Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens with two characters who almost literally run into each other. They exchange some light-hearted bickering, quickly discover the improbable similarities in their backgrounds (not quite as “same” as Gob and Tony Wonder in the Netflix season of Arrested Development, but the same general idea), and then later one inserts themselves into the other’s life despite barely knowing each other. For all intents and purposes, it’s a meet cute.
Awww, so that’s how Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) begins his relationship with Agent 13, his modern day love interest from the comics? Actually, no. That’s how he meets Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), better known as the Falcon.
They meet like a couple in a romantic comedy might. When you add in Roger’s relationship with the titular Winter Soldier it becomes crystal clear by the end that though the First Avenger featured at its emotional center a traditional, doomed romance between Rogers and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) Winter Soldier is all about the bromance. It was absolutely the right choice, but they could have so easily gone a more conventional route.
[If you haven’t caught on yet, this is going to be a spoiler-filled discussion of Winter Soldier. Act accordingly]
First Avenger‘s “I’d hate to step on your…” are particularly devastating last words for Rogers to have shared with Peggy Carter:
So, during Winter Soldier‘s casting process the anticipation was Atwell would definitely cameo as Peggy, either in flashback or in old age make-up. However, when it leaked that Agent 13 would be a character in the film speculation ran wild Atwell was actually not returning as Peggy but instead taking on the new role of Agent 13, who comic book fans know is Sharon Carter, Peggy’s (grand)-niece. That proved to be untrue, but there was a who’s who of young actresses competing for the part, with Emily Vancamp ultimately beating out the likes of Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) and Alison Brie, who was thought to have the inside track due to her work with Winter Soldier‘s directors Joe and Anthony Russo on Community. Of course, one glance at Sharon Carter in the comics reveals Vancamp’s physical resemblance:
This being Marvel, any information about Agent 13 was completely left to speculation, with some assuming she’d be Rogers’ next great love interest or perhaps a secret villain, regardless of whether or not she turned out to be Sharon Carter. It turns out she’s barely part of the movie at all, loyal to Nick Fury, protective of Captain America, only even granted the name Sharon (no confirmation of a relation to Peggy), and endorsed by Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) as Rogers’ next girlfriend.
The runner throughout Winter Soldier features Romanoff playing matchmaker for Rogers by suggesting potential girlfriends to help him integrate with the modern day by finally moving on from Peggy, who’s a tough old bird, still clinging to life in the above 90 bracket. To some degree, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are following Joss Whedon’s lead, picking up on the beats established in this deleted scene from The Avengers in which Cap is so stuck in the past he wouldn’t even think to ask out a cute, clearly interested waitress (one, incidentally, he later saves during the Battle of New York):
So, Romanoff is being a friend looking to give him the necessary push in Winter Soldier. However, a predictable trajectory for this story would see Romanoff’s efforts to pair Rogers off and his continual resistance serving as precursor to their finally accepting their mutual attraction to one another, realizing the girl Steve Rogers wants to ask out is Natasha Romanoff (and she wants to say yes). Sure, Avengers heavily implied Romanoff had some kind of romance with Hawkeye, but Winter Soldier has Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson bantering together effortlessly like an opposites attract couple (she a “from the bad side of the streets” type, he a “clean cut captain of the football team” type). Don’t big movies such as Winter Soldier need some kind of romance to appeal to the female audience?
Instead, the directors and writers never cross that line. Rogers is still hung up on Peggy, and Romanoff’ recognizes that (would she just be his rebound girl?). However, they both seem to also recognize that anything beyond friendship between the two of them wouldn’t work. The key scene encapsulating this comes after the two have escaped from the Apple store, Romanoff kissing Rogers as cover. We get a good laugh from Romanoff teasing Rogers for being a bad (or at least very out-of-practice) kisser, but whereas this could be used to amp up the sexual tension it instead highlights why they can’t work. He asks her who she thinks of herself as being, what with their universe so in flux due to Hydra, and she doesn’t hesitate to respond, “Who do you want me to be?” As a world-class spy and assassin, that is how Romanoff has to live her life meaning not even she may know who the real Romanoff is anymore. This is incompatible with Captain America’s 1940s morality and sensibilities, just as he at one point jokes that a girl with a tattoos and piercings suggested as a potential girlfriend is something he’s not quite ready for.
Plus, beyond the “man out of time” beats the Avengers threw Rogers way Winter Soldier is really the first time to stretch the character out and explore the ramifications of being a man of the ’40s thrown into the 21st century. An obvious consequence would be his mourning of his lost friends and loved ones, whom he can only really see again by visiting a Captain America museum. A recorded message of 1950s Peggy at the museum likely both comforts Rogers, seeing her as he knew her, but also crushes him under the emotional weight of lost opportunity. Additionally, in one of Winter Soldier‘s many efforts to connect its comic book tale to real world happenings Captain America is equated to the soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and struggling to re-integrate into society, relying upon the solidarity of their fellow walking wounded for emotional support. This is where the film draws its line between Rogers and Sam Wilson’s Falcon, both having lost partners with the former now emotionally rutter-less and the latter having found a place in the world helping others dealing with the losses of war.
Captain America is, after all, a soldier. While there will be time for romance in his future, he must first mourn the lost romance in his past but also the immense loss of being torn away from his fellow soldiers, Bucky and the Howling Commandos. What he needs most in that situation are friends, and that’s exactly what Natasha Romanoff and Sam Wilson provide him.
The one constant friend throughout Rogers’ entire life, who was with him even before Captain America, was Bucky Barnes, given a necessary and lovely flashback in Winter Soldier. We see that a hero need not be a souped up soldier speaking truth to Hydrated power, but instead simply a friend comforting another friend who has just lost their mom. In that moment, Bucky promises to be there “’til the end of the line” for Rogers. This sets up the most emotionally affecting moment of the entire film when Cap refuses to fight back at the end but instead repeats Bucky’s promise to be with him “’til the end of the line.” In essence, our big budget comic book movie ends with the hero refusing to ever give up on saving his best friend because that’s not what heroes do. Not the good ones at least.
So, even though you have Scarlett Johansson around looking as sexy as ever and displaying an entertaining rapport with Chris Evans, and Emily Vancamp around looking every bit like her comic book counterpart, the Winter Soldier‘s filmmakers never lost sight of the fact that Rogers wouldn’t so easily move on from the dynamic Peggy Carter (at least not in the 3 days which encompass the plot of Winter Soldier), and that his most immediate and effortless bond will always be with fellow soldiers. There will be time for romance in Captain America 3, likely with Vancamp’s Agent 13, but Winter Soldier was a time for bromance.
Did you not even remember Bucky Barnes from First Avenger? Were you upset the only true kiss Black Widow and Captain America shared was a friendly good-bye peck on the cheek in the film’s closing minutes? Or are you just wondering when we’ll get the inevitable Brokeback Mountain parody trailers portraying Cap/Falcon and/or Cap/Winter Soldier as gay lovers? Let us know in the comments section.