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Released in spring 2014, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (CATWS) earned praise from fans and critics alike for its character-driven story and well-choreographed action scenes. The final fight aboard a flaming helicarrier combines both of those elements for a suspenseful, emotional climax. After a second viewing, I realized that this scene is almost a perfect mirror of the Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader duel at the end of Return of the Jedi (ROTJ). Films borrowing ideas from other films is nothing new, and the Captain America franchise puts its own great spin on the scene.
Luke Skywalker and Steve Rogers have a number of things in common. They are both blue-eyed, blond-haired, slightly world-weary idealists who want to believe the best in people. In their respective sequels, they both face the same personal conflict: their enemy is also a long-lost loved one who has been twisted by evil. Luke’s father was a mysterious figure he admired throughout his childhood until he learned the truth. When he finally unmasks Vader, he’s looking into the eyes of a stranger. However, when Steve sees his opponent’s face for the first time, the familiarity is shocking and terrible. His nemesis is his presumed-dead best friend James “Bucky” Barnes, a very flesh-and-blood person he’s known his entire life.
Vader and Bucky are both only pawns in the schemes of greater players, though they ended up in their respective situations through very different means. Although he was manipulated to a degree by the Emperor, Anakin became Darth Vader of his own volition. In contrast, Bucky had no say in becoming the Winter Soldier. He was brainwashed and transformed into a mindless assassin, losing all memories of his former life. He’s confused when Steve calls him by name (“Who the hell is Bucky?”), echoing Vader’s reaction to Luke referring to him as Anakin (“That name no longer has any meaning for me!”). Both Vader and Bucky are “more machine now than man,” which refers to more than just their mechanical limbs.
Steve and Luke both want to believe that their loved ones can be turned back to their former selves. For Luke, this is a great leap of faith, since he never had a personal relationship with his father. He simply knows that Anakin was once a Jedi, and senses good in him through the Force. Luke has also always hero-worshiped his father figure, and that has now been transformed into a deep-seated desire to redeem Vader. While Luke wants to turn Vader to good because of the relationship they never were able to have, Steve’s dedication to Bucky comes from the memories of their long friendship. Prior to the film’s final battle, Steve has a flashback to the day of his mother’s funeral. Bucky invites Steve to move in with him rent-free, making the offer nonchalantly to avoid hurting Steve’s pride. “I’m with you till the end of the line, pal,” he says while giving Steve’s shoulder a comforting squeeze. Back in the present, Steve’s pragmatic friend Sam Wilson expresses doubt that Bucky will ever remember his old life. “Whoever he used to be, the guy he is now, I don’t think he’s the kind you save; he’s the kind you stop.” However, because of the knowledge that Bucky would do the same for him were their roles reversed, Steve could never give up on his friend.
The conflicts between the two pairs comes to a head in the finale of each film. Luke wants to defeat the Emperor and turn Vader to good even while Vader wants to turn Luke to evil. Steve has to prevent the helicarrier from killing thousands of innocent people, which is the very mission Bucky has been “programmed” to complete at any cost.
The setting of the two final battles are visually similar, featuring catwalks inside of an air/spacecraft. Vader and Luke face off in the Throne Room of the Death Star, which Luke knows is due to be destroyed by the Rebel Fleet. Steve and Bucky clash in the helicarrier, which Steve must help disable and destroy. The knowledge that both venues are due to erupt into fiery explosions certainly puts a time pressure on the confrontations.
Steve and Luke both try their best to avoiding fighting at all. Luke mistakenly thinks that Vader won’t even turn him over to the Emperor, while Steve pleads, “Please don’t make me do this.” It’s no accident that Luke addresses Vader exclusively as “Father” to emphasize their bond. Similarly, Steve tries to remind Bucky of their relationship. “You know me. Bucky, you’ve known me your whole life. Your name is James Buchanan Barnes…You’re my friend.”
Things get heated anyway: Luke cuts off Vader’s hand in a fit of rage when he threatens Leia. Steve has to break Bucky’s arm and wrap him in a chokehold to get to the crucial microchip. In the end, however, Luke and Steve decide to give up, toss aside their weapons, and risk dying rather than be forced to end the life of a friend or father.
Ultimately, Vader and Bucky make a similar choice. They each decide to save who they were forced to fight when distant memories are called to mind. As wave after wave of the Emperor’s Force lightning hits Luke, Vader looks back and forth between his master and his son, torn by his connections to both. Luke calling for help reminds Vader of his dreams about his wife Padmé begging him to save her from dying in childbirth. Anakin’s attempt to protect his family is the whole reason why he turned to Palpatine in the first place, and it is for the same reason that he turns against him in the end.
Like Vader, Bucky also fights an internal battle. He’s caught between the painful, confusing emotions he’s feeling about his target and the mental programming from his “puppetmaster” Alexander Pierce. Bucky furiously beats his forgotten friend bloody, but Steve doesn’t fight back or plead for him to stop. Instead, he calmly echoes Bucky’s words from long ago: “I’m with you till the end of the line.” The horrified recognition slowly dawns on the assassin’s face. Although Steve falls from the disintegrating helicarrier into the Potomac, Bucky drags him to safety before disappearing once again. While Luke and his father get their cathartic resolution, Steve and Bucky have to wait for the next film for theirs.
Interestingly, all four characters essentially face the same conflict regardless of “side”: duty vs. personal relationships. Luke and Steve are told by trusted friends that they must sacrifice one crucial-yet-corrupted life to protect many innocents. Both of them refuse to make that choice. Bucky and Vader are also bound to carry out the plans of the higher-ups that control them (although it’s important to note that Bucky truly has no choice in this matter). They are eventually able to throw off their evil duties to save a life, returning to the side of good in the process.
On the surface, CATWS appears to be a political thriller interested in shades of gray and how keeping the peace requires moral compromises. In the end, however, the film presents an old-fashioned, good vs. evil conflict very similar to ROTJ. There is a black-and-white division where the hero is a selfless savior and the villains are cruel mass murderers. Friends who have been enslaved to evil can be redeemed by acts of unconditional love. “The price of freedom is high,” Steve says. “It always has been. And it’s a price I’m willing to pay.”