I woke up this morning to see Vanity Fair’s article, “Is This The One Flaw in the Otherwise Great Captain America: Civil War?,” splashed across my Twitter feed as though it had paid to get there. Clearly, this is a topic that has struck a nerve with fans of the Cap franchise, both in fandom and for “casual” audiences alike. VF’s article, no doubt, is getting quite a bit of play because it represents the latter: a well-respected, mainstream entertainment outlet, criticizing Civil War for a seemingly-pointed assertion of heteronormativity in a franchise that, frankly, has hung its cap (so to speak) on the deeply intimate connection between two men:
But despite what Joe Russo said, doesn’t Captain America: Civil War go out of its way to “define” Bucky and Steve’s relationship when Cap smooches Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) while Bucky looks on approvingly? Where’s the room for interpretation in that moment? And, leaving aside the vague creepiness of Steve making a move on Peggy’s (very willing) niece, the moment itself wasn’t necessary to the flow of the movie at all.
Vanity Fair touches on what seems to be one of the most common disappointments I’ve seen with Civil War: that the film goes out of its way to “sink” Steve & Bucky as a viable romantic pairing by awkwardly insisting on Steve’s heterosexuality, via a character who ultimately serves no real purpose to the film but that of a willing and interchangeable signifier of said heterosexuality. That Sharon Carter – indeed, the inclusion of both Carters, including Peggy’s effective “fridging” – exists for the sole purpose of breaking up a subtextual ship that, frankly, had been the only real well-developed romance in the Captain America franchise (and, as VF suggests, likely the only working romance in the MCU, outside of the now-defunct relationship between Tony and Pepper).
But while Marvel’s fumbling, failed attempts at kick-starting Steve/Sharon are unquestionably, and visibly, evidence of their still-pervasive insistence that a superhero simply isn’t a superhero until he has the appropriate masculine fantasy of the Empowered Woman hanging off his words, were they really as successful as to put the “final nail in the coffin” of Stucky as a pairing? Are we really ready to give such a poorly-written scene, so clearly out of place that an outlet like Vanity Fair is commenting on its compulsory heterosexuality, that much power? Both in terms of its capacity to undo a fandom, & its ability to outplay the hand offered by the rest of the film itself?
That, I would argue, is giving Marvel far too much credit.
Ultimately, the Steve/Sharon kiss and (sub-)subplot have gotten so much flack because it fails so spectacularly. If we look back on The Winter Soldier, despite a similarly uncomfortable, stilted introduction, very few, if any reviews even commented on Sharon’s existence. To be sure, the lack of a kiss has a good deal to do with this, but looking back , did even Bruce/Natasha earn this much first-wave attention from reviewers and critics, before Whedon’s fall from grace became a story worth telling? Certainly, despite the aforementioned lack of chemistry in the Thor franchise, Thor/Jane has been fairly accepted with a disinterested shrug and a chalking up to “chemistry” – poor acting, poor writing, poor casting. While romantic narratives are often criticized it’s rare that their very necessity is questioned; rarer still, to have their purpose called to query.
What strikes me in the reaction to Steve/Sharon then, is that it’s gaining so much attention because it’s actively redundant. Indeed, attempting to read their stilted kiss as the beginning of anything, rather than another missed connection with a Carter, immediately serves to create of Steve the same emotional brick that makes Steve/Sharon a so-often failed experiment in the comics, as well: no matter how hard Marvel tries to convince us Steve thinks girls are nifty – and having met Peggy, we’re all sure he does – the fact remains that Steve Rogers is not emotionally available. In any media he appears in, frankly.
(A visual representation of what dating Steve Rogers is probably going to be like.)
Steve’s history of weaving and dodging emotional intimacy with Sharon in the comics is nearly as long as their romantic history itself. It isn’t a good look for him, and stands out as one of his poorer traits. Steve’s comics iteration is unavailable for a number of reasons, but in Civil War their “budding romance” feels especially out of place when it comes as Steve thanks her for her role in helping him to escape with the genuine focus of his emotional energy. If Steve & Sharon would be a difficult sell on her relation to Peggy alone, they become almost absurd when one considers their kiss and awkward attempts at flirting against the incredible devotion Steve exhibits towards his childhood friend turned HYDRA weapon. A film can insist to its audience that a compulsory heterosexual kiss is “late,” but when placed against the sight of Captain America pushed to the limits of even his strength, pulling a moving helicopter down onto himself to keep a triggered Bucky Barnes from disappearing again, it’s difficult to even compare the two without finding the former laughable. It isn’t that Steve and Sharon took so long to get around to flirting with each other because outside circumstances have kept them apart. For the last two years, Steve has simply had more important things to do.
Depending on how you want to view it, this is either Civil War’s failure, or its saving grace. Coming on the heels of an Avengers film so unsuccessful that Marvel needed to effectively call “do-over,” one can genuinely hope Disney is more willing to listen to its audiences going forward than it was when it let Joss Whedon commit character assassination over Hawkeye & Black Widow — this, because despite (perhaps because of) its awkwardness, there is nothing in Civil War itself that insists on Steve/Sharon moving forward, nor that truly “sinks” Steve & Bucky. For my part, I read the assertion that the kiss was “late” in very much the same vein as the repeated refrain that Steve was “late” with Peggy: late in his return from rescuing Bucky; late to his dance at the Stork Club; late in the one, lone kiss they did share. Similarly, I don’t have trouble imagining that Steve and Sharon share an attraction, however awkward it may feel — but just as was the case with Peggy so long ago, their attempt to act on it came at the wrong place, in the wrong time. Perhaps if she’d accepted his invitation for coffee, before the Winter Soldier blasted into their lives. Maybe if she hadn’t been in the uncomfortable situation of having to spy on him, of having to keep secrets right off the bat. Or if he’d agreed to sign the Sokovia Accords; if they’d met up again under better circumstances. Hell: if they’d just met up again sometime in the last two years; if they’d just met up again before Bucky was flushed back out.
(In fairness to Sharon, Bucky had a pretty big head-start.)
Because this is the part that even mainstream reviewers, like VF are picking up on. It isn’t the “sinking” of Steve/Bucky as a viable pairing — if they had been effectively “sunk,” we wouldn’t be seeing conversations about them. What we’re seeing is a response to a cognitive dissonance: an attempt to assert the possibility of romance when one of the characters is clearly, thoroughly and completely wrapped up in another human being already. Steve’s single-minded love for Bucky is a narrative point so central to Civil War that every character who was there for TWS picks up on it, at some point: Natasha, after the bombings in Vienna, who knows “how much Barnes means to you;” Sam, coming with him after Zemo triggers Bucky in lock down, watching their aching reunion afterwards, sharply reminds Steve how easily he’s letting himself believe in a reunion that may well still be a desperate fantasy. Even Rumlow, in all of his six minutes of screen-time, unnerves Steve into allowing civilian causalities by conjuring the specter of “your Bucky.”
The film’s climax itself rests on Steve’s single-minded and complete love for Bucky Barnes in a way that wipes everything else clean. The described “emotional horror show” of the final fight between Iron Man and the Cap/Bucky duo acts as such only because it’s the moment in which Tony, still desperately clinging to the fantasy of the Avengers as a family unit, is confronted with the reality of Steve Rogers the man, over Captain America the myth he grew up with. The final fight is emotionally compelling because it gives Tony a violent, definitive response to his flippant remark in Age of Ultron, the profession that he doesn’t trust someone who doesn’t “have a dark side.” Then, Steve tells Tony he simply hasn’t seen it yet; now, Tony sees it in vicious, blinding hues, in silver, red and blue. He sees it in Steve’s willingness to lie to Tony’s face; in the way Steve’s blows turn deadly as soon as he realizes Bucky may himself be in mortal danger. He realizes where Steve’s loyalties lie the minute Steve refuses to stay down, confronted with Bucky, dazed and broken on a concrete floor. And it’s thrown back at him, literally, when he makes his final Hail Mary plea to Captain America himself, referencing the shield’s origins, questioning his worthiness to wield it, in the emotional state that he’s in.
Steve’s response? He drops it. He leaves Tony with the shards of Captain America, and Steve Rogers walks away, “his Bucky” in tow. In an echo of Steve’s haunted fears that there is no place left for him that feels like home, that he’s lost himself, in coming out of the ice, Steve Rogers breathes deep and does something Captain America hasn’t been allowed to do since he woke up in 2012: he chooses himself. His own life, and his own love.
He leaves. And he leaves with the person who means the most to him.
(If you don’t want me to read Bucky as in love with Steve, maybe don’t frame triangle shots like this, Marvel.)
Civil War ends with a letter to Tony and a burner phone — Steve’s promise, and his lack of concession. The Avengers, he tells Tony, are Tony’s family, and Steve is glad he has them. Steve doesn’t hate Tony; quite the opposite, he clearly cares about him, deeply. Steve cared about Howard, too; he cared about Peggy, and he cares about Sharon. His break-in to General Ross’s prison, freeing the remaining “criminal” Avengers, shows again how deep his loyalty runs, as Sam looks out past the glass of his prison door to see his best friend has come for him again. As Steve tells Tony in the letter he sends, his faith has always been in people — and for the most part, they give him a reason to keep believing. But Steve’s letter is pointed for what it doesn’t say, directly. If Tony’s family lies in a found group of like minds, a collection of lost humans he can care for, can dote on, can cling so they won’t leave, then Steve’s home is wrapped up in an individual. Steve isn’t cruel: the wounds are (quite literally) still fresh from Siberia, and even without saying it, it’s easy enough to infer who that “person” is that Steve has placed his home with. While putting Bucky back on ice speaks again to Marvel’s unwillingness to let an unwanted (female) fan base run wild with these characters for another two years, the film does little to suggest Steve has any intention of leaving Wakanda without Bucky: indeed, our last image of Steve sees him dressed casually, standing in what appear to be living quarters with T’Challa as he admits that Bucky’s presence means a potential headache for the once-reclusive country. If this is Marvel’s idea of a nail in a coffin, the Bundren family would like a word.
(My Bucky is a fish.)
When it comes to Steve and Bucky, then, Marvel has a choice to make. Certainly, they can push forward with their insistence on compulsory heternormativity at all costs – but perhaps it’s time to question whether these kinds of watery, superficial throw-away plots help or hinder a narrative. After a string of absurd blunders with both romantic storylines and female characters (Bruce/Natasha, Hope Van Dyne, the erasure of Betsy Ross, and Jane & Pepper’s exits as their corresponding actors leave the franchise) the fault lines in Marvel’s treatment of women have become increasingly visible – and in light of their very public blunders of representation (Tilda Swinson in Doctor Strange, pushing back Black Panther for yet another pasty white Spider-man, and the continued, weak excuses for Widow’s lack of a film), the MCU has gone from being at the forefront of comic book franchises to lagging woefully behind.
It’s no mistake that the most successful heroes in the Marvel franchise are those whose masculinities are non-traditional; that audiences have responded far better to the Russos’ perception of Steve Rogers as someone ready to die for the man he loves, than they have Whedon’s hypermasculine soldier, tut-tutting “language” and bristling alpha-male aggression against his fellow Avengers. For all that Disney may feel they don’t “need” or “want” a female audience for their comic book franchises, the fact is that the MCU’s success is absolutely dependent on a franchise that went from C to A-list based in no moderate part on the enthusiasm of a largely female-identified fannish space. More to the point, the Captain America franchise owes its aggressive uptick in success to the refreshingly non-traditional image of a hero whose “damsel in distress” is neither: a character upon whom the trappings associated with so many Empowered Female Superheroes can be inflicted (physical threat, loss of bodily autonomy, a narrative of “birthing” others like themselves while in his altered state) without the politics and power dynamics associated with a heterosexual coupling.
(Far more traditional for male heroes is psychological imprisonment: blackmail, often via threat of physical harm to a [female] loved one – think Martha in Batman v. Superman. While Bucky has been brainwashed for seventy years, his torture is explicitly & repeatedly made physical: he’s often the only person in the room in a state of undress; he’s forcibly placed, body moved like an object; his handlers loom over him while his body is made prone, legs spread, arms held down. Even his brainwashing is visceral, done as it is via physical application of force. Zemo’s use of the trigger words is especially telling: even though he never touches Bucky, and the words are entirely an act of language, Bucky’s response is physical: he throws his head back, pulls at his restraints, desperately tries to escape while crying out for Zemo to stop. His violation is made explicitly physical, in a way that, again, is very rare for a male hero)
As it stands, it would be very easy for Marvel to brush off what they’ve done so far. Steve and Sharon had an awkward moment that failed to go anywhere; Steve will likely spend the next two years in the MCU in or near Wakanda, unlikely to stray far from where he left Bucky. Sharon herself has shown potential as a character in her own right, and could quite easily carry on Peggy’s legacy in ways far more important than “Steve Rogers’ love interest” – a role that does neither character justice, as it requires minimizing Peggy’s role in Steve’s life as well, in a bid to make his interest in Sharon less of a grief-induced projection. And frankly, as both TWS and CW demonstrated, there’s no reason for these absurd romantic side-narratives. Female characters no longer exist as exchangeable props, to serve the male hero or to drive the story forward. They are heroes in their own right; they have plots, histories, backstories. Marvel has a choice to make, as they move forward with Steve, and as they face increasing competition from other studios and other franchises to not just make their movies better, but to represent a greater variety of voices than White Men Named Chris. In the case of Civil War, the bar for success is so unbelievably low, it’s hard to imagine having the arrogance to trip over it.
Marvel doesn’t need to do anything. They just need to stop trying to force what is ultimately a refreshingly new kind of superhero, into an outdated model. The cracks are showing, and if the response to Civil War’s enforced heteronormativity is any indication, Marvel’s audience has no interest in seeing this particular mold repaired.