This weekend’s release of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” marks the ninth feature in Marvel’s ever-expanding Cinematic Universe, and the third to feature Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Captain America.
For anyone who hasn’t followed the comic books, it’s getting tougher and tougher to keep track of all the names, faces and character histories. And given comic writers’ love of convoluted backstories, a quick glance at Wikipedia might just confuse you even more.
With that in mind, here’s a brief rundown of the most important characters in the new superhero movie, along with a simplified explanation of how (and when) they fit into the comics.
Captain America/Steve Rogers
Played by: Chris Evans
In the comics: Captain America, Cap, Ol’ Winghead, the Star-Spangled Avenger — he’s not just the de facto leader of Earth’s mightiest heroes. Along with some of the DC characters and Namor the Sub-Mariner, he’s also one of the oldest major comic book characters, period. He even predates Marvel itself, having originally appeared in 1941 under the Timely Comics imprint.
Shortly after World War II, the ultrapatriotic hero was retired for about 15 years until Stan Lee and original Captain America artist/co-creator Kirby reintroduced him in 1964’s “The Avengers” No. 4 with essentially the same “hero out of time” backstory that appears in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — World War II relic frozen in ice, thawed to help fight modern-day villains, etc.
A major part of Captain America history, the Super-Soldier Formula — the serum that turned an asthmatic fine arts student named Steve Rogers into the Hitler-punching embodiment of national pride — has become one of the main plot devices in Marvel comics. Dozens of characters got their start as failed attempts to duplicate the lost formula or improve upon it, including fan favorites like Wolverine and, depending on the storyline, the Hulk.
Likewise, comic book writers have tried numerous times to create a new character that better fits contemporary political views, but never with much success. If anything, Cap’s popularity seems to be due to — not in spite of — his old-fashioned ideals and unwavering sense of right and wrong.
Black Widow/Natasha Romanof
Played by: Scarlett Johansson
In the comics: Black Widow first appeared the same year Captain America was revived, in 1964’s “Tales of Suspense” No. 52. Although her official backstory has been “retconned” — retroactively changed by later writers — a handful of times, as originally written (by Lee and scripter Don Rico), she was a Soviet spy and assassin who defected to the U.S. because of feelings she had for her future teammate, Hawkeye.
Much later, it was revealed she had been injected with a Soviet version of the Super-Soldier Serum, and a 2005 retcon had her trained as part of the “Black Widow Program” by none other than Winter Soldier.
Along with the Avengers, Black Widow frequently appears alongside other major Marvel heroes like Spider-Man and Daredevil (with whom she has been romantically linked at various points), but she most often appears as an agent for S.H.I.E.L.D.
Played by: Samuel L. Jackson
In the comics: In the main Marvel continuity (as opposed to alternate timelines like the Ultimate Universe), long before he was attached to S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury had been a soldier alongside Captain America during World War II, heading up a group known as the Howling Commandos. They appeared sans Fury during the period portions of “Captain America: The First Avenger.”
To account for the comic book character's ever-increasing age discrepancy, something called the Infinity Formula was introduced that renders Fury pretty much immune to the aging process, as long as he takes regular shots.
This is not the case with the movie version of Nick Fury, though, who is based on the Ultimate Universe iteration — which was, in turn, modeled on Jackson years before the actor had even been cast in any of the Marvel movies.
Played by: Cobie Smulders
In the comics: The only character on this list to have been created in the last decade. Maria Hill first appeared in 2005’s “The New Avengers” No. 4, and, unlike her film portrayal, she is characterized as having extremely complicated — and not altogether noble — motives. These often find her taking the opposite side on issues against heroes like Nick Fury and Captain America.
Following events that caused Fury to go into hiding, Hill was appointed interim executive director and eventually served under Tony Stark when he was made director of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Played by: Anthony Mackie
In the comics: This is yet another of Lee’s co-creations (along with artist Gene Colan). Falcon was introduced in 1969, playing a pretty important role in the history of comics as the first African-American superhero to appear in a mainstream publication. He was also the first black superhero not to have the word “black” anywhere in his name.
Although Falcon has been a member of the Avengers off and on throughout the team’s history, most of his time actually hasbeen as either an independent crime fighter or else partnered with Captain America. The two even shared title space for seven years in the monthly “Captain America and the Falcon” series that ran from 1971 to 1978.
It was during this period that Falcon acquired his signature wing harness, a gift from the Wakandan hero Black Panther (who also, in the comics, supplied Captain America with his “vibranium” shield).
Falcon’s coolest detail by far (which won’t be in the movie) is that he can form a telepathic link with birds, accessing their memories and controlling their movements. That might seem like a throwaway power next to things like superstrength and flight — until, that is, you remember that his base of operations is pigeon-infested New York. Just imagine all the possibilities.
Agent 13/Sharon Carter
Played by: Emily VanCamp
In the comics: Originally written by Lee as the younger sister of Cap’s first squeeze, Peggy Carter (played by British actress Hayley Atwell in “Captain America: The First Avenger”), she was later rewritten to be her niece.
Following in her sister/aunt’s footsteps, she, too, developed a romantic relationship with Steve Rogers. However, during a botched field assignment in the ‘70s, she appeared to have been killed off. No one really dies in comics, though (or comic book movies). In 2003, she was brought back and has mostly been active ever since, serving as executive director of S.H.I.E.L.D. at one point and being mind-controlled by the Red Skull at others. As of recently, though, she appears to once again be dead, killed by Arnim Zola (Toby Jones’ character from the first “Captain America” movie).
Played by: Frank Grillo
In the comics: A frequent Captain America baddie, Crossbones debuted in 1989 and has been causing mischief ever since.
He has been affiliated with several supervillain groups like the Skeleton Crew (created by the Red Skull) and the Department of Occult Armaments (a Hydra-funded team that tried to use the DNA of Dracula to create an army of vampire soldiers — yep).
His biggest claim to fame, though, is as the sniper who shot and seemingly killed Steve Rogers’ Captain America during 2007’s controversial Civil War storyline.
Played by: Robert Redford
In the comics: Pierce is usually portrayed as just one of several S.H.I.E.L.D. agents under Nick Fury (and considerably younger than him). If one delves deep enough into old storylines, though, the book in which the character first appeared featured a much older-looking Alexander Pierce — and it was titled, rather significantly, “Nick Fury Vs. S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Given several other hints from casting announcements and promotional materials, many, including comicbookmovie.com’s Mark Julian, have speculated that this is the story that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is actually based on.
The Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes
Played by: Sebastian Stan
In the comics: The Robin to Captain America’s Batman. Unlike his movie version, Bucky blackmailed Cap into letting him be his teenage sidekick after discovering the supersoldier’s secret identity — and that’s not the only thing that might remind you of Syndrome from “The Incredibles.”
During World War II, Bucky battled alongside the First Avenger as a member of the Invaders, with other superhero sidekicks in the Young Allies, and in possibly the worst-named team ever assembled, Timely Comics’ pre-Avengers attempt at a supergroup known as the All-Winners Squad.
In Captain America’s last wartime mission, though, Bucky was blown up and — like just about every other character — seemingly killed trying to defuse a bomb, only to reappear in 2005 as the brainwashed, bionically upgraded Russian assassin named Winter Soldier, wreaking all kinds of havoc in the process.
Following Rogers’ assassination by Crossbones, a reformed Winter Soldier briefly stepped into the role of Captain America. This seems like a pretty likely development down the road, especially when one considers Sebastian Stan’s nine-picture contract compared with Chris Evans’ six (as reported by newsarama.com).