheelhouse of a captured SHIELD freighter. As the other members of his team rescue hostages and kill pirates Cap is frantically trying to find Batroc again.
Batroc is one of those vaguely silly comic book minor villains that keep showing up from time to time because they’re fun to write in the books. He’s unpowered, merely an exceptional athlete with especial skills at gymnastics and well … leaping. In the movie he’s played by former MMA champion Georges St-Pierre, a French Canadian, but in the comics he’s ex-French Foreign Legion turned mercenary and trained in savate. (Savate is a kicking focused martial art and has a rather unique skill set attached — savate kicks are done with shoes on, often steel-toed or weighted, and relay less on the generation of gross kinetic power than sharp, precise strikes to vulnerable spots. That being said, movie Batroc is not doing savate. He’s doing flip-fu.)
11:11 Steve is on his comms unit, trying to raise Black Widow when he’s attacked from the left by a flying side kick. Honestly, I don’t think all of the gymnastics and jumping here are St-Pierre, as athletic as he is–he was preparing for knee surgery at the time the movie was filmed.
This is an oddly static fight, when it comes to camera moves — much of it is shot in a single wide, framing the combat against white industrial walls and and stark white lights. I, personally, love that as these wide shots give action time to breathe and the physicality of the actors and their doubles can be seen with greater clarity. Smooth pans and long depth of field on the POV shots ad an almost “animated comic book panels’ sensation to the fight.
In any case, Batroc rebounds off Cap’s shield, but knocks Steve down and back in the process. That seems small but it’s the first clue as to Batroc’s weight as a fighter — knocking down Steve Rogers is no small thing. Cap shoulder rolls away but Batroc pursues him, kicking hard and fast, knocking him down again.
11:16 we get the kinda cheap joke of Batroc nearly crushing Steve’s junk with a falling heel smash, leaving both men on the ground. Chris Evans, as always, manages to convey a wealth of emotions even under the Cap cowl, looking incredulous and scared at the same moment.
They exchange more blows, with Batroc not even bothering to get up from the ground to start kicking, pivoting off one planted hand to rain strikes onto Captain America as he tries to get up.
This is a character moment, even if most people watching wouldn’t know it. What Batroc is doing is a staple of very street oriented arts, which are aware that a devastating amount of power can be generated from this stance. Arching up from hip and shoulder, Batroc tags Cap across the face with a kick, spinning him around and giving the mercenary time to get to his feet.
Now Batroc is pursing Cap, back and forth across the screen, flipping over him as he charges and throwing a non-stop series of punches and kicks.
Most are landing on the shield, though, as Cap expertly deploys his weapon/protection to defend and deflect. At one point he launches Batroc halfway across the space with a well placed hit.
Now Batroc, visibly angry, pursues Cap across the screen again in a flurry of blows, kicking and punching, driving the other man back and back in a defensive posture.
11:39 and Cap finally lays hands on Batroc, grabbing him around the neck and hammering in several knees, then throwing Batroc away from him, nearly over his shoulder.
Batroc responds with a tumbling pass to the far side of the space and faces off against Cap, crouching, angry and cold eyed.
11:49 Batroc: “I thought you were more than just a shield…” He speaks in French, which Steve clearly understands — and that’s another character moment as you realize he must have learned French in WWII, from the Resistance and the French speaking Howling Commandos.
I love that line because it’s at once transparent in its frustration and admission of defeat (I can’t beat that shield) and also a finely calculated taunt to Cap’s “manhood”. Which works.
Steve responds by stowing his shield in his back harness, and dropping his cowl and delivering one of his more iconic lines.
“On Va Voir”
(The score drops for a moment into the long, dramatic horns and strings of Cap’s personal theme as he pulls the cowl off and I gotta say — as a straight cis woman — tow hair helmet mussed, Stealth suited, calmly defiant Steve Rogers is basically sex on two feet.)
If were his opponent I would, as Batroc does, grin.
They come together in furious hand to hand, kicks and punches flying and the interesting thing is … Steve just lays Batroc out, really. There’s no moment of uncertainty or weakness. Having given in to the base instinct to trade with this guy, Steve doesn’t bother to hold back. On one particularly brutal exchange that ends with an elbow to the face it’s strongly implied Steve knocks out one of Batroc’s teeth. Steve is merciless, snapping out knee kicks, not even bothering to defend himself (he never needs to) and ending with a his signature 360 aerial spinning jump axe double leg kick — the epitome of ‘unnecessary flash’
There’s not a lot of meat on the bones of this fight — it ends in a double leg tackle that takes us out of the fight and into the plot portion of the movie via a doorway again — but it’s weirdly packed with character details.
Steve can speak French. Steve’s not immune to posturing, when called for … but also that his default mode, even in this desperate hostage situation, is to hold back. To defend. To be measured, and calm and clinical. To do what violence is needed, no more.
These kinds of through lines in the Captain America movies are just too consistent to be wholly chance. This is good writing, smart direction and an actor who embodies the character in a way that lets him expand to fill the screen as a real person, not simply a jumble of cliches.
This is what I like to see in a fight: not flashy gimmicks like jangling keys but something unreal, impossible, woven deftly into the fabric of the world. It certainly signaled to the audience that they were in good hands they could trust.
The reward for that trust paid off in one of the best movies made in the last twenty years, a rich and finely layered meditation on fear, freedom, family, friendship and fascism wearing the skin of a summer blockbuster.
You get to that kind of excellence by never giving up a chance to layer character and emotion into anything that will hold it — even a throw away fight scene that happens before the plot of the movie even kicks in.
Thanks for waiting for me. I’m glad to be back.