By virtue of being superheroes, it would be easy to assume that all popular DC and Marvel superhero films would chart neatly onto the Hero’s Journey. Indeed, popular movies such as the Christian Bale Batman trilogy and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy do map smoothly onto these paths. As film-viewing audiences become increasingly interested in more complex story lines there may be more opportunities for superhero(in)es and Heroine’s Journeys. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the sequel to Captain America: the First Avenger) Marvel has created in Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) a hero whose selfless and emotionally-driven arc more accurately resembles Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey than it does Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with the very purposeful meeting between Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Sam is a former air force para-rescue member who now works with Veterans Affairs helping former soldiers with PTSD. Steve is a perfect case study for this kind of psychoanalysis. Having been a soldier in World War II who witnessed his lifelong best friend plummet to his presumed death, and having been reanimated seventy years after his own presumed death, Steve has many issues to grapple with. In a three minute scene from the previous film involving Steve, The Avengers, he is pictured struggling to come to terms with the world around him. He struggles to understand the end of World War II, the fact that all of his dearest friends are dead, and the preponderance of bizarre technology filling the world around him.
Considering this backstory, it is significant that the first friend Steve makes in this film is Sam and that Sam sees in Steve a familiar vulnerability. After meeting during an early morning run, Sam simply asks, “It’s your bed, right? […] Your bed. It’s too soft,” and in doing so, Sam reveals his own sleep difficulties. Steve acknowledges that he too struggles with sleep and states that his bed now feels like “lying on a marshmallow [and that he] feel[s] like [he’s] gonna sink right to the floor.”
Steve also avoids developing romantic relationships and frequently visits the Smithsonian exhibit on Captain America in order to reinforce his self-inflicted feelings of guilt about the loss of his past friends. He even visits his lost love, Peggy Carter, who is now elderly, suffering from dementia, and forgets his visits the moment he is out of her line of sight. The Mayo Clinic lists sleep issues, emotional numbness, “reliving the traumatic event,” “overwhelming guilt or shame,” and “hopelessness about the future” as markers of PTSD. The film therefore invites the audience to infer that Steve is going through this trauma. As we have observed on our Best Picture Oscar Winners page, Heroine’s Journeys male protagonists often have some kind of marginalizing characteristic. For Steve, it is PTSD.
Following this introduction of Steve’s emotional state, the film refocuses on the familiar patterns of typical superhero films. For Steve, the Illusion of the Perfect World is his naive belief in his status as Captain America working for S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), a governmental agency staffed with superheroes that help combat all forms of terrorism. Steve is sent on a mission he believes is to save hostages on a ship, but discovers that his current partner, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), has instead been given a different mission: “saving S.H.I.E.L.D. intel” from the ship’s computers. This initial Betrayal or Disillusionment from both his partner and his superior, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), quickly sets the tone of mistrust that will continue to build in a series of successive Betrayals. After confronting Nick Fury with his valid concerns about the lack of transparency between them, Steve is made privy to information regarding the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. that are far above his clearance.
For a brief moment, Steve is an insider in the world of S.H.I.E.L.D., but just as soon as this new coping strategy is created, Fury is the subject of an assassination attempt from within S.H.I.E.L.D. When Fury shows up injured and bleeding at Steve’s apartment, he shows him a series of messages, including the simple but powerful “SHIELD COMPROMISED.” This new Betrayal causes Steve to realize that the Perfect World he had lived in was, in fact, an Illusion. Fury gives Steve the flash drive with the intel that Natasha had saved from the ship, and moments later, Fury is shot fatally through the wall of Steve’s apartment. As he lays dying, he urges Steve, “Don’t trust anyone.” Fury’s assassin is a figure known only as The Winter Soldier, a terrorist who has wreaked havoc and committed mass murders for nearly seventy years. Rather than give in to the temptation toward hopelessness, Steve attempts to do justice by avenging Fury’s death. When he is summoned by the new leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), and questioned about Fury’s death, he claims to know nothing. The next Betrayal takes place immediately after this, as he is branded a fugitive by Pierce and finds himself the subject of an assassination attempt in an elevator in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.
After this third Betrayal, Steve undergoes The Awakening and Preparing for the Journey. He becomes even more determined to honor Fury’s memory and expose S.H.I.E.L.D.’s inner corruption, and due to this new determination, he goes against his previous state of emotional numbness and forms a hesitant allegiance with Natasha once again, as they both have a stake in having the truth brought to light. During The Descent or Passing the Gates of Judgment, the usually honest and straightforward Steve is forced to follow the guidance and tactics of the Russian-trained spy Natasha, which results in his growing sense of discomfort with the world around him. As he is hunted by men whom he had previously considered allies and friends, he becomes a more covert operative than he has been accustomed to.
In The Eye of the Storm, Steve discovers a hidden bunker belonging to S.H.I.E.L.D. that is being used to preserve the digitized consciousness of Arnim Zola, a founding member of the Nazi subsidiary Hydra. In an interrogation with the digitized consciousness, Steve learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by the corrupt and morally devoid members of Hydra, but before Steve and Natasha can receive all the answers they are looking for, they are thrust into the Death/All Is Lost phase as they find themselves the subject of an assassination attempt once again organized by Pierce. Following this near death experience, Steve immediately seeks out Support in the form of Sam Wilson, who proves to be a more capable ally than either Steve or Natasha could have expected. Sam possesses a specific skill set with an EXO-7 Falcon set of wings from his days in the military and, therefore, becomes the perfect third member of their quickly forming heroic team.
As the trio begin working together to isolate the members of S.H.I.E.L.D. who have been corrupted by Hydra, Steve’s journey cycles back and presents another Eye of the Storm. They are successful in apprehending Agent Jasper Sitwell and begin to interrogate him for the information they desire regarding Hydra’s plans. Before they can get all of this information, however, another Death/All Is Lost moment occurs. The group is attacked by The Winter Soldier, the same assassin who killed Fury near the film’s beginning. But as Steve engages in a hand to hand combat with the assassin, he learns the most shocking truth of all: the Winter Soldier is his own childhood best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), whom Steve had believed to be dead but who was, in fact, frozen in time just as Steve had been.
Following this revelation, Steve appears to have lost all hope until he, Sam, and Natasha are saved by the Support of one of the few uncorrupted S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). The group then gains more psychological Support when they learn Fury survived his assassination attempt. With his team growing larger and stronger, and with the revelation that his lifelong best friend has been turned into a brainwashed killing machine, Steve enters a stage of Rebirth/Moment of Truth. While preparing to launch an attack on S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, Steve breaks into the Smithsonian Captain America exhibit to steal his old Captain America uniform in the hope that Bucky, as the Winter Soldier, will be stirred enough by the familiar memory to recognize Steve for who he really is.
As Steve and the Winter Soldier engage in a presumable fight to the death, Steve desperately tries to trigger Bucky’s memories. “Bucky, you’ve known me your whole life….Your name is James Buchanan Barnes….I’m not gonna fight you. You’re my friend,” he implores, but Bucky remains firmly fixed in the mode of the Winter Soldier, even with Steve’s familiar uniform and candid speech. “You’re my mission,” the Winter Soldier replies coldly before attacking Steve again, but Steve won’t give up. “Then finish it,” he says shakily, before adding, “’cause I’m with you ’til the end of the line.” This phrase, a direct callback to what Bucky told Steve when Steve’s mother passed away (a flashback scene inserted within the film’s main narrative about half an hour prior), seems to finally bring Bucky back. He gazes at Steve in wide-eyed horror and recognition, unable to move, before suddenly, Steve is ripped from his hands as the aircraft they are fighting on begins to give way. Steve falls to the Potomac below, but Bucky saves him from certain death by dragging him to shore.
At the film’s end, S.H.I.E.L.D. is in shambles, Fury leaves in hopes of finding and destroying whatever remains of Hydra, and Steve and Sam go off in search of Bucky to see if they can help him. Very few things are clearly resolved, but there is no doubt that Steve is undertaking a Return to a World Seen through New Eyes. His emotional journey of saving and reconnecting with his best friend is just beginning, as is his friendship with Sam, and a subtly hinted-at romance with former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp). Steve’s world at the end of the film may appear similar to the world at the film’s beginning insofar as he is still undertaking dangerous adventures as Captain America, but he is now wrestling with the disillusionment that S.H.I.E.L.D. is not as idealistically motivated as he had believed. He still seeks to do good in the world, but it is his own personal, emotional drive that compels him to do so, not any kind of blind faith in the government or America as a whole.