Why Captain America Started Spying

Writer Ed Brubaker, who created the 2005 comic book that inspired the new Marvel movie, says he wanted to to tap into the hero's tragic side.
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In 2005, comic-book writer Ed Brubaker’s "Winter Soldier" story arc revived a Greatest Generation icon for a post-9/11 world—and in the process re-imagined Captain America as equal parts superhero and spy.

This new Steve Rogers was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, foiling not against costumed supervillains’ world-domination schemes but rather assassination attempts and ruthless corporate intrigue. Brubaker’s grittier, stealthier vision of Captain America, created with  artists Steve Epting and Michael Lark, provided the source material for this weekend’s No. 1 box-office hit, Captain America: The Winter Solider. Last week, Brubaker talked with me about his inspirations for his Captain America run, the political atmosphere that influenced his story, his fascination with spy fiction, and his big-screen cameo as a scientist tending to the Soldier himself.

Spoilers for both the The Winter Soldier comic and film to follow.


It's been almost a decade since you launched your run on Captain America with “The Winter Soldier.” What were your ideas for pursuing that story? What did you want to do with Steve Rogers?

My whole approach to the book centered around exploring Steve as a tragic character, carrying the weight of being Captain America, which I think would feel like a burden sometimes, but that's who he is. So as part of that tragedy, I wanted to bring back Bucky as a villain that would link Steve to his own past, give him a new tragedy to struggle with, and out of that, explore a different man out of time, Bucky Barnes, who had become something he would have hated.

You tweeted that when the film was announced, you had no idea they were adapting “The Winter Soldier.” Since then, what was your involvement in the film?

Not a lot, but the Russo Brothers had me in to read the script and give feedback early on. I had very little in the way of feedback, because Markus and McFeely had taken the bones of stuff I did and [Brian Michael] Bendis did, and made something big and exciting, and I thought, pretty amazing. And then I got to be in the movie, so I was on set a few days. And I got to see an early cut. They've been very cool to keep me in the loop, and Kevin [Feige] wrote to tell me I was gonna be in the Super Bowl trailer, which was so bizarre, but really, I've just been a happy observer more than anything.

Part of what made your Captain America run great, and the Winter Soldier reveal itself so great, was the focus on secrets. It wasn't just a secret of who the Winter Soldier was; the more important mysteries were how the Winter Soldier came to be. And with film, it's easy to look at the cast list and find reveals of who is who. Do you think the suspense and backstory have more weight than simple reveals?

I think so, if they're good, yeah. The thing about the movie is, it works because it's not about keeping Winter Soldier's secret from the audience, it's about keeping it secret from Steve Rogers. So they get to have it both ways. And it's also not the most important thing in the movie, so there's lots of other misdirections and shocks around it. It's just the thing that gets to the heart of Cap.

You wrote the superhero stories as spy fiction. Cap was a spy who happened to wear a costume. And now you're doing more spy stuff in Velvet. What drew you into that genre? Is there something that you try to bring out with it in your writing?

I think I've just always been fascinated at the idea of spies. It's the world's second-oldest profession, and it's about pretending and lying, and finding out secrets. That's the stuff that so much good fiction is made of.  On my personal side, though, I think I'm drawn to it partly because my dad and my uncle were both in the business, in Naval Intel and the CIA. So I grew up with my dad pointing out the incorrect parts of spy movies to me, before I even knew what he did for a living.

To get a bit more political, you wrote the original Winter Soldier story in a very different time. The US had recently invaded Iraq, the War on Terror was only a few years old. Now it's 2014 and there's renewed Russian aggression and spy intrigue with the Snowden leaks. Do you think that recent events change the impact of “The Winter Soldier?” Is it more relevant now?

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Nicholas Slayton is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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