Through Hell and Back Again: Bucky Barnes in the Captain America Franchise

Photo by Clément M. on Unsplash

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I need to start this article by mentioning I have never seen the Captain America films before. I knew to a certain extent what happened with him and Bucky, but I have and always will be a Tony Stark person (one of the reasons being the Iron Man movies all came out either on or around my birthday). The Winter Soldier storyline and Captain America weren’t of the most importance to me. Cap’s never been my favorite avenger, and I never understood why exactly we were so into Bucky…then The Falcon and The Winter Soldier started being available; and I wanted to talk about it, but didn’t think I had the tools to keep watching without going back and seeing what all the fuss was about Captain America in the first place. Am I really doing this for selfish reasons because I’m not sure who Zemo was at the end of episode three of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier? …Any way, let’s break down Bucky’s character Captain America film by Captain America film, shall we?

Captain America: The First Avenger (Spoiler Alert: Major Character Death)

If you’re asking yourself how exactly I’m going to write an entire article about a side character when Steve Rogers is right there. The answer is this paragraph. Bucky’s character in The First Avenger is something that’s sidekick at best, simply motivation for the protagonist at worst. What makes Bucky so interesting in this first film is Bucky being Steve’s foil. He’s the tall, dark, and handsome uniformed hero. He’s getting the opportunity to be everything Steve wants; poor sickly and desperate to be given a chance to run with Steve. Not only that, Bucky is everything Steve becomes. In other uses of foil characters, it’s common when one character gains the other’s traits it ends with jealousy and sometimes a fracture in the friendship. Bucky’s loyalty to Steve, is what saves it. Like when Steve asks the 107th to go back to enemy territory again and Bucky tells Steve he’s with him ‘to the end of the line’. It’s what makes Bucky so special. It’s a genuine and supportive friendship through all of the things that happened to the both of them, good, bad and ugly.

The place where I thought Bucky’s story could be construed as a little disappointing or where it ends and can be seen as maybe just motivation for Steve is when The First Avenger deals with his trauma at Hydra and with his death, which it just sort of…doesn’t. This is where it gets hard to follow a side character of a big franchise, and that’s sort of the point. Because we’ve followed Steve the entire movie, it’s not necessary to dig deep into Bucky’s story unless it’s serving Steve. It’s a Captain America movie so we certainly aren’t going to follow another character as closely as we follow Captain America. It’s just where Bucky’s story has to stop; for now.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Real quick, just like the paragraph before” Spoiler Alert: There’s going to be a big huge discussion about spoilers in this movie so I can discuss and analyze Bucky’s character. You’ve been warned)

Along with this film showing the insidious nature of extremist groups, or what freedom means to different people, it portrays grief and sacrifice of those closest to us in unique ways that still serve Steve. It’s all over the place, from Natasha begging Nick to stick around during his surgery, to Sam’s story of losing his wingman Riley. What you have is three soldiers fighting for the greater good and losing the person that is supportive and loyal to them to the end of the line. Who could possibly understand that better than Steve? This constant reminder of losing your best friend brings Steve, and by extension the audience, back to missing Bucky and grieving him. So what happens when all of that comes back when he sees Bucky’s face for the first time? Steve’s processed his loss and he’s watched his friends go through the same situations with their own people. It causes the audience the same surprise and pain as Steve when they see Bucky for the first time. That’s what makes the Winter Solder’s reveal and the pain of Bucky’s “Who the hell is Bucky” line hit so hard. Steve remembers him. The audience remembers him. They remember him as the hero Steve wanted to be and the friend that just didn’t make it. To see that image tarnished this way and clawing at his best friend who didn’t even know he was alive sends the audience in the same tailspin and disorientation as it sends Steve.

I’ve spoken a lot about what this means for Steve. Now, what does this have to do with Bucky’s character? It, at first, propels the foil aspect of Bucky’s character forward. Both are super soldiers but both were not given the same sort of autonomy. Bucky is what happens when something is controlled to the point of anonymity, to legend. It’s something Bucky has to grapple with once he does remember who Steve is. He doesn’t know he did anything wrong; doesn’t remember who he was before Steve tells him. What does that do to a person, especially a good person like we know Bucky was. What happens when one must grapple with the atrocities they’ve done, as a pawn, as a cog in a war machine or not?

Captain America: Civil War (Spoiler Alert: All of it)

While this film is epic because of all the superheroes per capita, the plot and each character’s struggle doesn’t branch out in some convoluted tree of twisted and gnarled branches so much as growing straight up. Similar to The Winter Soldier, there’s a theme that goes through the whole work. Whether this is thanks to the Russo Brother’s getting a hold of the tail end of the MCU or if it’s because of the comic book arcs I’m not sure. Certainty or no, the theme bleeding through the whole film effects all of the characters. Including our favorite traumatized and Brillo pad scrubbed brain washed super soldier.

We catch glimpses of every single character’s grappling with the deaths of innocent people. These deaths are never directly caused by the Avengers but happen while they were busy trying to save the world from the MCU Big Three (if you know, you know). It begs the question of the audience and its characters; what makes it possible for heroes to sleep at night after they cause innocent people to be harmed while trying to save many, many more? Steve Rogers is not spared of this question. However, like in every film before this, he believes so vehemently in the right thing, illegal or no, he pushes through, only to be right in the end, like always. Sorry, my Team Tony eked out for a moment. How does this question, this theme, effect Bucky? He runs away; constantly.

The most interesting thing to me about Bucky was his coming to grips of what happened. We see him at first, just trying to be a regular guy, then being thrown back into the limelight by our villain, Helmut Zemo (he comes back in Episode Three of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier this week and he may or may not be the reason I wrote the article). He has a line where he tells Steve “It always ends in a fight” and maybe for him, he’s correct. If one had to deal with that for seventy years, who wouldn’t want to run? What makes the running aspect of Bucky so captivating is he’s the only one who wants to run at all. Steve wants freedom to make the choices to do the right thing, even though it may cause smaller problems for which he will take responsibility. Tony wants someone to hold him and by extension the Avengers accountable. Both of these reactions and motivations are right. One reaction is certainly more right (surprise, it’s Steve’s) or at least debatable; and both can be seen as heroic. Bucky wanting to hide from the thing that’s traumatized him the most and do the best he can to run from what he’s done? While not heroic, it’s definitely the most human reaction.

I’m not sure how much I’ve bastardized watching the MCU by focusing on one hero in this manner. I’m sure I’ll watch them in chronological order, or release order soon because this was far too much fun. However, doing it to make sure I’m focused enough on a character’s journey in their new show? That was incredibly helpful and fun. If you’d like to use this as a small and spoiler filled primer to watch The Falcon and Winter Soldier, be my guest. Make sure you block out time for it though. Just watching three MCU movies took a couple days. For Bucky Barnes though? Worth it.

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