The Big Picture

Robert Redford’s appearance in a Marvel film, specifically Captain America: The Winter Soldier, was surprising considering his legendary status in the film industry and his reputation as a champion of independent films. Redford’s portrayal of Alexander Pierce in the film was a departure from many of his previous roles, shocking viewers who associated him with characters that had honesty and integrity. The casting of Redford as Pierce emphasized the film’s thematic argument about the potential for corruption within America’s sacred institutions, showcasing how figures like Redford’s character could be twisted to facilitate the rise of fascism.

Robert Redford is one of the most revered actors in Hollywood history. During his decades-long career, he proved his versatility by playing a variety of characters across an assortment of genres. That said, like many of his peers several of his characters do share significant similarities which led him to be associated with certain qualities over others, creating a well-known public image. His role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, specifically his major part in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, expertly manipulated the expectations this created in viewers, only to pull the rug out from under them by revealing that his character was the opposite of what they expected, resulting in Redford’s most unexpected performance.

Robert Redford’s Marvel Performance Is Surprising Considering His Legacy

Image via Universal Pictures

The fact that Robert Redford appeared in a Marvel film at all was itself surprising. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released in 2014 when the MCU was at one of the peaks of its popularity following the first Avengers film. At the time, the backlash against both the franchise and the wider superhero genre was nowhere near as intense as it is now. That said, there were still plenty of cinephiles who looked down on comic book movies for being too commercial and lacking creativity. Redford was already cemented as a legendary actor and filmmaker at this point. Creating the Sundance Film Festival also marked him as a champion of independent films. His involvement with the MCU likely surprised and disappointed many of its detractors. Robert Redford himself, though, showed a refreshing lack of elitism toward the superhero genre, attributing his decision to join the film to his desire to learn more about modern blockbuster filmmaking.

Who Does Robert Redford Play in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’?

Image via Marvel Studios

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Robert Redford played Alexander Pierce, a S.H.I.E.L.D.agent even more highly ranked than Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and a member of the World Security Council. He is an old friend of Director Fury’s who the director tries to lean on to get Project Insight, a fleet of helicarriers with advanced surveillance technology, delayed when he discovers evidence of corruption within S.H.I.E.L.D. However, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) soon find out that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by Hydra, the Nazi cult Steve fought in World War II, since its creation, and that Pierce is their current leader. Pierce plans to use Project Insight to kill millions, targeting anyone its algorithm predicts could oppose Hydra. Steve, Natasha, and Fury narrowly manage to stop Pierce with help from Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie). After the helicarriers are disabled Fury kills Pierce to stop him from harming Natasha.

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Why Does Robert Redford Work So Well as Alexander Pierce?

Image via Marvel Studios

Robert Redford playing Alexander Pierce is an excellent example of against-type casting. The filmmakers behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier successfully use the audience’s preconceived notions about the actor’s type to surprise them during the film itself. Redford had played criminals before his MCU debut, of course. In fact, arguably Redford’s most famous role is as the second titular character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who was a robber. But Sundance and his friend Butch (Paul Newman) are never too vicious, even going out of their way to ensure that guards and civilians don’t get hurt during their robberies. Another of Redford’s signature criminal characters, Johnny Hooker from The Sting, works with the FBI to get mob boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) arrested. These types of roles trained viewers to root for Redford, even when his characters were on the wrong side of the law. Pierce is an entirely different character, and his viciousness shocked viewers familiar with Redford’s earlier work.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Pierce is unafraid to personally participate in Hydra’s brutality, as shown in the scene confirming he is the mastermind behind the group. After Steve and Natasha survive the bombing of a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility and escape, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the American World War II veteran Hydra brainwashed and transformed into the super-powered assassin known as the Winter Soldier, arrives at Pierce’s home. After Pierce orders Bucky to kill Steve and Natasha his housekeeper, Renata (Branka Katić), returns, having forgotten something when she left moments before. Renata is shocked and confused at the sight of the frightening Bucky and Pierce says that he wishes she would have knocked before shooting her to death. The casual way in which he carries out the murder speaks volumes about the savage nature of the character and emphasizes how Pierce as a character is a departure from many of Robert Redford’s previous roles. The character is then rendered even more frightening by a later scene in which he beats Bucky while debriefing him, before ordering him to undergo the torturous process of having his memory erased yet again.

Pierce’s manipulative work as the head of Hydra also marks him as the opposite of other Robert Redford characters. Another famous spy film Redford appeared in is Three Days of the Condor. In that film, he plays a CIA agent who delivers evidence of an illegal operation led by high-ranking agents to the press. In All the President’s Men he famously plays real-life Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who along with Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), broke much of the news relating to the Watergate scandal. These roles made viewers associate Redford with honesty and integrity and made him a symbol of the fight against government corruption. In fact, if the Marvel films had been made in the 1970s or 1980s he probably would have been considered for the role of Steve Rogers. This reputation served his role as Pierce perfectly. In retrospect, it seems fairly obvious that Pierce would be the villain of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Redford was the most famous of the actors who joined the MCU in the film and The Avengers had already established that S.H.I.E.L.D., and especially the World Security Council, could be quite ruthless. It shouldn’t have been that surprising that their leader turned out to be corrupt. However viewers were inclined to trust the character because of Redford’s past work.

Even after Pierce declares Steve a fugitive following Fury’s staged death a first-time viewer could be convinced that he is a righteous character who has been fooled by the conspiracy, like Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. The viewer desperately wants to believe that Redford will wind up on the side of the angels, which makes the ultimate reveal all the more devastating. His casting also contributed greatly to the film’s thematic argument. Captain America: The Winter Soldier showed how the paranoia of the War on Terror could turn America into an authoritarian state through practices like warrantless surveillance. By casting Redford, whose cinematic past made him a symbol of truth and rejecting corruption, as a Nazi fanatic whose dying words are “Hail Hydra” the film emphasizes how America’s sacred institutions and figures could be twisted to facilitate the rise of fascism if the country’s core values aren’t closely guarded.

Robert Redford delivers one more surprise as Alexander Pierce even after Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s release. He reprises the role for a cameo in Avengers: Endgame, the final film in Marvel’s Infinity Saga, which was directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, who also directed The Winter Soldier. In the film the present-day Avengers travel back in time to gather the Infinity Stones to reverse Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) Snap and bring half the universe’s population back to life. In 2012 Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) attempts to steal the Tesseract from his younger self who is transporting it with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), when they are confronted by Pierce, who wants to take the item back into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody. Pierce is one of several Hydra characters who return for this sequence, but his inclusion is still surprising because Redford had publicly announced his retirement from acting after the 2018 film The Old Man & the Gun. This discrepancy can be explained by the fact that Endgame was in production before The Old Man & the Gun was released, but although Redford has also done voice work since, it was still surprising to see him onscreen again, making the Endgame scene a perfect coda to his time in the role that had already upended viewers’ expectations so thoroughly.

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