Comic book movies have always borrowed bits and pieces of plot from the comics, as needed. We’ve seen echoes of “Knightfall” in The Dark Knight Rises and many cited The Ultimates comics as the springboard for The Avengers (though I personally think its influence is thin). It’s still rare that a comic book film actually be based directly on a single arc from the monthly books, which is why fandom got a jolt when Marvel announced that the sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger would officially be titled Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It promised a popular arc brought to the big screen.
"Winter Soldier," from writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting, chronicles the return of Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s former sidekick, assumed dead, but confirmed alive against all odds as a brainwashed covert operative (named Winter Soldier). There are a lot of pieces of the story that will fit right into Marvel’s cinematic world, but fans should temper their expectations a bit -- there’s a lot that will still have to be liberally adapted to make Winter Soldier’s story work as a film.
Spoilers for the comic follow...
In the Winter Soldier arc, Captain America is lured to Philadelphia by the kidnapping of S.H.IE.L.D. agent Sharon Carter, only to watch the city get bombed while he stands by, helpless. The bombing is orchestrated by Aleksander Lukin, a corporate bigwig, and carried about by the unknown assassin Winter Soldier. Lukin is also the proud owner of a Cosmic Cube that seemingly happens to be the same cube that houses the Red Skull. So, Red Skull pulls the strings on Lukin, while Lukin pulls the strings on the Winter Soldier.
Nick Fury has been following the legendary Winter Soldier for a while and, with surveillance from the Philadelphia bombing, finally has enough evidence to present the case to Captain America that Winter Soldier is none other than Cap’s former (deceased!) partner, Bucky Barnes. Cap, Fury and Agent Carter confront Lukin, but the U.S. government won’t allow S.H.I.E.L.D. to take Lukin in due to a lack of solid evidence.
Lukin, who’s been using the Cube up to this point to psychologically torment Captain America, delivers a dossier on the Winter Soldier to taunt Cap, confirming Cap’s worst fears. Bucky Barnes, the man Cap once knew, was brought back to life by Soviet scientists who were designing a sleeper agent that could destroy the U.S. from within. It’s also becoming apparent that Lukin can’t handle the power of the Cube, and finds himself behaving more and more erratically under Red Skull’s control.
Agent Carter tries to explain to Cap that Bucky is a lost cause -- a remorseless shell of the man he once knew, but Cap believes in his inherent good and takes personal responsibility in bringing Bucky back from the depths of his reprogrammed mind. Knowing that Cap will need help, Fury calls in Falcon, Cap’s best friend and long-time partner. They even get a brief assist from Iron Man in the storyline, who helps Cap come up with a high-tech way to track the Cube.
Meanwhile, Lukin has instructed Winter Soldier to bury the Cube. Cap and Falcon track the Cube to a bunker, running afoul of Winter Soldier in the process. After a fierce battle with Winter Soldier, Cap gets his hands on the Cube and uses it to force all of Winter Soldier’s memories back. Winter Soldier becomes aware of his past as Bucky and his time alongside Captain America, but those memories sit alongside the fresh memories of the crimes that he’s committed. Bucky grabs the Cube and wishes himself away, while his rescuers wonder what’s become of him. In a cliffhanger moment that ends the arc, we learn that Red Skull is still inside Lukin’s mind, despite the Cube being thousands of miles away.
What Will Change for the Film?
The Falcon poses a potential problem, as a good portion of the story draws on the long history and friendship between Steve Rogers (Cap) and Sam Wilson (Falcon). Anthony Mackie will be playing Falcon in the film, so we know he’s definitely in there, but how will he be used? It’s been noted that Falcon in the Ultimate Universe is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, so that’s likely how they’ll bring him in here, but how do you play on their friendship and trust when they’ll just be meeting each other in this film? Will they explain Falcon’s bird powers without a full origin story or will he be stripped of his powers to make the story more simple?
There’s a portion of "Winter Soldier" devoted to Jack Monroe aka Nomad, another ally from Cap’s past. In the arc, Lukin uses Winter Soldier to pin all of their crimes on Nomad, then kills Nomad. This comes up when Cap, Carter and Fury try to take Lukin into custody. The U.S. government is convinced that Nomad was behind the Philadelphia bombing, as well as other crimes. I think the use of Nomad will be skipped alogether, much the way I skipped his involvement in the full synopsis above. Nomad was always a solid supporting character in Captain America’s comics, but his part in "Winter Soldier" is just not that important to the overall plot.
One thing I wish they’d change from the comic is how the mystery of Winter Soldier is revealed. Fury and Carter notice that the assassin is Bucky right away and both have to work to convince Captain America that it’s true. To me, it makes more sense for the reverse to happen -- that Cap recognizes Bucky immediately and has to present the hard evidence to S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a little hiccup in plotting that makes Captain America look dumb. Carter, who wasn’t even born when Bucky died, even has a line about recognizing his face from all of those newsreels she watched. Wouldn’t the person who counts themselves as Bucky’s closest friend spot him before someone who’s never actually seen him before?
"Winter Soldier" is also a tad anticlimactic without a big final villain battle, and instead just spotlights the battle for one man’s soul. As the Captain America comics progressed, “Winter Soldier” laid a foundation for a larger story, one in which Crossbones and Red Skull’s daughter Sin join forces with Lukin, who realizes that he is actually Red Skull after all. Winter Soldier comes back to fight alongside Cap and the superheroes Union Jack and Spitfire against some modern Nazis and their giant robot, before disappearing again. Arnim Zola (played in the first Captain America film by Toby Jones) and Red Skull team-up to assassinate Captain America (and succeed -- sort of), and in the wake of Cap’s death, Winter Solider steps up and adopts the mantle of his closest friend.
While none of those events are part of the specific "Winter Soldier" arc, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of those elements make it into the cinematic sequel. I'm not sure if we'll see Crossbones or Sin, but the reveal of Lukin to be Red Skull and the battle that finds Winter Soldier and Cap as partners again, against a giant Nazi robot, certainly seem tailor-made for the big screen. Those events would provide a much more exciting ending than one that finds Winter Soldier so overcome with regret that he teleports away, leaving our heroes standing around, soberly reflecting on the life of Bucky Barnes.
What Will Stay the Same?
Nick Fury is a big part of Winter Soldier, so I expect that to carry over into the film. Other big pieces of the cast include Agent Sharon Carter and Aleksander Lukin, so I’d expect those roles to be the next big announcements (unless Hugo Weaving is playing Lukin, sans Red Skull makeup). We know the basic plot of "Winter Soldier" is being retained, obviously, but will the Cosmic Cube (aka the Tesseract) still figure in as largely as it does, having already been a key plot point in two Marvel Studios’ films?
I think the elements where “Winter Soldier” finds most of its drama will remain intact. The central motivating force in the plot is the connection between the two former friends who find themselves enemies, and Cap’s optimistic belief that he can wholly restore Winter Soldier back into Bucky Barnes. I expect that to be the focus of the film, especially since the movie version of Cap would gladly welcome a familiar face into his world. In retrospect, I wish we’d spent more time with Bucky Barnes (played by Sebastian Stan) as a character in the first film, so that their more dramatic scenes together in the sequel would carry a stronger impact.
If you’d like to read "Winter Soldier" for yourself, the arc is available in this collection. If you’d like to go beyond the arc a little and see where the storyline really pays off, I’d suggest Brubaker’s first 25 issues, collected as one hardback omnibus. The Winter Soldier currently lives on in his own monthly comic from Marvel.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, stars Chris Evans and Sebastian Shaw. There are 613 days until its April 4, 2014 release.