To date, Bucky Barnes has been in eight different MCU projects, and I still don’t feel as if I know that much about him. Two of those were uncredited cameos – Ant-Man and Black Panther – but another was a TV show where he was a titular character, so it all balances out. He’s not had much in the way of character development so much as he’s had a story happen around him. On the two occasions where he gets into a project’s title, he’s there as the Winter Soldier, and that’s fitting, because we know far more about his former life than we do about his current one.
We first meet Bucky in his pre-World War Two halcyon days, where he’s a nice guy – that’s pretty much it. Most of that film is about Steve’s development, and Bucky spends over half of it either on the frontlines while Steve stays home, or as a POW once Steve joins the fight. He’s more of a plot point than a character at times.
The main thing we learn about Bucky is that he’s Good with a capital G. Because the film is entirely about Steve (and because Bucky and Steve are often separated), we don’t get much else. His main purpose is to be established as Good, so that when he returns as the Winter Soldier, him being Bad with a capital B has way more impact. As the Winter Soldier, we learn a lot about him – he was captured by the Russians, is a master assassin, a fearless and fearsome killer… there aren’t a lot of layers, but we know who the Winter Soldier is. He’s remorseless, he’s unstoppable, and he kills people. Not a lot of personality there.
The Winter Soldier is supposed to be a contrast to the real Bucky, and he is – Winter Soldier is Bad while Bucky is Good. But we know nothing of Bucky’s hopes or dreams, his fears, what he stands for, what matters to him. He just now fights for the good guys because of nebulous ideas like justice – but he deserves more. Steve felt like a man out of time slowly coming to terms with how the world is. Bucky, aside from a few passing jokes about it, never seems to have that aspect of his personality explored. The Winter Soldier is an emotionless drone, but without knowing what Bucky cares about, the Winter Soldier caring about nothing has a muted impact.
There was an opportunity in Infinity War to explore this more, through the lens of his place in Wakanda as the White Wolf, but there’s so much happening in that film it’s inevitably pushed to the side. Perhaps it was being set up for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, or maybe it was just a winked reference. It doesn’t really matter, because Bucky should be beyond the setup by now. Of course, I’d like to see his Wakandan story explored in a future Black Panther movie, but after the real life passing of star Chadwick Boseman, the context of that narrative has changed dramatically.
Whatever plans existed need to be thrown out. That needs to be a film of loss, of a fractured community recovering, of how to go on. Yes, there will probably be a superpowered bad guy that Shuri will fight off so that the wheels of the MCU can keep turning, but after Boseman’s passing, it needs to be more than just a stepping stone to the next team up movie, and if that means no Sebastian Stan, so be it.
That brings us up to Bucky’s six episode television series. Surely this would be the thing to explore who Bucky is? Except of course, not really. It begins with him in therapy, befriending a neighbour – who turns out to be the father of one of his victims – going on a date with a woman, and struggling with PTSD. It feels like we’re actually getting to see Bucky beyond having the character dropped into other peoples’ stories for plot or to wink at an old comic book reference. However, past the opening episode, this introspection into who Bucky is dissolves in favour of an action-packed fist fight extravaganza with too many villains, too many plots, and not enough room for our heroes to shine.
Bucky confesses that the reason he hates Sam giving up the shield is because it implies that Steve was wrong about Sam, and by extension, proves Steve was wrong to believe in Bucky. There’s a lot to dig into there, but despite setting up the therapist trope as a way to explore deeply into Bucky’s soul, he just… stops. Too busy punching people. At the end of the series, he has a brief heart to heart with Sam and in a quick montage, wraps up those plot threads established in the first episode, but by that point, the resolutions feel unearned.
It’s particularly interesting that the series ends with a new title card – Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Sam finally accepts the shield, and with it, a new title. Bucky, on the other hand, is still the Winter Soldier. He hasn’t used that name in years, Zemo’s brief attempt at brainwashing has no effect, and he’s trying to absolve himself as best he can from the sins of his past life. But the name is still there, because we know far more of Bucky as the Winter Soldier than we do of him as himself. Moving forward, he seems as if he’s finally going to step out of the shadows and be a key figure in the post-Infinity era of the MCU. If that’s true, we need to know a lot more about who he actually is.
Next: Falcon And The Winter Soldier Shows Marvel Might Finally Be Figuring Out Endings
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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