03/30/2014 08:23 pm ET Updated May 30, 2014

What's in a Name? Captain America: The Winter Soldier

These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. -- from The American Crisis by Thomas Paine, December 1776

We call this investigation the 'Winter Soldier Investigation.' The term 'Winter Soldier' is a play on words of Thomas Paine in 1776 when he spoke of the Sunshine Patriot and summertime soldiers who deserted at Valley Forge because the going was rough. We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out. -- Lieutenant John Kerry, USNR, representing Vietnam Veterans Against the War at the Winter Soldier hearings, April 1971

It's not easy to know when to write about the new Captain America movie. It opened across the UK and some other international markets beginning on March 26th to smashing returns. A recap of the entire plot is easily available now on the Internet, as are spoiler-filled reviews, not to mention pirate copies of the film itself. But Cap 2 doesn't open across North America until April 4th.

The convention is not to review or discuss a film in comprehensive detail till it has at least begun playing in one's country, and I'll stick with that, at least this time around. With this sort of truncated release pattern becoming more commonplace, it may be almost time to dump the old convention in favor of post-geographic media realities. But there's something important about the new Captain America I can get into now.

There is a spoiler or two ahead, but nothing compared to what will be in my piece sometime after the movie opens in North America.

The Captain America March. Yes, this is a very patriotic character, of the old school.

What's in a name?

The latest and perhaps greatest of the Marvelverse extravaganzas, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is in the midst of its international roll-out, the movie directly following on the events of the 2012 smash The Avengers.

Already reviewers are wondering about the film's title, pointing out that the titular "Winter Soldier" -- a character from the the comics I won't spoil now -- doesn't figure as prominently as the title might suggest.

Au contraire.

I'll explain what the "Winter Soldier" of the title really means. For it's not so much a person as it is a concept, one with meaning dating back to the origins of this Republic, strained through the meat-grinding blender of the Vietnam War.

I first heard the term "winter soldier" while listening to Tom Hayden speak not long after the election of President Ronald Reagan. He was speaking before a group of mainly left-liberals. It may seem quaintly amusing now, but many were in shock that Reagan had actually beaten President Jimmy Carter, who, also quaintly amusingly in retrospect, was regarded by them as a conservative. Of course today, it's unclear that Reagan himself would be conservative enough to make it in the current iteration of the Republican Party.

Hayden invoked the writing of the rough and ready revolutionary Tom Paine, with whom he always felt a certain kinship, urging the activists to work through what was sure to be a trying time, to demonstrate that they were "winter soldiers" willing to take on what was difficult. Hayden had taken part in the WInter Soldier project. In fact, he first met Jane Fonda, also an ally of the young John Kerry, at the Winter Soldier investigation.

Is this where the "Winter Soldier" name and concept comes from for Captain America: The Winter Soldier?

You bet.

Marvel Comics writer Ed Brubaker, who developed the character, confirmed it in a recent interview with a geek culture site: "I came up with the name in 2004, when I was pitching for [Captain America]. I liked the sound of it for a Russian assassin from the cold war, and also liked its connections to Thomas Paine, my personal favorite founding father. The "summer soldier" quote is from The American Crisis, and I believe he meant that the summer soldiers are only patriots when it's easy to be, but the winter soldier is a true soldier for the cause."

Steve Rogers is a man out of time.

The Winter Soldier character, whose identity is a surprise to Steve Rogers/Captain America, is not the main villain in the new movie. So in this case the name in the title has a two-fold meeting, referring not only to the surprise character, but even more so to Captain America himself as he deals with a pervasive surveillance state and newfangled notions of preemptive justice.

For '40s straight arrow Steve Rogers -- thawed out after his nearly 70 years in the ice after crashing the plane he'd commandeered in order to save New York -- encounters the ultimate gray zone of 21st century democracy in America and does not like what he finds. It is he who has to make the tough choices as he gut checks his own patriotism.

Will Cap be a "sunshine patriot" and summertime soldier who follows his values when it is convenient and slips away when the heavy cold weather comes? Or will he be the winter soldier who perseveres in his beliefs, no matter what he must go up against as a result?

That's the movie. Hence the title.

Much more to follow after Cap 2 has opened in the US, of course.

William Bradley Archive