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.

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?

I don't know, I think it's a crazy time, for sure. In 2004 I couldn't imagine the world getting any worse, but it just keeps doing it. Interestingly, when they started working on the script, I think it was much more referencing Wikileaks than Snowden, and now it suddenly seems even more topical.

You mention that the story is all about getting to the heart of Cap. For you, what is that heart? It's not solely a man out of time, especially in the comics when you took over.

I'm not sure I describe it exactly. It's more like just an emotional connection to him that I had when I was writing him. Getting to the places where he had to deal with hard things instead of just stand around and give speeches. I was always more interested in the emotional core of the story and the character, and how hard it might be to have to also be that symbol, while also being a person.

How much of a deep dive did you do in researching for your initial Captain America story? There were some crazy Cold War era spy and science programs.

Yeah, the CIA and KGB both did a lot of crazy shit. I love reading about Cold War spy stuff, honestly, and when I found out the KGB had a science division called Dept. X, I just knew I had to use it, and that it had to be important to the Red Room program and the Winter Soldier.

The world, like you said, is totally crazy. Do you think heroes like Cap matter more now, or is idealism old-fashioned?

I don't know if it's old-fashioned. It seems somewhat naive, especially on a day when the US Supreme Court yet again rolled back campaign finance laws. I often feel like what we talk about as important is so far from what actually happens in the real world, that there's almost a disconnect. We all know what's wrong and needs to be fixed, but we just watch it getting worse and worse instead of better. I wish in real life there was someone as powerful and respected as Captain America, who could be a voice both sides would listen to, though. So I guess I'm not a total pessimist yet.

Right now you're working on your spy story Velvet and your crime series Fatale. What else is in the works for you? Any other genres or stories you're interested in exploring?

Yeah, I've started noodling on a western idea, and have a few TV and film projects in the works. If things go as planned, a few that should film this year. And Sean Phillips and I are a few months away from starting The Fade Out, our new noir project. And after that we're going to probably do a sci-fi we've been talking about for a few years. And more Criminal, in a new form, is coming soon-ish.