Part 2: Hydra, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Making Captain America: The Winter Soldier an ensemble cast movie was a smart decision. Not only does it make sense to position Steve as a team leader rather than a solo hero, but it avoids the somewhat tired formula of superhero + love interest + supervillain, plus supporting cast of sidekicks and parental figures. Steve may still take the central role, but characters like Nick Fury and Black Widow certainly don't fall into any of those categories. As Marvel Studios slowly begins to explore other genres (Thor as an operatic fantasy, Guardians of the Galaxy as a space epic...), they can branch out into building characters with more depth and ambiguity than the traditional superhero formula allows.
I already discussed this in the first part of my review, but basically it would've been a mistake to try and build a typical 21st century superhero story around Steve Rogers. After all, his "superpowers" pretty much boil down to enhanced strength and healing abilities. There are already so many action movies about supposedly "normal" humans performing superhuman stunts (think of John McClane's progression from middle-aged everyman to indestructable teflon droid in Live Free or Die Hard) that Cap's physical strength runs the risk of seeming unimpressive when measured alongside someone like Iron Man.
Instead, this movie is more about the metaphorical strength of teamwork and good leadership: a perfect development for a character who went from standing up to schoolyard bullies to selling American military propaganda to leading a close-knit group of commandos into Nazi-occupied Europe. Captain America's image as a hero is more about personality and symbolism than it is about Steve Rogers' ability to fall 50 feet without breaking his knees.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Black Widow's role in the Avengers franchise, either caused by people's existing prejudices (i.e. the assumption that any woman in a "catsuit" is just there for sex appeal), or because her characterization is relatively subtle when compared to larger-than-life heroes like Thor. The writers and actors at Marvel Studios put a lot of thought into every character, but obviously the majority of viewers are not nerds who analyse everything in excruciating detail. Characters like Tony Stark and Falcon are easy to understand on a superficial level, but Black Widow tends to fall by the wayside because her emotions and motivations are often so obscure.
Last week I wrote an article about the way professional critics responded to Black Widow in The Avengers and CATWS, highlighting how many of them simply couldn't look past Scarlett Johansson's image as a sex symbol. Regardless of how good you think the Avengers movies are in general, it's just plain inaccurate to suggest that Black Widow is written as a sexualised or two-dimensional character when compared to her male counterparts. It was depressing to see how many well-respected critics assumed that Black Widow's purpose is just to "kick ass" or provide eye candy, when her role is so explicitly cerebral (i.e. interrogating Loki; strategizing with Cap; working with SHIELD to evaluate who should join the Avengers team in the first place).
Sure, it was Scarlett Johansson in a tight bodysuit, but it was on precisely the same level as an earlier scene where we see Steve working out in a tight white t-shirt. CATWS had one vaguely male gaze-y shot of Black Widow in her catsuit (in the ship near the beginning), and then she spent most of the rest of the movie in hoodies, jeans and leather jackets. This isn't so much a case of ScarJo being sexualised by the movie, but of viewers sexualising her because, well... she's hot. You could say exactly the same thing of half the male actors, particularly since Cap, Bucky and Thor have all had at least one shirtless scene so far. The main difference is that the all-too-common assumption is that a hot female character is just there for decoration/sex appeal, whereas a hot male character is hot in addition to being a character in his own right.
CATWS gave us the most complex look we've seen of Black Widow so far. Her characterisation was just as subtle as we've come to expect, but this time round it fit much better with the film's overall tone as an espionage thriller. Plus, she was actually given second billing on the cast list, which is practically unheard-of for a female character who isn't a love interest. In the action/adventure genre, we typically see a central cast that either focuses on a male hero + female love interest, a team where men outnumber women by about five to one, or a female hero + large supporting cast of men to "balance it out." Black Widow is a rare example of a female action movie character being given the kind of platonic ally/partner role that would usually be taken by a dude.
One slightly bizarre comment I saw the other day is that all those "you should date this girl from the office" scenes between Natasha and Steve were somehow too ~stereotypically feminine~ for Natasha. Like... don't talk about people's love lives, because it's too girly? Or something? I don't subscribe to that interpretation, partly because I doubt the writers were trying to characterise Black Widow as a tween girl at a sleepover, and partly because there are so many more interesting ways to look at those conversations.
Natasha is incredibly perceptive, and no doubt understands that Steve's problems are less to do with his fish-out-of-water situation of being in the 21st century, and more to do with his crushing loneliness. Steve gives every impression of genuinely liking people, but he's lost everyone he ever knew and grew up with, and is surrounded by people that he doesn't really trust. He's so lonely that he's literally at the point of having intensely emotional conversations with a guy he met while jogging at the park, so Natasha is making the effort to help him improve his social life. All of those girlfriend recommendations also come with a subtextual hint that she doesn't want to date him, to discourage off the possibility of him getting too attached because she's his only friend. She's purposefully putting herself in the role of "bantery team member" rather than potential love interest, and as a result they seem to have a pretty close relationship already -- or as close as you can ever get to Black Widow, anyway.
One of the very few ~spoilers I heard before I saw this movie was that in terms of storytelling tropes, Sam Wilson's role was very similar to that of a love interest. And you know what? It totally was.
From Sam's introduction scene right at the beginning of the movie, he's instantly characterised as an appealing and fundamentally ~good character. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to describe that park scene as a "meet cute," with Steve being so drawn to Sam that he has to befriend him, and Sam being so open and receptive that he invites Steve to come visit him where he works. On their second meeting, Steve is impressed by Sam's work as a counsellor for military veterans, and Sam and Steve almost immediately open up to each other about intensely personal aspects of their life: the death of Sam's best friend, and Steve's uncertainty about his life in the 21st century. This exchange has such an impact on both of them that Steve feels able to show up on Sam's doorstep as a fugitive, and Sam is willing to risk his life to fight alongside him. The film ends with the implication that Sam is going to quit his job to go help Steve track down the Winter Soldier.
Bear in mind that I'm not saying "Falcon is literally Cap's love interest," but "Falcon's role is structured like that of a love interest in a typical superhero/action movie." Another thing that supports this interpretation is the fact that despite him being an Air Force veteran, he is by far the most emotionally balanced character in the entire movie. He's also explicitly characterized as being a nurturing kind of person, working as a group counsellor at the VA and encouraging Steve to discuss his feelings.
In most superhero movies, the (female) love interest is a relatively calming influence, without any serious emotional problems of her own. Hilariously, the only exception that comes to mind is the godawful Spider-Man 3, in which Peter Parker proves himself to be a mindblowingly terrible boyfriend on multiple fronts, including belittling Mary Jane's low self esteem and concerns about her acting career. If you look at love interests like Pepper Potts, Lois Lane, and Jane Foster from the Thor movies, they're all on a relatively even keel when compared to the rampant emotional problems and/or traumas faced by their superhero boyfriends.
Now, this is partly because Iron Man, Batman etc. are obviously The Heroes, and therefore their various daddy issues and moral dilemmas inevitably take up far more screentime than whatever is going on in their girlfriends' lives. But it's also because those female love interests tend to take a somewhat supportive role, with most of their personal conflicts having something to do with their superhero boyfriend, such as his secret identity or the dangers of his work as a superhero. Don't get me wrong here, I think Pepper Potts and Jane Foster and Lois Lane are all brilliant characters. But my point here is that Sam Wilson's role is directly comparable to the way they interact with Tony Stark, Thor and Superman.
I have no idea if all this was intentional or not, but the simplest explanation is that Falcon had to be introduced in such a way that he could plausibly fight alongside Cap and Natasha after just a handful of scenes. The easiest way to do this was for him to be the friendliest, most likeable dude ever, which was helped along by the fact that Anthony Mackie could have chemistry with a rock. Seriously, he was pure joy to watch. GIVE ANTHONY MACKIE A FALCON MOVIE AT ONCE. And don't infuse it with excess manpain, make sure it's properly balanced like the Thor movies, which show Thor as a friendly and optimistic person who just happens to end up in difficult and depressing situations. Sam Wilson is my only hope for any of the Avengers getting some decent therapy, and oh boy do they all need therapy.
Continued in Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes. (i.e. The character who probably needs the most therapy of all.)
Part 1: "Trust No One" -- How Captain America became the "gritty" superhero we never knew we wanted.
Part 2: Hydra, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.