I’ve been meaning to post about this for what feels like ever, which in reality likely means, “the last week or so.” But nonetheless. There seems to be a lot of discussion surrounding the decision made in Civil War to have Bucky stay away from Steve over the last two years: responses ranging from confusion to betrayal, to feelings that its out of character, or perhaps speaks to a version of Bucky that may not in fact have as many memories back as he’s led Steve to believe. Admittedly, on first (couple of) viewings, this was something I struggled with. Not so much Bucky’s decision to stay away – I’d expected as much, given his actions in the comics are very similar – but rather, his choice to continue to lie to Steve after he’s been found out, choosing to downplay his memories of Steve, what they mean, and how he came upon them. Bucky repeatedly tells Steve that he “doesn’t know” his history with Steve: that he recognizes Steve “from the museum;” that he “doesn’t know” why he pulled Steve from the river. He pulls away during their only real chance at a ‘moment,’ on the quinjet, shutting down as Steve attempts to recall a memory from their youth, even as Bucky was the one to bring it up in the first place.
But the thing is, on repeat viewings, Bucky’s behavior stops feeling odd, out of place, or deliberately avoidant on the part of the narrative. Rather, I’d argue it’s deliberately avoidant on Bucky’s part — and purposeful, on the part of the narrative. Bucky’s reluctance to see Steve again, and his refusal to easily acknowledge the intimacy of their shared history, are a natural reaction for someone coping with the things Bucky is dealing with. Moreover, they make complete sense within the context of a Bucky who remembers everything – good and bad, James Barnes and Winter Soldier. Within the context of Steve and Bucky’s relationship in the MCU, Bucky’s decisions towards Steve speak to just how closely he holds his relationship with Steve — not just for what it was, but as a marker of his identity.
One of the first things that comes up when discussing the ‘coolness’ of Steve and Bucky’s relationship in this movie is their reunion. Steve finds Bucky’s apartment – shockingly fast; was he listed? What was the listing: Sad Trash Assassin? – and soon after, finds Bucky, who promptly pretends not to have any idea who Steve is beyond what he’s read at the Smithsonian exhibit. Moreover, he insists he has no idea why he pulled Steve from the river: an assertion Steve demands is a lie.
Bucky Barnes – before his “death,” before the Winter Soldier – defined himself, to a likely unhealthy extent, by his ability to protect Steve Rogers. There’s a whole lot to unpack there, far more than this particular piece of meta has the space for, but this isn’t just Stucky goggles talking – this is the repeated canon of Markus and McFeely, the Russo Brothers, Sebastian Stan. Bucky’s sense of purpose is wrapped up in Steve: it drives his decision to go back into the European theater; it’s responsible for his less-than-enthusiastic response to the serum. And in return, as is made repeatedly and explicitly clear in the films, Steve Rogers adored him. You can read this love as romantic, familial, transcendent, whatever: Steve Rogers loves Bucky Barnes with an intensity that very clearly defined their lives — this relationship was powerful enough that it’s still capable of acting as a weapon against Steve, as Rumlow demonstrates when he nearly blows Steve and half of that Lagos courtyard to hell just by evoking Bucky’s name.
My point here: we’re led to believe that Bucky has all of his memories back: both those of his own, and those belonging to the Winter Soldier. He remembers it “all.” Which means he’s been struck — violently, suddenly, all at once — with two incredibly, almost hilariously competing identities. One: the memories of an assassin, something cold and unfeeling wearing his skin, responsible for who knows how many high-profile assassinations over the last hundred years. He’s done horrific things against people who didn’t deserve their fates, and he remembers their deaths in first-hand, even as he had no control over what his body was doing.
And then there’ a second set of memories. One that tells him he loved, and was loved: intensely; purely; without motive or intent. He’s seen the exhibit, he’s read the material lauding “Captain America” as a hero, an icon, a living representation of goodness and right. But his memories are of this man so much smaller; so much more fragile. Someone he needed to protect. And his memories are of this man loving him — of him being someone worth this man’s love. Scarier still, the immediate memory of this man in the present-day, bleeding, shot, and looking up at him insisting he won’t fight him, that he’d rather die; that he’s with him “’til the end of the line.”
Bucky comes out of The Winter Soldier seeing himself as a time bomb. He has no idea what’s happened to his programming, or his handlers. While he’s no doubt by now read about SHIELD’s fall, he’s been in the hands of so many organizations under so many names that Hydra likely means nothing to him: they were one more cover, and someone will come and take him to a new one. If we take this farther, and assume any piece of comics canon to supplement the MCU, Bucky has likely already broken his conditioning at least once, and lived on his own, a “free” man, for some period of time. Bucky has been here before. “Freedom,” for him, is a temporary state. Eventually someone will say the right set of words, will come after him with a tranquilizer or a kill switch and he’ll be turned back, taken in. For the last two years, Bucky has been desperately putting everything into writing — likely because he expects it will be taken from him all over again.
Which makes the fact that the journal Steve finds is his own fairly significant.
For all Bucky’s insistence that he “doesn’t know” Steve intimately, we’re immediately given physical proof that Bucky is likely a liar. He has a well-used, marked and dogeared journal (left out while the others have been hidden under the floorboards) filled with information on Steve himself; presumably, given it appears to have the Smithsonian exhibit’s flyer in it, this particular journal is at least somewhat old. It suggests he returns to it — at the very least, that he has more need for it than he does those hidden, other documents.
But maybe Bucky’s greatest tell is in the very beginning, when he first addresses Steve at all. Because when Steve asks Bucky if he knows him, Bucky’s response gives him away:
“You’re Steve, right? I read about you in a museum.”
A pretty good cover, sure…except, when was the last time a museum – indeed, when was the last time anyone in the 21st century at all — thought to acknowledge “Captain America,” as “Steve?”
In contrast, the brief scene following Zemo’s triggering of Bucky back into the Winter Soldier marks what is almost certainly the most intimate moment between Steve and Bucky during the movie proper. But there are two things here that make this scene particularly telling. The first, and one that I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to, is that Bucky is still pretty clearly dazed here — his mannerisms and speech are fairly hazy and perhaps even a little disoriented until Sam steps in, still angry, at which point the fog clears and he realizes what’s actually happened, how much Steve isn’t telling him and how he likely got in the can-opener in the first place. But this brief conversation takes place before then. As such, this is the only time in the entire movie that Bucky talks to Steve while his guard is down. And his immediate response, upon seeing Steve without being on the defense, in perpetual fight-or-flight?
Adoration. Plain and simple. He remembers Steve, but he remembers his Steve: he remembers Sarah Rogers; he remembers the little guy who stuffed his shoes with newspapers. It’s hardly surprising that Steve looks like he’s going to cry here, particularly when you juxtapose it with his last attempt to get Bucky to admit to knowing him, in which he kept insisting Steve was “that guy from the museum:” deflecting back to the impersonal; back to Captain America. Steve tells him he’s lying, then; he repeats a similar statement here, effectively calling Bucky’s bluff with, “you can’t read about that in a museum.”
But then, this is Bucky’s internal struggle – and very likely what kept him hiding from Steve for the last two years. In the comics, he needed the time to come to terms with what he’d done; to feel like himself was “worthy” of Steve’s love for him. While Steve and Bucky’s relationship in the MCU is far different in that it lacks the hints of paternalism that sometimes creep into comics canon, I’d argue that MCU Bucky is nonetheless struggling with a version of this. For the last two years, he’s been unable to think of anything but what he’s done: it’s front and center, in violent, screaming color; his most recent memories, the man he’s been for the majority of his very long life. But he also has memories of Steve: of having a family, of being a person who loved, and was loved. Of being loved – fiercely; completely. By someone who would put their own life on the line to keep him safe. By someone who he knows he would do the same for, for whom the instinct to do so is carved into him so deep not even HYDRA could take it out. Those memories sound wonderful on the surface – why wouldn’t you run like hell towards them, after decades of abuse? – but you have to remember, this is Bucky. This is also the Winter Soldier. And he’s stumbled across a part of himself that HYDRA hasn’t been able to take. Keeping in mind that he’s spent the last two years waiting for “something like” Zemo to happen…is it surprising that he would bury those memories down deep to keep them safe?
More than that, there’s the incredible cognitive dissonance. Bucky’s memories of Steve are of safety, of love and affection and of this person that both history and his memories have told him is good, the embodiment of good, adoring him unconditionally. The man on the bridge was willing to give up his life for Bucky, and now he’s showed up again, willing to take him at his word (“I don’t do that anymore,” despite all evidence to the contrary) and risk his own life, again, to save Bucky’s. We as an audience know that Steve knows damn well who he’s doing this for: he’s under no illusions as to who Bucky is now, and what he’s been through. But Bucky doesn’t know that.
Bucky’s personal narrative in this movie is an anxious split between the person he was and the thing he fears still lives in his head — the assassin he still sees himself as, the one who’s only retired, who “[doesn’t] do that anymore.” It’s significant that Bucky still considers the Soldier a seamless part of himself, when the film begins — he’s innocent by distance, not by dint of the fact he’s simply not that man. Bucky remembers everything, but it’s clear the Winter Soldier’s memories are recent, are immediate — that these are the memories that structure who he is at this particular minute. His memories of Steve are very clearly powerful to him. He’s afforded them a lot of significance, as we see when he insists to Zemo his name is “Bucky,” taking on not just a given name but an affectionate moniker he’s not used before himself, in this lifetime; that indeed, no one but Steve considers “his” name. But while he wraps his former identity around himself like a blanket in a time that he’s scared (and indeed, Zemo seems to recognize what he’s doing, given how quickly he strips him of it – “let’s talk about your home: not Austria, certainly not Brooklyn, no”), he appears anxious to use it around Steve himself, as though he’s afraid he’ll be somehow “found out” – that Steve will realize he’s lacking; that he isn’t good enough; that he’s broken; that the version of him that came out of the last quarter of a century is too bloody, too violent, too hardened to be the “Bucky” that Steve Rogers could love enough to sacrifice literally everything for.
It isn’t until that final fight, when Steve watches the video of “Bucky,” murdering the Starks in cold blood, and still chooses Bucky over everything and everyone, that Bucky seems to genuinely let his guard down. The mid-credits scene, while frustrating, is also possibly the most unguarded we see Bucky towards Steve in the movie. He tells Steve the truth: what he’s afraid of, and why he wants this. He trusts Steve to take him somewhere safe, despite the fact his only experience with T’Challa has been repeated attempts on his life. And he trusts that Steve will come back for him — that this isn’t recapture; this isn’t a loss of autonomy or freedom. For Bucky, going under again in this set of circumstances is relief; it’s handing over two years’ worth of fear to someone he knows he can trust. And it’s being able to acknowledge that trust as authentic, as directed at him, Winter Soldier and all.
There’s certainly room for criticism in how Steve and Bucky were handled, in Civil War. Absolutely, material should have been included to help explain these characters’ difficulties communicating — hell, material should have been included to explain Bucky’s damned backpack, too. But thinking back on the Russos’ comments about Civil War as it was being made, I keep coming back to one of their earlier interviews:
Is he innocent by reason of insanity or the equivalent of it because he’s been mind controlled or is he irredeemable? Is he ever going to be acceptable to Cap again as the friend that he used to be before he was the Winter Soldier? (x)
At the time, I remember a bit of disappointment over the idea that the Russos thought this way — that they’d even consider Bucky “irredeemable” for what Hydra had done to him. But with the movie out, and very clearly offering a narrative that treats Bucky as a victim – a point T’Challa himself even makes – I pose another suggestion, regarding the Russos’ earlier statements:
What if this is the way Bucky has been thinking? Doesn’t his behavior make a lot more sense, then?