Because I am a Grown Adult who does respectable, Grown Adult things (TM), today I went into Hot Topic to see if they had any of the new (read: not Iron Man or Cap) Funko Mopeez for Civil War. I picked up Natasha and T’Challa, but like the rest of the internet, I found myself holding Vision and Crossbones and thinking, really?! This, over Bucky Barnes?
The internet is not, apparently, alone in this. The clerk who rang me up commiserated. With the resigned air of someone who has answered Too Many Phone Calls, she told me they were getting “a lot of questions” about Bucky merchandise — none of which they could answer, obviously. Not even Hot Topic can find products that don’t exist.
I’ve been trying to figure out what it is exactly about the lack of Bucky merchandise that makes me so specifically uncomfortable. After all, it’s hardly that Marvel is lacking in Merch Featuring Tragic White Dudes. But in contrast to other characters whose presence was notably missing from early franchise material (Hawkeye, Black Widow, most noticeably), Bucky’s presence seems to have actually shrunk, despite his extreme popularity with Marvel’s online fans. As Marvel expands its merchandising into a broader spectrum of toys, dolls and figurines, Bucky remains conspicuously absent, even when the merchandise would be seemingly ideal: would anyone, for instance, have asked for a Vision Mopeez?
Even the argument that the character is “too dark” for the merchandising demographic falls apart when you consider how much money Disney poured into The Force Awakens on the (losing) assumption that children – specifically, little boys – everywhere would want to act out their fondest Kylo Ren fantasies, presumably those not involving patricide and/or Jedi-cide. Clearly the idea that morality will play a role when explosions, fight scenes and cool weapons are involved is not a question at hand, here — and in terms of cool weapons, I struggle to imagine anything cooler than a gleaming metal arm. Certainly, it has more curb appeal than Hawkeye’s sleeve and bow, a piece of merchandise you can in fact purchase as a tie-in to this movie. So…what gives, then? Why completely shut out a character for whom there is very clearly a market?
As others have talked about in far more detail than I have the space for here, Bucky occupies a strange position in the Captain America franchise. As the driving force behind most, if not all of Steve’s actions in the trilogy, Bucky takes on a role generally ascribed to female characters in this kind of hypermasculine action-fantasy — more specifically, a role generally ascribed to the female love interest. To the point, he is acted on, rather than acting; his body is a site of conflict, and control over that body becomes representative of the larger power plays that make up the hero’s quest and conflict: Steve acts; Bucky is acted upon. It’s a subversion of a very traditional action-hero romance, and it’s resonated particularly powerfully with Marvel’s online fandom — specifically, its female-identfying fandom, who (consciously or not) quickly read these cues surrounding Bucky and identified with him, and latched onto him. Bucky has become a break-out character…but he’s become a break-out character to a very specific portion of the audience.
Therein lies the problem. As Forbes reminded us last year, Disney is actively uninterested in courting Marvel’s female audience:
According to a former Marvel employee quoting her supervisor, the company’s desired demographic has no girls because “that’s not why Disney bought us. They already have the girls’ market on lock down.” The piece goes on to explain, “Disney bought Marvel and Lucasfilm because they wanted to access the male market. To achieve this goal, they allocate less to Marvel’s female demo, and even less to a unisex one.”
With this in mind, Bucky’s absence feels far more pointed — and far more frustrating, as it becomes less an oversight and more part of a larger pattern, as Disney insists upon the invisibility of its female audience. Suddenly, Bucky’s absence from the Mopeez line makes far more sense: while the line is sold in stores aimed at young adults and collectors, it’s clearly geared towards children; there’s no benefit, in inserting a “niche market” character when an audience of 6 to 10 year olds can be made to buy any brightly-colored hero. His absence from figurine sets is irrelevant, as the film was marketed as “Cap v. Iron Man,” and all of the packaging reflects this focus. Merchandising is easiest, and most lucrative, when it can be centered around the fewest number of characters — in this case, Civil War has planted its focus around Iron Man, Cap, and Spider-man, the three best-known and cross-platform characters to a young audience. As with Natasha, who was practically invisible on the Avengers roster until the fandom criticism forced Marvel’s hand, there’s simply no monetary benefit to Marvel/Disney emphasizing Bucky: he’s the darling of an audience they aren’t interested in courting, to whom increased attention only serves as a reminder that narratively, the Captain America franchise has attracted so much attention at least in part for the subversiveness of the relationships it portrays between its characters.
We all know what happens when you google “Steve Bucky,” after all.