Each Captain America installment is its own masterpiece. All three have their own weaknesses, their own triumphs. They have different tones, different themes and even cinematically and narratively they greatly diverge from one another. The First Avenger transported us back to the 1940s, with its muted tones of wartime, big band score and patriotism firing on all cylinders. The film reintroduced the modern world to a superhero birthed in a time where the country needed a little motivation, and yet the character never felt antiquated but rather a timeless figure of American strength. Steve Rogers, an everyday boy from Brooklyn was turned into a super soldier (“not a perfect soldier but a good man”). Alongside him from the beginning was Bucky Barnes; his best friend, brother in arms, his protector in youth and fellow superhero behind enemy lines. There is an undeniable bond between these two friends that became the single binding element that connected all three Captain America films. As tones, characters, and themes changed, the relationship between Steve and Bucky was a constant that proved to be the most beautifully evolved and intricate stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
After being paraded around as a puppet to promote nationalism in the 40s, Steve took charge and fought for what he wanted to fight for. Was he fighting for his country? Sure. For justice in general? Indeed, that Red Skull guy needed to go. To prove his self worth? Possibly. For Bucky? Absolutely. When the Colonel informed Steve that the 107th (Bucky’s infantry) was taken, Steve’s priority list was officially set in stone for the rest of his life. He may be Captain America but the nation will always fall second to his family. Bucky was his only family. His exterior may be a representation of America’s strength, a superhero who puts the world’s needs before his own. But internally there is no doubt he puts his need to hold onto his true self and family above all. This is precisely what makes him an even greater hero. He has something to fight for; his love for Bucky and his commitment to his identity drives him to be the nation’s greatest soldier. It does however also drive a wedge between his past and his future as made evident by the events of the preceding two films.
The Winter Soldier transitioned Captain America from an old fashioned war movie into a 21st century blockbuster. Visually TWS is brighter, more vibrant, and youthful. We are no longer in muddy, rainy Germany fighting Nazis but rather in Washington DC where their are blue skies above and crooked Shield Agents down below. The 2nd installment allowed us to accompany Steve Rogers as he familiarized himself with the modern landscape and find his place in this digitized world. He found friends in the Avengers but there was still a great deal of disconnect that held him at a distance from complacency. Two things gave Steve hope for finding comfort in a time that was not his own: Sam Wilson and Bucky. Sam Wilson is a soldier: a profession that never changes no matter the war, no matter the decade. Their friendship grew easily from that common ground and could have blossomed into a healthy settlement into this time for Steve but he was reminded of the aforementioned set-in-stone priority list with the realization that Bucky was still alive.
Separated by death, Bucky and Steve were reunited in the future against all odds. This miracle was one Steve was not going to let go of, he could not and would not let go of Bucky. Bucky was the tether to his past that Steve desperately needed. Steve is a veritable time traveler; he closed his eyes plunging into the ice in 1944 and opened them to the bright digitized world of 2011. Within that blink he lost everything; his friends, his family, his sense of home. From that moment on, Steve longed for his past, gripping tight to any and all ties to it. He had Peggy Carter, his first love, but the truth of the matter is she was a symbol of loss. Peggy was 92, she had lived her life, got married, had children, and Steve was not only not a part of it but missed it altogether. She represented all the people he had known whom he never grew old with, never shared memories with, never got to see again. But then there is Bucky; unchanged (albeit 1 arm less) and not aged a single day since their last moment together in 1944. Bucky represented hope and the familial love Steve never thought he could have again. Bucky is his last connection to his true self.
The little things that keep Steve afloat were his ties to the past; Peggy and Bucky. With the loss of Peggy in Civil War we see Steve hanging on by a thread. Throughout the film it is made perfectly clear that he will do just about anything for that thread to not snap. He loves Bucky; he is his brother, the only family he has on Earth. It is because of these understandable motives that not only make the 3rd film so captivating but also deepens the relationship, taking it from a one sided need to hold onto the past to two people who love one another so dearly that they refuse to lose each other.
Civil War is the apex of the Steve and Bucky relationship. The film offered so much to the story of these two friends that it left many walking out of the theater thinking things only fan fiction writers dream of. Civil War triumphed in lending so much to audiences. Unlike many past MCU films, Civil War, while grandiose, was truly character driven, beautifully expanding and developing it’s characters and their relationships with one another. Steve and Bucky were the forefront of this. Civil War revolves around Steve’s desperate need to have Bucky in his life and keep him safe from persecution.
Between the events of Age of Ultron and Civil War (roughly 2 years) Steve with the help of Sam, have been scouring the Earth for Bucky. With no such luck, Steve continued his Avenger duties which took him to Lagos to capture Rumlowe aka Crossbones. Rumlowe mentions Bucky in his final words, leaving Steve stunned. Steve confesses later to Wanda, “he said ‘Bucky’ and suddenly I was that 16 year old boy from Brooklyn again.” Just think about that line for a moment. The mere reference to Bucky affected Steve so deeply he lost sight of his superhero duty. Cap has fought Red Skull, Asgardian drones, Hydra Agents, demonic AI, and none have caused him to waver in strength. “Bucky” was the magic word. Bucky holds such a heavy place in Steve’s heart that his name spoken aloud draws up memories, fueling his longing for him. Could you yourself say someone’s name causes you to have a reaction such as this? Chances are it’s the person you love the most in the world. For Steve, that person is Bucky Barnes, no doubt about it. All of Steve’s actions up until and throughout Civil War are driven by his love for Bucky. He ditched the showboating for the battlefields when he heard of Bucky’s capture, he took down Red Skull in part to avenge Bucky’s death, he dropped his shield and accepted death rather than killing a brainwashed Bucky and finally he chose him over Tony, willingly becoming a fugitive. These actions are not that of simple “friends”. These are the actions of man whose heart and soul is filled with love, love for Bucky. Let me make it clear, I’m not saying this is romantic love, nor am I saying it’s not. I’m saying it’s pure and indestructible love. Interpret it as you please. All signs point to heterosexuality for the two (Steve had Peggy, Bucky had that girl, they have spoken about wooing girls). But lets not rule out bisexuality here, people! But, once again this isn’t about whether its romantic or not, it’s about the bond between two people forged during rough childhoods, strengthened on the battle field, broken by death, and revitalized through impossible odds.
Steve and Bucky have been through a lot, to say the very least. They say that when two people go through life altering experienced together, they come out the other side with an intangible connection. Soldiers come back from war and have trouble fitting in and returning to a normal lifestyle. They often find solace in the company of those who understand what they went through, fellow veterans. This is the case for Steve and Bucky, the two risked their lives together and both left the war in traumatic ways. No other person on Earth could possibly understand these experiences than the two of them.
Bucky’s Side of the Story
There is a different Bucky Barnes in every Cap installment. We started with James Buchanan Barnes, then met the deadly Winter Soldier, then Civil War introduced us to a hybrid of the two. Steve’s side of this relationship has been clearly outlined, which was done without difficulty because the man is an open book; he wears his heart on his sleeve and is very open about his motives and beliefs. Bucky on the other hand isn’t as easy to read. Unlike Steve’s grand gestures of love (I don’t mean bouquets of roses, I mean fighting for Bucky, refusing to kill him when he was in WS mode, and doing everything in his power to keep him safe in CW) Bucky’s displays of love are subtle, not as abundant, but truly moving none the less. The First Avenger introduced the relationship between Cap and Bucky as your everyday childhood friendship; they were two guys who looked out for each other. It wasn’t until the scene following Bucky’s rescue where it was made clear this was no everyday relationship. As the Hydra base explodes, Steve and Bucky rush to find a way out, learning the only solution is to tightrope over rebar as the flames build below them. Bucky safely crosses but the bar breaks leaving Steve 20+ feet away with no easy way of getting across. Steve tells Bucky to go to which he replies “No not without you!” This line, while simple, was yelled with such passion that it erased the label of mere friends, they were family…and family means nobody gets left behind.
Following the successful rescue of the POWs, we saw a blink and you’ll miss moment, that while quick spoke volumes. This moment here (thank you tumblr for having a gif of every second of the movie)…
…is so beautifully tragic as here Bucky plays the unwavering confidant who will smile no matter the darkness and pain within them for the sake of another’s happiness. Steve shows his love for Bucky by rescuing him whereas Bucky shows it by giving Steve the hero moment he rightfully deserves all the while burying the torture that was plaguing his mind. In the Winter Soldier, the relationship was one sided – Steve loved Bucky and wouldn’t hurt him, no matter who he’d become. That was until the final moments of the film where the Winter Soldier dragged Steve from the river, saving him. The hybrid was born: Bucky was now a man with a brain diseased by Hydra but a heart full of love for his friend. Civil War bolstered Steve and Bucky’s relationship by truly complicating it, developing it, and finally evolving it.
My ability (and countless others) to speak on the subject of Steve and Bucky’s relationship with such passion and examine it so deeply is a testament to the the fluidity of storytelling by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely as well as nuanced performances by Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. This unbeatable combination has successfully created a story that is truly beloved and one that will not be forgotten.