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.
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.
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.
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.
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.