Combat As Character

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is probably the best movie made under the umbrella of the MCU; only Black Panther can really compete for that title.

One of the reasons why is that the Russo Brothers know to their bones how to direct action to convey character. The Russos are not flashy stylist directors. Their work is nearly stark in its technical plain-ness; I admit to a fondness for ‘lack of affectation as style’ in movies so that suits me fine. It’s a lie though–they are simply so sleek, so smooth, so expert at their jobs (and backed by department after department of the same kind of experts) that their MCU work looks simple, despite being a complexity of moving parts to rival a hand made time piece.

This is never more clear than in the way they utilized the best stunt teams Hollywood had/has to create dynamic, exciting, howl-out-loud exhilarating fight scenes that also serve as character pieces. In the swirls of gunfire, of flying shields and leaping punches, they always manage to convey WHO each of the larger than life figures on screen is.

Before I go any further let me again shout out the MCU’s secret weapon, Sarah Halley Finn the Casting Director — no matter how good the script or director, unless you have cast of the quality she gave the MCU from moment one you’re gonna flame out.

I’ve already written on here about the Elevator Fight from Winter Soldier — a nearly perfect action set piece — but I wanted to write very broadly today about the other incredibly action sequence of the movie, around which the whole movie pivots:

The Bridge Fight.

Rather than the claustrophobic mass attack of the elevator fight, the Bridge Fight — the anchor of the second act — is a wild multi-combatant melee that switches focus from Captain America to Black Widow to Falcon to the anti-hero Winter Soldier on the fly.

In the midst of it all, we get beat after beat of the MCU’s only real formula: in every action sequence, make the most interesting choice, always.

And from those beats, without much dialogue, reliant on the language of the camera and the performances of the cast, the Russos carve out character from the combat, then use combat to emphasize that character, a feedback cycle of excellence.

We can begin at the moment that Sitwell dies. (1:16:40)

Arguing in the car, flying down the highway, our heros (Captain America — Steve Rogers, Black Widow–Natasha Romanoff and The Falcon– Sam Wilson) are interrupted by a thump on the roof, a shattered window, and Sitwell the traitor being bodily hauled out of the car and flung to his death.

The figure on the roof shoots down through the metal of the car and nearly kills all three of them before the fight even starts — only Steve yanking the emergency brake and ejecting the attacker saves them.

Flung from a moving car, the figure is now revealed to be the Winter Solider (all black leather and metal, in one of the coolest and most comic accurate costumes ever put to screen). He shoulder rolls on the pavement into the three point ‘super hero landing’, metal hand scraping a line of sparks as he gouges into the tarmac to slow himself down.

The camera pops from that shot to the three heros in the car, two of whom have literally fought alien armies, taken on a GOD. All three of them are open mouthed in awe.

Whether it quite registers consciously, at that moment the Winter Soldier looms as a credible threat to three super heros. It’s a subtle thing, in the midst of crashing cars and a ‘villian’ who somehow looks cold and icy even in the bright sunlight: this guy just SCARED them.

Over and over in this sequence the calm stillness of the Winter Soldier is contrasted with frenetic motion from those around him, even from the camera itself. He never seems to gather himself, or prepare for anything. He moves from action to action with clipped efficiency, decisive and ruthless. He’s a born predator. Even when his minions are firing wildly at the heros he walks in front of them, waiting for his prey to expose themselves before taking a shot. He does not waste ammo or motion…or emotion.

Until he does…

I’m not going to run through every beat of this fight. I want to swoop down into a few of the most important beats, the ones the lay out character in motion as clearly as if it was a page of spoken dialough.

I’d recommend re-watching it in conjunction with this essay, obviously.

Note, if you would, that Natasha has attacked and counter attacked the Soldier and his mercenaries at every turn, and they treat her as the priority target over Sam (whom they don’t know). It aligns with her character that she relies on speed, agility, precision and improvisation in the face of a better armed foe — but also that she will not back down or turn tail. The Black Widow is nothing if not foolishly brave.

The bad guys are shown as being an excellent working team, which is a nice detail. (The silent handoff of weapons to the Winter Soldier is beautiful.)

1:18:49 is possibly the best character piece of the whole fight, and one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen hands down. Black Widow has just SHOT THE WINTER SOLDIER IN THE EYE. His goggles are shattered and as he pulls them off Sebastian Stan manages to convey (his face covered in that black leather muzzle still) surprise, shock and then rage with just that one lingering look to camera.

In total contrast to every moment before this, the Winter Soldier leaps to his feet and spays gunfire wildly down on the person who SHOT him.

That’s pure character, the man under the automaton coming out for the first time. He’s now after her PERSONALLY. He even tells his minions that. He leaps off that bridge to enter close combat with this WOMAN who HIT him. (After the landing on the car hood here is the infamous ‘murder strut’ that Seb Stan perfected for Bucky, a torso-stilled, arm swinging stomp that conveys physical power and INTENSE menace).

Here’s the thing — he shouldn’t be going after Widow. He should be waiting for Steve to emerge and killing him!

So, from this one small thing (the shot to the goggles) we get a cascade of narrative and character. We see Natasha’s intelligence and skill. We see that there is still a human man under the mask, who isn’t above vengeance. We get the big bad out of the area and focussed on someone else so that Steve and Sam cab pick off the minions.

I would argue that even more subtly, Bucky takes off after Natasha because he doesn’t WANT to shoot Steve. He’s starting to remember who he is. He’s starting to be aware of the world again.

Steve is his mission.

But he’s starting to remember that Steve is also his ‘brother’.

This is such excellent story telling, to have so many layers and none of them contradicting each other.

Coming back to Steve himself, he’s also given several distinctive and coherent traits when he fights.

He protects others first. He choses shielding over attacking. He takes few chances, yet is always in motion and never hesitates.

But when he ends a fight it stays ENDED.

Quick side note: I LOVE how smart they have Natasha fight, how she notices and takes advantage of every small detail. And how she, in the midst of this chaos and obviously injured is taking the time and energy to clear civilians out of danger.

I will break down the big confrontation between Steve and Bucky in a different piece. Here I just want to run a pass over top the whole thing, to show the bigger picture. How even in this kinetic, frenetic, frenzied welter of magnificent acting and better stunt work (the ‘knife fight’ sequence is flawless from an action standpoint: choreography, editing, cinematography) it CLEARLY shows how different the two fighters are.

Steve, after getting to charge in like a knight in shining armor, is instantly rocked back on his heels. Everything he throws at the Winter Soldier countered. He’s circling like a confused alley cat confronted by a bear, only the Shield saving him from death multiple times.

The Soldier–once more the cool machine–effortlessly transitions from gun to gun to gun to knife as he needs, no hesitation. He even takes Steve’s own Shield away from him. The Winter Soldier is the definition of professional killer again; now that he cannot avoid his mission, he just wants to end it. He’s holding back because he knows he can kill this guy by accident.

Until he realises that maybe he can’t, because the Soldier is soaking up every thing he’s throwing at him and NOT STOPPING.

Here’s the thing: when Steve kicks up a gear, he goes from crabbed defensive posturing to dominating the fight. Yet he still choses defense over offense multiple times. The Winter Soldier wants Steve dead; even before the fateful unmasking, Steve just wants to stop the fight.

The sequence ends really abruptly: Bucky officially unmasked, Steve frozen in shock, Sam and Natasha having to seperate them, the bad guys overwhelming the injured, confused heros.

It ends on a sour note of unfinished business.

As it should.

Nothing CAN resolve from this fight, and so it dosen’t.

But right before he tries to shoot Steve for the last time a genuine expression flashes over Bucky’s face: confusion. That’s how you know it’s Bucky coming out behind the mask. The Soldier is never confused.

I could watch this sequence over and over and find something new to enjoy, to analyse, to obsess over.

But often, what sticks in my mind is that little moment of confusion.

“Am I Bucky?” the Soldier thinks, and the next time we see him he pays the price for that moment of humanity, as Pierce buries the man alive again under the monster.

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter