Homecoming: Bucky Barnes and the Tragedy of Redemption

The saddest scene in Captain America: Civil War is also one of the smallest. Steve Rogers, decked out in his superhero uniform, stands in the middle of a tiny, run-down apartment in Bucharest, taking in the near-squalor in which his best friend Bucky Barnes has been living for some time. Barnes is a fugitive, so it’s not like he’d be living high on the hog anyway, but there’s something about the contrast of Captain America and this dark, depressing apartment that doesn’t jive. It’s a sharp, startling reminder of how fate diverged for Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.

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From the moment Bucky Barnes returns as the Winter Soldier, Rogers is determined to save his old best friend, who was subjected to decades of torture by Nazi off-shoot Hydra and forced into becoming the Winter Soldier, a terrifying assassin. No one else shares Rogers’ compunction, though, which becomes the fulcrum of the plot in Captain America: Civil War. Everyone is after Barnes—T’Challa wants to kill him, the Avengers want to capture him, Zemo wants to activate him. Only Rogers wants to save him.

Rogers’ fanatical devotion to Barnes is understandable. Barnes is his last link to his pre-supersoldier life, and more importantly, Barnes is his brother, the brother who died in combat because Rogers, in a split second moment, wasn’t fast enough to save him. But miraculously, Rogers has another shot at saving Barnes, and he throws away everything he’s built with the Avengers to try and accomplish this task.

barnes_2
How literally everyone else prefers to see Bucky Barnes.

But beyond Rogers’ fanatical devotion, we have no real proof Barnes is worth saving. We learn that since escaping Hydra at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Barnes has been completely off the grid. We hear him proclaim that when it comes to acts of international terrorism, he “doesn’t do that anymore”. So he’s not actively destructive, but Barnes is still deliberately grey, neither friend nor foe, villain or hero. And while he doesn’t seem to want to hurt anyone, he is also incredibly dangerous. He’s a legitimate supersoldier with superior marksmanship skills and a high level of combat training, and he still has dormant Hydra conditioning in his head. Even with the best of intentions, Bucky Barnes isn’t the kind of person you want to lose track of.

Civil War avoids committing Barnes’s morality one way or the other. We see that he has no desire to hurt anyone, but we also see that his fight or flight response can be devastating anyway. And then there’s that pesky issue of his Hydra conditioning, which can still be activated and makes him terribly vulnerable to further abuse. The Hydra conditioning renders Barnes’ intention and morality moot, as until he is in full control of his faculties, he simply can’t be trusted out in the world.

winter_soldier
Beast Mode

Barnes’ fight in Civil War is pure survival, and he aligns with Rogers more out of a sense of protection than any obvious desire to reconnect. It’s another stark contrast between the two old friends—where Rogers can have philosophical debates with the Avengers and talk ideals all day long, Barnes is only concerned with his immediate survival. He hasn’t acquired enough basic safety to be concerned with things like right and wrong. There is only alive or dead. Or worse, Hydra.

It leaves Barnes with very few choices. Throughout the course of Civil War, Barnes is mostly just reacting, not actively making choices for himself. The one choice he does make, though, is the first real evidence that the man Steve Rogers has been fighting for all along still exists. Barnes deciding to re-enter cryogenic stasis at the end of the film is the type of self-sacrificing heroism we expect from a superhero.

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The dream team.

But it also contains a degree of tragedy, as the only way for Rogers’ to save Barnes is to let his old friend go. If Bucky Barnes is to be redeemed, it will be done without Rogers—Bucky was Cap’s faithful friend and loyal sidekick, but in the present day “Bucky” is a stranger with a familiar face. Whoever Bucky Barnes will be going forward, he’ll be that person outside the influence of Captain America. In the end, redemption does the thing that not even death could accomplish—separate Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.

Barnes can’t be held fully responsible for the things he did as the Winter Soldier. He was demonstrably not in control of himself, but still, as he himself acknowledges, he has to live with the memories and the knowledge that he did do those things. So his redemption has to come with a price, to assuage his own sense of guilt if nothing else. In a sense he has chosen solitary confinement, and so begins his journey from survivor to superhero. For three-quarters of a century, Bucky Barnes’ life has been a tragedy writ large across history. But now he begins his hard climb to redemption, the author of his own story at last.

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28 thoughts on “Homecoming: Bucky Barnes and the Tragedy of Redemption

  1. Agent K

    One horrible irony of many in this film: The person most likely to have the necessary combination of brains and resources to undo the Hydra conditioning and free Bucky? Tony Stark.

    Ouch.

    I’m not sure I want to see Bucky before Infinity War (or whatever it’s called now). He and Panther have no real relationship established or hinted at (unlike Thor and Hulk or even Iron Man and Spider Man) and I’m not sure T’challa’s solo movie should take the time for that. Eh, maybe they see a path I don’t but for now let Bucky sleep and let the Wakandans (?) have their own story.

    1. I hate to drop an “actually”, but actually, they put Bucky in the only place he has a chance of healing. It’s not explicitly stated–though the clues are certainly there, especially as we see T’Challa piloting a jet that not even Tony Stark can detect–but Wakanda is the most advanced nation on Earth, and T’Challa is himself an accomplished scientist. They also own all the vibranium in the world, so they can rebuild Bucky’s arm no problemo. And since they’re so advanced, they stand the best chance of deprogramming his mind as well. I think it was a very deliberate choice to leave him in Wakanda for these reasons.

      It depends on how much they end up making of T’Challa’s “Come at me, bro” in the mid-credit tag, but the door is definitely open for Bucky to be involved in Black Panther. And while they don’t have much of a personal connection, Civil War went to great lengths to establish that they’re evenly matched in skill and power. If they both pulled in the same direction? YIKES. And we know T’Challa is now committed to helping Bucky, the most wanted person in the world. I do think it would be an interesting thread to pull, to see how, two years later, the Accords may be affecting someone like T’Challa, whose enhancements are bestowed as part of a cultural ritual. He’s not a corporate superhero like the Avengers, he’s basically an elected official of his people, as the Black Panther. And he’s also a king, so he’s not as easy for politicians to push around. There’s a lot to explore there.

      1. Agent K

        Haha! Yeah to this (mostly) non-comic reader that was not clear at all! I got that Wakanda is super wealthy and connected but that was about it. And it didn’t shock me that T’Challa had tech. Scientist though? That’s interesting. Which I guess also goes to my thought that there is a lot to cover in Black Panther without Bucky. Still I’m in either way.

      2. Agent K

        OK Wiki is my friend and now I need to see the following:

        1. T’Challa and Storm (dammit Mavel and 20th Century Fox, play nice!)…because oh come on!!

        2. Dora Milaje….because duh.

        3. T’Challa stopping Killmonger from destroying Wakanda’s economy by nationalizing all foreign companies in Wakanda, causing a global run on the stock market, which then allows Tony Stark to secure a controlling interest in the Wakandan Design Group…because I love this bizarre Wiki summary (seriously WTF??) and these movies have entirely too much punching and not enough macroeconomics and corporate raiding! 😉

        Back on topic who does Steve and T’Challa think will be coming for Bucky? Tony/new Avengers? Government forces? Hydra remnant? Some combination? I could see any of them, but I would guess if we are going to see it as a plot point in Black Panther it won’t be Tony (they just paid an arm and a leg for RDJ in Spider-man). So government forces, Hydra remnant…or new villain with a plan?

      3. I’d guess some combination of Hydra remnant, the task force managing the Avengers, and a new villain. What I am curious to see is how they develop Martin Freeman’s character. In the comics, Everett Ross is one of the few outsiders welcome in Wakanda, but he seemed kind of like a big prick in Civil War, so I’m not sure if he’ll switch to ally or go full-fledged foe. But I believe Freeman is already confirmed to be in Black Panther.

      4. Monica

        Everett Ross may find that T’Challa is hiding a terrorist, it would make the world turn against T’Challa, including the people of Wakanda.

      5. I’m not sure where they’re going with the Everett Ross character in the movies, but in the comics he and T’Challa are friends.

      6. Emily

        I know the characters are from the comics, but having two minor white dude characters named “Ross” is not helpful.

      7. Molly

        @Monica: As much as I like Bucky as a character, I doubt that the first superhero movie with a black protagonist will be about the white dude kept away by T’Challa. find it somewhat off-putting even though it could be read as a reversal on the black sidekick trope. But as Sarah noted in the review, the two of them of evenly matched so I don’t think the sidekick thing would even work in the first place. Unlike Rhodey and Sam who play second fiddle to Tony and Steve.

      8. I doubt it would be ABOUT Bucky, so much as he could be used as a plot device to introduce conflict. The King of Wakanda harboring a fugitive would certainly create conflict with the outside world.

      9. Molly

        Sure, fair enough. Though I would watch a Black Panther movie that’s not contingent on the rest of the MCU and it’s more of its own beast. You don’t see Wanda shoehorned in Doctor Strange though Bucky wouldn’t technically be shoehorned in Black Panther since he’s already in Wakanda. I just have a minor problem with the optic of a white guy being a catalyst in the black man’s movie. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have a problem with Rhodey showing up in Captain Marvel though that’s a long shot. :))

      10. Monica

        I don’t think he will be the main plot of the movie, I don’t want it, but he can be one of them as Sarah said. “Lets them try” to me implies that something can happen about whats T’Challa is doing.

        Recalling that Wakanda was one of the nations that supported the Sokovia Accords, and now T’Challa is hiding a “terrorist” and he also helped Steve, who is wanted.

    2. StoneGates

      “He and Panther have no real relationship established or hinted at”

      Really? What about the fact that Bucky is literally in Wakanda now? What about that interaction between Buck’s metal arm and T’challa’s ring? What about T’challa’s determination to protect Bucky? Sounds like a good enough relationship to me.

      “I’m not sure T’challa’s solo movie should take the time for that”
      Cap’s solo movie took time to introduce T’challa. T’challa’s solo movie can take time to develop Buck’s character further. It’s OK.

  2. Elizabeth M.

    Great article – I suppose for Steve and Bucky are finally at a place where they can now take control of their own lives. Bucky is definitely coming out of cryo sooner rather than later – maybe in a stinger scene of Black Panther? That would be cool.

    What really interests me in Phase Three is how the central characters are all across the board now. Bruce and Thor are space bros, Tony, Rhodey and Vision are on the current right side of public opinion and the law, Natasha is in the wind, and Steve, Sam, Clint, Wanda and Scott are fugitives in Wakanda. I am very curious as whether they are going to pop in throughout Phase 3 until the Infinity Wars movies, especially since the majority of the Phase Three movies are “origin’/starter films for new heroes. Maybe Wanda makes an appearance in a scene of Doctor Strange as a fellow magic user? – I can see her being secretly smuggled back to New York to be Stephen’s new pupil. And Scott is definitely getting out of Wakanda at some point, unless Ant-Man and the Wasp is going to partially take place in Wakanda.

    1. Molly

      But it’s not implied that they’re all holidaying in Wakanda, only that Steve breaks them out from the Raft. And because the entire movie was about Steve finally breaking free, I don’t see him in his Nomad phase going with the others as refugees in Wakanda. That’s mostly a pit stop for Bucky.

      1. Yeah, I’m not sure where everyone is getting the idea the rogue Avengers are just chilling in Wakanda. I think just Bucky is there, and the others are just out in the world, on the lam.

        But you know what that means, right? Cap is running a SUPERHERO A TEAM.

      2. Monica

        What about Natasha, do you think that she’s with Steve?

        Do you think there is a possibility of Bucky and Natasha happen in the future? I know that apparently they don’t share a past, which can be a good thing, but it would be interesting if they became a couple in the future, or friends. It would be so nice to see a spy movie with these two together.

      3. subgenres

        Actually, Natasha and Bucky do know each other. (at least in the comics.) Buck was one of the people who helped train her when she was in the Red Room. I know this isn’t explicitly canon in the movies but it would be easy enough to add if they needed a reason to have them have something akin.

        Also, with what Elizabeth said up there about Wanda being student of Stephen Strange? I definitely think that she’s the best option, and maybe its hinted at in the future, but it wouldn’t be in the movie as a) that would be the most discount set up for a future movie that I’ve ever seen and b) the Doctor Strange movie is set in 2012/2013 after the events of The Avengers!

      4. The movies aren’t the comics. The only history established between Bucky and Natasha is that he shot her one time. And given that we’ve seen Natasha training in the Red Room, and what Bucky was up to with Hydra–getting beat up by the psycho squad–it doesn’t seem likely they’re going to use the comics backstory for them.

      5. Molly

        @Sarah: With the exception that unlike the A Team who were framed for a crime they didn’t commit, in their case they did technically break the law. :)) I don’t get the chilling in Wakanda either or the special snowflake infantilization of Bucky, vilification of Stark and faultless Steve is blameless. I mean I get where they come from but they’re still annoying. What movie did they watch? Also Bucky and Steve not having heart-felt confessions. Pretty sure that’s a standard fic trope where the projections of the characters conflicts with the actual characters in the movie.
        Lovely review as usual.

      6. Technically, yes, they should be in jail because they did break the law. Sure there are mitigating factors, but they are definitely fugitives. And yes, the people annoyed that Bucky and Steve didn’t talk it out are projecting fanfic onto the characters. They had their bonding moment when they reminisced before going to confront Zemo. That’s on par with the level of bonding we saw between them in Cap 1. Neither one of them have ever gushed their feelings all over the place. Plus the entire ending is about Bucky choosing a path that separates him from Steve, and Steve accepting that choice and symbolically letting go of his past by leaving Bucky behind. Civil War is a lot about Steve finally letting go of the past.

      7. Molly

        Steve letting go of the past, Bucky getting back his agency and Stark overcoming his guilt and moving passed the redemption phase characteristic of the Iron Man movies, maybe? Since the more he tries to redeem himself, the worse things get.

      8. I’m not sure Tony has moved past his guilt because I’m not sure he realizes that collateral damage is inevitable and he needs to figure out how to live with it. The Accords are just him shifting blame (as Steve points out). He’s not really processing anything.

      9. Molly

        But at some point there should be a resolution for his character too, right? Or will he stay in limbo until a deux ex machina enlightenment? Because so far he’s been suffering from PTSD like showcased in Iron Man 3 and no one on the team has addressed the issue, except Nick in Ultron. Instead they mostly revert to Natasha’s characterization from Iron Man 2 though by Civil War, he’s not the same gratuitous narcissist playboy as he was before. I’m probably reaching but I doubt the Infinity Wars will have time to address these left over issues. Or maybe he’ll have a revelation in Homecoming. Unless it’s a glorified cameo. And can Daley and Ditko even compare to Markus and McFeely. Just spitballing a bit.

  3. Trev

    I think it was a deliberate costuming decision to have Bucky dressed in muted tones and his usual dark grey/black throughout the movie then have him in white in the post credit scene. I’m so used to seeing him in dark colors that the white was surprising.

  4. Thank you! It’s very interesting to read your take on the character. Still, Stan’s perfomance gave me impression, that Bucky is actually kind and soft person already.
    Also, all this redemption thing with the ice… They’re selling, but it’s hard for me to fully buy it. In cryo he’s unconscious, he doesn’t feel anything, he doesn’t remember anything. But without the arm he’s not so dangerous. (And hey, nitpicking, yes, but he could just wear earplugs.) It’s like he doesn’t want to deal with all his trauma, so he goes under. What if someone will come, get him from ice and read trigger words for him? He’s already in Wakanda, but in cryo he’s just much more helpless.

  5. I find it incredibly ironic that what is framed as Bucky’s first real, heroic choice, is essentially him choosing to give up his ability to choose.

    I also fail to understand why him choosing to break the cycle of violence and rejecting the idea of seeking revenge for what has been done to him, a decision he’s clearly implied to have made as soon as he regained his freedom, and that very obviously parallels the one made by T’Challa at the end of the movie, wouldn’t earn him any points on the good dude-o-meter.

    Or why, after being rescued and interrogated by Sam and Cap, him choosing to stay instead of going back into hiding, choosing to fight with team Cap and return to the place where he’s been held prisoner and tortured for decades to stop what, at that point in time, they all believe to be a threat to the safety of the world, wouldn’t be considered heroic.

    Even with limited options, these are still choices Bucky obviously makes, well before the mid-credits scene, but the narrative barely even acknowledges them, and doesn’t seem to give them any weight.

    I don’t really care about the lack of more intimate moments between the characters or whatever, but this? This bothered me.

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