“Going after him is a dead end. Like you said, he’s a ghost story.”
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the most popular marvel movies and probably themost popular in female driven fandom circles. It features a lot of pretty actors and thrilling action but probably it’s greatest success is in the narrative satisfaction of its plot, a twisty intriguing mystery that has seen the film repeatedly compared to 1970s political thrillers. And sure, why not? There’s Robert Redford, there’s Washington DC, there’s the contemporary fear of the surveillance state.
But I think this explanation of the appeal of the the plot of CATWS misses a big chunk of why it works so well. The emotion and personal horror of the story. Elements which owe more to an older genre: the Gothic.
Gothic Literature was hugely popular in the 18th and early 19th century and although the genre can be hard to define, so many elements of gothic fiction are present in CATWS it’s hard to ignore. CATWS is the Mystery of Count Udolpho, it is Dracula, it is Jane Eyre, it is The Turn of the Screw. It is a story about a pure, virginal ingenue protagonist trapped in a strange world of intrigue, horror and patriarchal authority.
In Jane Eyre Mr Rochester has a secret in his attic that causes all kinds of mysterious happenings. In Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde a man’s body changes and he becomes a monster he can’t control or remember being. And in Dracula Lucy Westernra dies, but a mysterious deathly force stalks the night. Meanwhile her friend Mina Harker is falling under the influence of the same demon that took Lucy and turned her into that very monster.
Gothic fictions are romantic ghost stories. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a deeply romantic ghost story.
A classic storyline of the Gothic begins with the protagonist encountering a seemingly supernatural threat. A ghost of sorts disrupting the lives of the protagonist, and their assumed allies, with hidden motives. The Gothic is about fear of the supernatural, or how fear of the supernatural can be used to control. The supernatural threat in Gothic fiction often turns out not to be a ghost at all, but to be something far worse.
The Gothic protagonist is usually female and we usually see everything from her point of view. (Although male versions exist, like the virginal, pure Jonathan Harker in the first part of Dracula and I wrote a lot about Steve’s feminine coding in this meta.) In CATWS Steve Rogers is our virginal, pure heroine and CATWS is an unusually heavily viewpointed movie. We do occasionally see conversations Steve doesn’t, but it’s rare. For most of the movie, we only know what our wide-eyed, gauche heroine knows.
Gothic heroines are isolated. Trapped in away from their friends and unsure who to trust. Stranded in an unfamiliar world, they cling to the familiar, like walks and needlework or, in this case, kicking people in the face on hijacked ships, until this peace is invaded by an ominous, monstrous threat.
As they investigate, mysteries unravel. Like the proto Gothic heroine, the wife of Bluebeard, she may discover a secret. She will be asked not to look too deeply into what Bluebeard has done, but she will and she’ll discover, perhaps that someone once vanished and the terrible things that happened to this person – and that those same terrible things may be planned for her. And although these things are never stated outright, we will know them to be things of unimaginable horror.
Perhaps she is trapped in a castle she has to escape from and when she does escape, she is pursued through the woods by wolves. In CATWS Pierce’s wolves chase Steve and Natasha through a shopping mall. And later Steve and Natasha make an eerie night time visit to an abandoned army base – another castle, a ruin – full of secret tunnels, hidden basements and buried memories.
Her guardian, her Bluebeard, her Pierce will try to confuse her, but will eventually turn out to be the orchestrator of the diabolical things that have gone before and the diabolical things that are planned, usually by possession or corruption of the heroine’s body.
Gothic heroines struggle to know who they can trust. Alone in a world where the things they thought would keep them safe – often patriarchal authority -turn out to be corrupt. Steve finds himself surrounded by of people trying to confuse, fool and gaslight him. Who can he trust? Can he trust anyone?
Steve’s arc with Natasha is all about whether he can trust her. Whether she is one of them. Then Sam is the new friend he is forced to call upon, because he’s unknown to the pursuers who were once trusted allies. Everyone is lying to Steve so he has no choice but to trust someone he barely knows. Steve spends the whole movie isolated and unsure who is on his side.
The threats that the heroine of Gothic fiction eventually faces are sexual threats. She discovers that powerful man she thought she could trust has designs on her body and wants to corrupt it. Her body becomes the battleground, the centre of a story about who gets to control her body and other bodies like hers.
Because of this, Gothic fiction is often filthy. Sometimes unintentionally, sometimes by design. It is often full of transgressive desire and sexual dissidence. Obsessive love. and sexual power play. There is an undercurrent of sex and sexual threat to CATWS which is hard to deny. At least two scenes in the movie – Bucky in the vault and Steve in the elevator – are strongly coded as sexual attacks.
The ghost – the Winter Soldier – when revealed to be Steve’s presumed dead childhood friend Bucky Barnes, suddenly becomes a thousand thousand times more horrifying than the simple assassin he was thought to be. That’s the real punch of the movie – and that has nothing to do with 1970s conspiracy thrillers. That’s pure terror. That’s the point where Steve, our Gothic heroine, breaks and falls into a sort of disbelieving fugue at the sheer horror of it, before he pulls himself together for what must be done.
And Bucky is the biggest reason CATWS is Gothic fiction, because Gothic fiction is about dark folds of personal history that turn out not to have been laid to rest. It is about the dead not staying buried. Gothic fiction is about the power of the uncanny. And Freud’s uncanny is about that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar. The ghost turns out to be not a ghost at all, but something real and, if anything, more horrifying, not just that but the ghost turns out to be something from Steve’s own past, a secret that wouldn’t stay buried, and a nascent threat to Steve himself.
These are things that are frightening, made more frightening by their familiarity.
In the end the horror of CATWS is the horror of the story of Bucky Barnes. The truth of it is left unsaid, but it is hard not to imagine it as sickening and devastating. The only real conclusion is unimaginably disturbing. And the pleasure of Gothic fiction is in this horror. In the terrible gap left for the imagination. Bucky’s story and his unfinished fate.
CATWS is a conspiracy thriller, yes, but one in which the true nature of the conspiracy turns out to be tied to past secrets, the uncanny and washed over with sexual threat, or, at threat to bodily autonomy. And that’s more than a political thriller, that’s pure Gothic fiction. A deeply romantic ghost story.
(A/N 1. I am sure there are many more ways to connect CATWS and Gothic fiction that I’ve not thought of. Do add more. 2. none of these picture and gifs are mine.)
“‘Let’s find out what the ghost wants.’ Why Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Gothic Fiction,” ©mathildia, originally posted 12 September 2015