Let me preface this by saying that I have been waiting a long time to write this.
I haven’t read the comics, but those who have know that the plot of Captain America: Civil War will be making major deviations from the Civil War storyline in the comics. In particular, this version will depict Captain America’s pressing personal crisis of the terrible, tragic fate of his best friend, Bucky Barnes. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have teased that Civil War will be a psychological thriller. Having been through so much with Bucky and because of Bucky, Steve Rogers is tied heart and soul to his friend, perhaps so much that Steve could be blind to his dark side. Until the movie comes out, we will have to wait for the details of how Bucky’s situation will divide the Avengers Analyzing the last two films that Bucky has appeared in, we must ask ourselves the question, what is the appeal of the Winter Soldier to the legions of fans who, like myself, have fallen in love with him, and why is his story making such an impact on the Avengers?
The Annoying Best Friend
A long time ago when I was a sophomore in college, I saw Captain America: The First Avenger for the first time, and James Buchanan Barnes was the best friend of underdog Steve Rogers.
To be honest, I brushed him off at first as the annoying best friend with the funny nickname. It was not unexpected that Steve would risk his life to go behind enemy lines to save him. I couldn’t help chuckling at the occasional snappy dialogue between him and Steve, but other than that I didn’t really pay much attention to him. In fact, he kind of gave off the air that he was perfect and popular and had everything handed to him on a platter. We watch him lose some of his bravado in Steve’s shadow and it is grimly satisfying.
“I’m invisible. I’m turning into you, it’s like a horrible dream.”
Honestly, heartless as I was, Bucky falling off the train didn’t seem like a big deal at the time—well, apart from the fact that Steve was really upset. Then Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out when I was right about to graduate.
I had already read somewhere on the internet about the true identity of Cap’s latest opponent. I figured that relationship could make things interesting.
I wasn’t planning on the scene where the Winter Soldier’s mask fell off.
I wasn’t planning on the wiping scene.
I wasn’t planning on “Till the end of the line.”
I wasn’t planning on that chilling post-credit scene.
Over the next few months, I fell in love. I re-watched The First Avenger and read comments from other fans on the internet that analyzed Bucky’s character in both films. Yeah, in that first viewing, he does come off as kind of shallow, but you later realize that in the background there is this deep, rock-solid bond between him and Steve. And the flashback in The Winter Solider brought it even more to the forefront. Bucky Barnes was handsome and charming and a bit of a rascal, but he was also courageous and devoted to Steve. And that line about “turning into you” is all of a sudden less humorous and more heartbreaking.
To be honest, I don’t want that charming, roguish side of Bucky to ever be completely lost, since I’ve warmed up to it, but I doubt we’re going to see it onscreen. But after Hydra and after being on the run, the Bucky we have now is a deep, complex character, one that I can definitely relate to.
A Real Side to Bucky
Before I say anything else, I would like to step out of universe for a moment consider the actor who has brought the Winter Soldier to life onscreen, Sebastian Stan. In preparing for the role, Sebastian drew inspiration for the character from documentaries about Navy SEALS and returned soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, and even from watching the effects of Alzheimer’s on a close relative. He also read up on the Winter Soldier storyline in the comics and some of the losses he faced in that version. He said at Salt Lake Comic Con last fall that those elements from the comics made the character very real to him.
And with that in mind, let me just say what a real character Bucky Barnes is to a fan like me. The Winter Soldier’s torture was a reminder of the depression I had to fight when I was in college, and he was initially a reminder of what I had overcome. But since passing through my own ordeals I’ve had to learn how to be both a functioning member of society and someone with a disability. After Cap 2, I can see Bucky in a similar situation emotionally. There is a little bit of him that’s trying to find out who he was before, yes, but trying to hide the fact that he was Hydra’s weapon—hiding the fact that he is different—is a matter of personal survival in a world that he doesn’t understand. And I feel that his ultimate goal is acceptance of who he was and who he is now, from himself and from other people.
No Straightforward Redemption
Whether or not Captain America: Civil War supports my view of Bucky as a character remains to be seen. However, the fandom that has spent the last two years hoping that Bucky has a happy reunion with Steve and gets all the loves and cuddles and blankets he deserves may be in for a rude awakening on May 6th. At this point, there are more questions than answers about the Winter Soldier. Steve is obviously fighting for Bucky regardless of what Hydra did to him, but what is Bucky fighting for?
For the record, Bucky Barnes is a victim, but the Winter Soldier is a villain. He’s supposed to be a violent character. The shot of him shooting Tony from the Superbowl teaser was particularly jarring. I don’t buy into the theory that there’s someone behind Stark that he’s shooting at. We need to wait until the movie comes out so we can have the context for that scene. Being brainwashed and program to fight and kill for seventy years doesn’t go away overnight. The notion that some of his actions in Civil War, intentional as they seem, are him still struggling is something to keep in mind, especially considering that people with mental and emotional disabilities don’t always have complete control over their actions (and let me remind you that I’ve been there!). The suspense, however, lies in the choices he is making of his own free will.
On closer inspection, Steve does seem a little hesitant in that reunion scene in the November trailer. But from other footage we’ve seen, we know that Steve somehow wins the loyalty—or thinks he wins the loyalty—of the former Winter Soldier. Maybe Bucky doesn’t remember much other than the newspaper in the shoes and the name of Steve’s mom. But Steve doesn’t make that an issue. Maybe Steve has figured out that he needs to accept Bucky the way he is for now and work out the details later. What’s really important here, of course, is that Steve still believes that Bucky has a chance to come around and he’s going to take it. Even though the prospects for Civil War look bleak, we as fans still have to believe in that.