Marvel Studios via Everett Collection
When Captain America returns to the big screen in The Winter Soldier, he won’t be facing off against any power-hungry aliens, super serum-enhanced evil geniuses, or Asgardian gods who weren’t hugged enough as children in order to protect the world. Instead, his primary adversary will be human: Alexander Goodwin Pierce, a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who might know more about the sudden appearance of the Winter Soldier and HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. than he lets on. Played by Robert Redford, Pierce won’t have any special powers or superhuman abilities in order to help him defeat Cap, but, from what we’ve seen of the film so far, he might not need any sci-fi or magic in order to ensure that the stakes of the film are still high.
Most of the villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have had some kind of special power or ability, whether physical or mental. It’s those powers that have made them such a major threat to global security and the innocent lives of the people of Earth. Of course, there’s also the fact that without those super powers, the heroes of the films wouldn’t have much of a challenge in defeating the villains, and without a challenge, there would be no film.
However, the lack of powers doesn’t make things any easier in The Winter Soldier, as Pierce’s humanity makes him the perfect villain for Cap. Since his inception, Captain America’s defining characteristic has been his unwavering devotion to his country and the people who inhabit it. He lives by the idea that justice is a black and white concept, in which people can easily be categorized into “good guys” and “bad guys.” While those traits may have made him the perfect soldier during the tumult of the 1940s, nowadays people no longer feel inspired by that kind patriotism and lack of suspicion.
One of Cap’s main story arcs in the cinematic universe has been his adjustment to modern day American after spending seventy years frozen in a block of ice. In fact, much of The Winter Soldier deals with the culture shock that Cap experiences living in today’s world, where the government is treated with skepticism and justice is seen in shades of grey. The film aims to show him reevaluating all of the ideals that he has used to define himself, and to see which ones no longer apply today, and the best way to force Cap to adjust his perspective is for the primary threat to American lives come from someone he believed to be on his side.
In Cap’s eyes, the government exists to care for its people. Modern society, however, doesn’t hold such a view; we’re more likely to be wary of our elected leaders, and we tend to believe that they’re more interested in protecting themselves than the country. In order for Cap to understand the modern world, he needs to let go of a lot of the ideals that the American people no longer hold, and he needs to understand that sometimes, the people he trusts most are the people he should be wary of. What makes Pierce such a great villain for Cap is the fact that his position as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent forces Cap to reevaluate everything he believed to be true in order to take him down. If Pierce had powers he could use to put the American public in danger, it would it much easier for Cap to defeat him. But keeping him human makes him the same as the people that Cap strives to protect, which puts him in the uncomfortable position of having to take a new look at the way he has always seen the world.
Marvel Studios via Everett Collection
In addition, The Winter Soldier is, at its heart, a political thriller as much as it’s a superhero film. The suspense comes from watching the characters attempt to outwit and outmaneuver each other. Much of that interplay would be lost if Pierce were simply able to use his powers to take on Cap, and it would completely undermine Cap’s disillusionment with the political and military system. Pierce’s power in The Winter Soldier comes from being one step ahead of the Avengers, and having knowledge that they don’t. He doesn’t need to fight them in order to scare them, not when he can simply unravel the system that they’ve place their faith in.
And yet, even though Pierce is the perfect bad guy for this particular film, it’s hard to picture him taking a place of pride in Marvel’s gallery of villains, especially with characters like Loki and Red Skull already having made such a big impression on audiences. Without powers or plans for world domination, he doesn’t seem to fit easily into the criteria of a memorable super villain, and it’s likely that he will even be outshone by the Winter Soldier onscreen. However, the lack of powers is precisely what sets Pierce apart from his fellow evildoers. His character is grounded in reality, and doesn’t belong solely to the comic book universe. Pierce would be just as intimidating on a network political drama as he is facing off with Captain America, and even though he might not be as flashy or attention-grabbing as some of his contemporaries, it might be just what he needs in order to become a memorable Marvel villain.
After all, it’s not like a villain without superpowers can’t be intimidating. Just take a look at Batman’s gallery of rouges; there are many versions of the story where they don’t have superhuman abilities, just an overwhelming desire to watch the world burn and the kind of weaponry and underground connections to make that dream a reality. When villains like Joker are placed in a grittier, more realistic universe, they are often more terrifying than when their world is based in fantasy. There’s always the underlying fear that his reign of terror could happen in the real world at any given moment.
Captain America’s universe has always been more firmly grounded in reality than some of the other Marvel heroes, and so it would make sense, then, that his villains would also be realistic. Pierce is scary precisely because his character plays on our suspicion of the government, and our worries that the people who are meant to be looking after us are really only looking after themselves. The character plays off of real fears that we as a society have, which makes his plot just as scary and suspenseful as any other that the heroes have faced. In fact, he’s probably scarier than Loki, even without the ability to shape shift and manipulate, simply because audiences are probably less inclined to cuddle the evil out of him, the way we often are with the Trickster God. Grounding Pierce in reality makes up for his lack of superpowers, and results in a villain that is not only scary, but is also perfectly tailored to the story that The Winter Soldier is trying to tell.
Besides, Pierce doesn’t need any powers to fight Cap because he has a super soldier of his own to do his bidding and take out his enemies. If there’s one lesson that Frank Underwood has taught us, it’s that truly evil politicians never get their hands dirty.