Part 2: HYDRA, Sitwell, and diversity in the Marvel universe.
Part 3: Black Widow and Falcon.
Part 4: The Tragedy of Bucky Barnes.
Part 5: Worldbuilding in the MCU.
The decision to set CATWS in Washington DC was certainly a departure from the visuals of the first Captain America movie. Compared to the sepia-toned beauty of The First Avenger, Steve's new life looks depressingly drab and grey. The car chases churn through DC traffic on concrete freeways, SHIELD headquarters looks like a cross between a multi-storey car park and an office block, and the Helicarriers are all cold, smooth glass and metal. The only hint of the warm colour scheme of Steve's youth is when he goes to visit Sam Wilson at the VA, a comforting moment among the corporate cleanliness of the rest of DC.
Each of the Avengers movies has its own distinct aesthetic, with Iron Man flitting between palaces of high-tech luxury, Thor living in a world of gold embossed armour and faux-historical alien weirdness, and Cap spending the entirety of his first movie surrounded by 1940s grime. CATWS was definitely the ugliest instalment in the franchise, which kind of worked in its favour because it highlighted Steve Rogers' isolation in 21st century DC.
Unfortunately, I don't think all of that ugliness was on purpose. One of my biggest problems with CATWS was the way they filmed the fight scenes, which I theorize was influenced by the fact that the directors have mostly worked on TV before now. The worst offender was the extended battle sequence that culminates in Steve unmasking the Winter Soldier. I know for a fact that Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan spent months working out and practicing their fight choreography for this movie, so why the hell were so many of the hand-to-hand combat scenes ruined by shaky camerawork and slowed-down frame rates?
Slowing down the frame rate is a technique you often see in fight scenes, and I think it's meant to make everything more chaotic and stressful to watch. In some instances this works out pretty well (i.e. violent battle scenes in films like Gladiator), and I suspect it's useful when an actor doesn't have much stunt training, which is why you tend to see it more in TV than in actual martial arts movies. However, I don't think it was an appropriate choice this time round.
Black Widow and the Winter Soldier's fighting styles are both meant to be very fluid and skilled, and part of that is lost when you edit everything into a rapid-fire slideshow of disjointed frames. This technique would've made sense if we were watching them fight from the perspective of a terrified civilian or something, but we're not. We're just watching a cast of characters who are physically adept and always keep a cool head in the heat of battle, and this kind of panicked camerawork doesn't work in that context. For me, it even detracted from the Winter Soldier's impact as a threatening presence onscreen. There was no reason for the filmmakers to shoot everything with a wobbly handheld camera behind someone's elbow, rather than pulling out a little and actually letting us see what's going on.
So, yeah: mixed feelings on the overall aesthetic, in part because I was dissatisfied by the way they chose to film the combat scenes. However, I did think the overwhelming greyness of DC worked in their favour. Aside from the first two scenes with Sam (running in the park and hanging out at the VA), our view of Steve's 21st century lifestyle was dominated by looming US government monuments and grey cinderblock. One of my favourite details was the fact that Alexander Pierce's brutally pared-down bunker of an office was decorated by a large picture of... the outside of his office. Seriously, it's literally just an aerial shot of the the Helicarrier bay, done in a tasteful grey to match the concrete walls of his office. TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE.
As for costume design, you will probably not be surprised to hear that I have A LOT of thoughts on this topic. First up: The Winter Soldier himself. He has one main outfit throughout the film, and the designer clearly put a lot of thought into it both from a practical standpoint, and as an opportunity for symbolism.
The Winter Soldier's costume consists of a leather jacket, reinforced combat trousers, and boots. From an in-universe perspective, the main thing we have to consider here is that this costume is obviously not Bucky's choice. It doesn't look like normal clothes because it's not for his personal comfort or convenience, it's designed for efficiency. Also, he probably spends a fair amount of time being dressed and undressed by other people, much like how his hair and nails are probably cut by some lab tech whenever he's defrosted from HYDRA's cryofreeze. Actually, his hair is the only thing that doesn't make sense in this context because long hair is not exactly practical in a combat situation, but I'll allow it because that's how he looks in the comics. Plus, the long hair makes him look less like 1940s Bucky and more like the Winter Soldier, hiding behind a curtain of sullen grunge misery.
From a design perspective, there are several things that I really enjoyed about the Winter Soldier's leather jacket. Looking back at Bucky's uniform in the first movie, it's clear that it was part of the inspiration for the Winter Soldier's costume. If you look at the button flaps along the front and the overall stockiness of the silhouette, you'll see a lot of similarities. Also, the straps across the Winter Soldier's chest make his jacket look kind of like a straitjacket. A horrible straitjacket that is probably his only item of clothing and is used to strap him down to various lab benches so evil scientists can wipe his brain and force him to murder more people. THIS IS THE MOST DEPRESSING SUPERHERO MOVIE OF ALL TIME. Ugh. Even the Winter Soldier's clothes are suffused with misery and horror, especially after you've seen him shirtless and strapped into that brainwashing machine, like a fragile sea creature whose protective exoskeleton has been forcibly removed.
I talked a bit about the mirroring between Steve and Bucky in one of the earlier installments of this review, and this is particularly apparent when looking at their respective costumes. In real life Chris Evans is only about an inch taller than Sebastian Stan, but in the first film they go out of their way to make Steve look far taller, to emphasise his change in stature. In the sequel, they concentrate more on making the Winter Soldier look as bulky as possible, helped along by Sebastian Stan's grim, purposeful body language.
I suspect that one of the reasons why Chris Evans has been cast in so many comicbook adaptations is his ridiculous physique, which is about as close to superheroic as you're likely to see in real life. Even without the punishing training regimen and padded clothing required for the Captain America role, he has that "martini glass" body shape of huge shoulders, a tiny waist, and long legs. His various costumes in the Avengers franchise tend to highlight that triangular shape, while Bucky always looks more like a rectangle.
Masks are a staple of superhero costumes, but hey, guess what? The Winter Soldier's is depressing as hell, just like every other aspect of his life.
While Steve's "mask" is more like a helmet than anything else (most obviously because he no longer has a secret identity to protect), the Winter Soldier's mask is basically a muzzle. Not only does it anonymize him with far more efficiency than the domino mask we often see him wearing in the comics, but it dehumanizes him as well, showing only a few slivers of skin to indicate that he's anything other than a relentless cyborg. With the goggles on he's almost completely faceless, and the muzzle serves to hide Sebastian Stan's expressive mouth. And while he does bark out a few orders during one of the fight scenes, that mask is not exactly conducive to friendly conversation -- possibly a subtle callback to the facial restraint we see Loki wearing at the end of Avengers. Not pleasant in the slightest.
Cap's costume has gone through several updates now. The one we see him wearing at the beginning of this movie is clearly SHIELD issue, and is about as "stealth" as you're going to get while still having a great big star emblazoned across your chest. The red part of the stars-and-stripes motif has vanished, and the star on Cap's chest has been modified to include what looks like the "wings" of SHIELD's stylised eagle logo.
This costume was based on Cap's uniform in the "Steve Rogers: Super Soldier" comics, and I think of it as the kind of costume Steve would be wearing in a Christopher Nolan-style gritty reboot. It's darker, it's "tactical," and it doesn't have the smooth, slightly cartoonish appearance of the costume we see him wearing in Avengers (which, as we already know, was personally designed by Cap fanboy Agent Phil Coulson). This costume choice is significant because we see him reject it towards the end of the film, symbolically breaking away from the morally ambiguous world of SHIELD and returning to his classically heroic roots.
Steve Rogers doesn't really have "dress sense," as such. If I ever get round to writing about the (brilliant) costumes in The First Avenger then I'll discuss that more in the context of his life in the 1940s, but in the present day, we mostly just see him wearing t-shirts and hoodies. Steve doesn't seem to care much about what he's wearing, as long as it's comfortable and clean.
His first outfit is a tight white t-shirt and workout pants, a variation on outfits we see him wearing in both of his other movies. The only difference is that this time the t-shirt isn't specified as being SHIELD-issue. He looks more 21st century than he did in Avengers (where we see him wearing pleat-fronted trousers like the old man that he is), but aside from that he isn't exactly a fashion icon. His most significant costume-related choice is his decision to don his antique costume from the Smithsonian, which is meaningful on several levels.
Wearing a brightly coloured jumpsuit with a great big target on your torso probably doesn't seem very practical from an urban camouflage point of view, but for Steve Rogers, it's perfect. Why is he wearing the costume? So people will know that he's Captain America. He's trusting that people will see him and rally around him, because that's the whole point of Captain America.
That Cap/Falcon conversation ("How do we know which ones are the bad guys?" "They'll be the ones shooting at us.") isn't just a snappy one-liner, it's a tactical decision. In a war where no one is wearing a uniform and anyone could be the enemy, Steve is consciously choosing to represent one side instead of sneaking into SHIELD headquarters in disguise. He'll be able to tell who the bad guys are because they're shooting at him... and loyal SHIELD agents will know that if you're shooting at the dude in the red, white and blue superhero costume , then you're the enemy.
There's also the possibility that the vintage Captain America costume helps Bucky regain his memory for long enough to stop murdering Steve in the face. Steve's 21st century hair, clothes and uniform would all render him well-nigh unrecogniseable to Bucky's distant memories of their life together, which are almost entirely subsumed by the Winter Soldier's conditioning. Cap's old wartime costume is the only thing that stands a chance of seeming familiar. Plus, it's kind of appropriate that we see Steve fall from the Helicarrier in the same costume he was wearing when Bucky fell from the train, and when he finally crashed the Red Skull's plane into the ice himself.
Continued in Part 7: Costuming in CATWS: Nick Fury, Black Widow and S.H.I.E.L.D.
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