In Poetics, Aristotle describes the forms of tragic poetry, and what makes for the most compelling characters and stories. Tragedy, he says, takes four forms – complex, suffering, character and spectacle. Combined, these create the best kind of story. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) can be considered a tragedy of all four kinds. As a narrative it also follows Aristotle’s specifications for proper organization and subject. Following the tragic character of Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, the film evokes the “pity and fear” that are the core of good tragedy.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the sequel to Captain American: The First Avenger, where we are introduced to Steve Rogers (Captain America), and his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, who perishes in World War II while fighting the Nazi-style group HYDRA. In The Winter Soldier, set 70 years later, Steve faces HYDRA again now with their assassin the Winter Soldier, who turns out to be Bucky Barnes himself, robbed of autonomy and memory of the person he used to be. The character of Barnes in The First Avenger – charming, loyal, friend – illuminates his tragic fall that manifests in The Winter Soldier.
Aristotle describes tragedy as “an imitation of an action of serious stature… accomplishing by means of pity and fear the cleansing of these states of feeling” (Aristotle 26). The goal of the genre, then, is the creation of these feelings in the viewer. The character of Barnes draws out these two feelings intensely. During the first half of the film, he is terrifying, appearing out of nowhere, throwing people under cars and killing characters that aren’t supposed to die. With the revelation that he was tortured and brainwashed into that monster, his unconscionable acts are revealed to be acts against his own humanity and will. Barnes becomes a tragic and pitiable (but still frightening) character.
In order to appreciate these emotions, a tragedy must be well constructed. According to Aristotle, “well-organized stories…need to have a magnitude, and this needs to be easily taken in view” so they can “be easily held in memory” (30). This is in opposition to epic poetry and its modern equivalent, serial television, both of which require significant time invest from the viewer. A limited but appropriately long magnitude prevents the “contemplation of it [running] together” and stops “the unity and wholeness” from being lost in the enormity of the work (30). Marvel’s movie franchise must operate in the same way, for greatest accessibility to viewers. In order “to be easily taken in view” The Winter Soldier is organized in such away that it can function as standalone for new viewers, and as part of the continuous 12-film-and-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe for returning fans. Its 136-minute runtime is long enough for satisfying character and theme development and short enough that nothing distracting from its cohesion and poignancy slips in.
In terms of organization within this “magnitude”, Aristotle’s ideal poetry was composed of “prologue, episode, exodus, and choral part”, and was a “whole” with “a beginning, middle, and end” (36, 30). All parts must be “part of the whole” with nothing extraneous, including the chorus (48). The Winter Soldier does not have the same formal structure of Greek performance, but as a story presented to unfamiliar viewers it contains by necessity introductory parts that compose a modern version of the prologue (or more broadly a “beginning”). The film’s prologue introduces Captain America’s identity as both a man and a soldier in correspondingly civilian and militaristic scenes. Next, it follows Rogers into a Smithsonian exhibit about himself, where a narrator voice from the exhibit provides backstory on Rogers and Barnes, catching up viewers who have not seen The First Avenger. At the same time this scene is integrated into “the whole”, illuminating Cap’s character in relation to the past, rather than just providing history. The Winter Soldier can be broken down into middle and end as well, with the middle composed of Rogers’ conflicts with Barnes and other antagonists, and the characters arriving at new relations to each other in the end.
In addition to creating a compelling and complete story, poets are able to speak “of things that are universal”, or differently put “not of things that have happened, but…possibilities that come from what is likely or necessary” (32). Through this, what Aristotle calls “thinking” (philosophizing) occurs. With thinking, poetic speeches “demonstrate the way something is…or state some universal proposition” (29). These propositions and possibilities are reinforced by historical grounding. Tragedy uses “the names that have come down to us” to lend authority to the tragedy’s ideas, since “what is possible is credible” (32). In the same way, The Winter Soldier draws on history since WWII and the current political climate to create a believable alternate version of the past and current world events. In one scene footage is shown to suggest that much of history, including the Yalta Conference, Operation Paperclip, aerial leaflet propaganda, the Arab Spring, Gaddafi, and government surveillance are all part of the antagonists’ plan to “create a world so chaotic that humanity [will] sacrifice its freedom to gain its security”. This alternate version of history is similar enough to our own that it highlights modern day anxieties regarding unrest and the dangers of NSA-style surveillance. As poetry should, the film speaks of “what is likely,” positing the not-so-far-fetched idea all the conflict in the world is culminating into something terrible. Additionally, just as Greek poets used “familiar names” in tragedy, Barnes and Rogers come from the long-established comic book genre, dating back to 1941. In both mediums, the recycling of characters “[produces] pleasure as an imitation” through “delight in…understanding what each thing is…for instance ‘that’s who this is’” (23).
Tragedy is a medium of imitation, evoking pity and fear. It is accessible in its length, and forms a whole with a progression of beginning middle and end. Tragedy can have universal ideas as its subject, and supports these ideas with the authority of historical and recognizable names for veracity and enjoyment. Within the genre there are four kinds that Aristotle describes; “complex tragedy…consist[ing] of reversal and discovery”, “suffering”, the tragedy of character” and “the [simple spectacle]” (47). The categories are not exclusive – “one ought to try to include them all” (47). The Winter Soldier depends most obviously on reversal and discovery, but all four versions of tragedy are present in the narrative and contribute to the experience of pity and fear.
The complex tragedy is based on revelation, leading to reversals of action and understanding. Aristotle defines reversal as “the change to the opposite of the things being done” and discovery as “a change from ignorance to recognition, leading toward either friendship or hostility”, “most beautiful when it happens at the same time as a reversal” (34, 35). This occurs powerfully at the end of the overpass fight sequence, when Barnes’ mask is removed to reveal his identity, and Barnes denies his own identity. A number of reversals and discoveries occur for the parties involved. The obvious discovery is that Barnes is alive, and he is a victim of HYDRA. This leads to a reversal of goals for Rogers – don’t kill the Soldier, save him. The audience experiences an emotional reversal – fear of the Soldier becomes pity. Here the Soldier changes from silent, anonymous and mechanical to a person with a face, who speaks in English and makes sounds of effort and pain. Simultaneously, Barnes discovers something is not right, evident in the brief look of confusion and doubt on his face after Rogers recognizes and addresses him. He experiences a reversal of goals – from follow orders to question them. This reversal is undone in the following scene where his mind is erased because of his belligerence. Aristotle says that “sometimes there is a need for both of the two to make the discovery” (35). In the case of Barnes, he needs to make his discovery more than once. He has a final rediscovery after the credits of the film, where Barnes is depicted in the Smithsonian, reading his own biography. As the character’s terrifying soundtrack cuts in, viewers again experience a mixture of pity at the horror on Barnes’ face, and fear of how he is going to respond.
Aristotle describes suffering as another kind of tragedy, defining it as “an action that is destructive or painful, such as deaths in plain view, as well as tortures and woundings” (35). The Winter Soldier depicts a great deal of violence, usually committed by the Soldier himself, but the most poignant moments of “tragic suffering that [arouse] love for humanity” are when the Soldier’s lack of agency is evident (48). This occurs in the scene immediately following his identity reveal. Barnes, the most skilled and powerful person in the room is held captive by men with guns. Barnes is addressed like a machine, and has affect of something dead. His captor slaps Barnes and sits within reach, but Barnes is entirely submissive and does not even think to retaliate. (This is clear from his captor’s complete lack of fear of Barnes.) When his captor submits him to have his memory erased, he cooperates with the assistants who orchestrate his torture. The viewer is filled with a pained compassion at his helpless state, and a desire to protect him that is Aristotle’s “love for humanity”. At the same time they “delight in contemplating” the transfixing horror of the scene – “the very things that are painful for us to see” (22-23). The other characters in the room observe with the same morbid curiosity of the viewer, fascinated by his submission. The same feeling of pained compassion is evoked in the final fight scene where Barnes tries to pulverize Steve. He snarls, “You’re my mission!” with an anger that seems to boil out of his dehumanized situation and fear of knowing the truth of the situation. He cannot rise beyond his identity as a human weapon, because he only knows how to destroy, and so he destroys in denial. The viewer is drawn by a pity of the character at the same time as he is terrifying and utterly unapproachable.
The sufferings “among friends” that Rogers and Barnes so embody “are the situations to be sought”, according to Aristotle (39). This kind of brotherly tragedy is enabled by ignorance, with discovery occurring in the midst of violent action. The best scenario of this sort “is for someone on the point of doing some irreparable harm to discover this before doing it” (39-40). This occurs as Barnes tries to kill Rogers and Rogers refuses to fight back; the more he hurts Rogers, the more apparent it becomes that he is hurting a friend. Despite this, Barnes still seems entirely capable of finishing his friend off. In the end, Barnes does not, and actually pulls unconscious Rogers out of the Potomac River. While Aristotle asserts that tragedy is not the genre where people “become friends at the end, and no one is killed by anyone”, and surely the tragedy would have been deepened if Rogers did not survive, Barnes’ actions to save Rogers are more indicative of his confusion than any reconciliation between the two characters (38).
The Winter Soldier is also a tragedy of character, with the suffering, discoveries and reversals all centered around the identity of Bucky Barnes. Tragedy begins with “the sort of person who is not surpassing in virtue and justice” (37). This is the case with Barnes. While Captain America fights with a shield and is never clearly shown killing, Barnes’ weapon of choice is the gun. In The First Avenger, before his days as the Winter Soldier, he is shown coldly killing WWII enemies. The tragedy begins when this relatably imperfect character falls “from good to bad fortune…on account of a great missing of the mark” – not “through bad character and vice” (37). Barnes’ tragic flaw is his desire to protect Rogers, beyond his own capacity to do so. He misses the mark when he tries to wield Rogers’ shield but, being of normal strength, is overpowered, “dies”, and subsequently falls into enemy hands. In the ironic reversals of Winter Soldier, Barnes’ misfortune brings him to a level of “super soldier” where he is able to handle the shield, but only as a weapon used again Captain America.
Aristotle says that in good tragedy “even without seeing the actions happening, someone who hears them shudders [in fear] and feels pity from the way they turn out” (38). This is the case with The Winter Soldier – the success of the film lies primarily with the terrible circumstances of the characters. However, the spectacle in the movie’s fight scenes does much to support the emotional tension and horror of the events. The transfixing combat scene preceding the reveal of Barnes’ identity enhances the pity and fear when the reveal occurs by underscoring the ways his character has been distorted. His final battle with Rogers does the same. The Winter Soldier’s brutality and suffering is embodied in his cries of anger and pain, and his physical violence. Combined with the terrible friend-against-friend nature of the fight and the suffering that drives the Soldier to act, the spectacle of the scene fills the viewer with pity on his behalf at the same time as they are terrified and despairing at his actions. Spectacle is a visceral way to draw out the pity and fear already present in the scene.
In accordance with Aristotle’s recommendations for an excellent tragedy, Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier provides catharsis of pity and fear through an accessible, well constructed, and ideologically pertinent story. It does this through the four types of tragedy; complex, suffering, character and spectacle. The result is a film fascinating and emotionally involving on many levels, rising above the simplicity of many hero and villain narratives.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Joe Sachs. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins, 2006. Print.
Captain America: The First Avenger. Dir. Joe Johnston. Perf. Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Samuel L. Jackson. Marvel Studios, 2011. DVD.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Dir. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Perf. Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan. Marvel Studios, 2014. Film.