WARNING: Spoilers, sweetie. You’ve been forewarned.
So a week ago we went to the midnight (read: 8:00 p.m. Georgians retire early) showing of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and if you’ve been around me for any length of time you know exactly how deep-rooted my feelings for this story (read: Bucky. And everyone else, but mostly Bucky) are. I was hoping with every bone in my body that the second Captain America movie would be about the winter soldier, and lo and behold, my wish was granted - more heartbreakingly and beautifully than I had dared to imagine. James Barnes is the only character in the Marvel universe to trump my affection for Loki. Enough people have asked why I feel this way that I thought, “Why not – I’m going to write a dissertation about him.” Leaving aside the brilliant acting on Sebastian Stan’s part (it helped that I’ve been a fan of his for several years) and just focusing on the character, I put forth a paper that will hopefully help explain a few of my (very strong) feelings on the subject. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present:
The Ghost in the Machine
In defense of the Winter Soldier
“I don’t think he’s the kind you save. He’s the kind you stop.”
It starts with his name. ‘Winter Soldier’ was a phrase used in World War II for a soldier who would do what was required, no matter the danger or the pain. A winter soldier was someone you could lean your full weight on and know they would carry you until their legs broke and their lungs collapsed.
Sergeant James Barnes was such a man. When no one wanted anything to do with Steve Rogers, Bucky stepped down off his pedestal and offered him a hand. He was no fair-weather friend – he would stay by Steve until the end of the line.
Before the war broke out, Bucky was Steve’s rock, his brother in everything but blood. He gave Steve protection and shoulders to stand on, and in return he gained a friend, the best person he had ever known. They were two Brooklyn boys who saw past the faces they wore to the hearts beneath.
But where Steve was softhearted and merciful, Bucky took no guff. He was used to defending the weaker man, and like Steve, had a strong distaste for bullies and those who preyed on the defenseless. When Bucky was shipped off to war, he found his boyish view of war as an adventure shattered; ripped apart by grenades, drowned in blood and buried in the dirt along with countless comrades. Capture by HYDRA was one of the worst endings a life could have – everyone knew that to die at the hands of the Nazi deep science division was to die in agony.
The 107th held out hope for a rescue, but weeks passed and men died; killed for weakness, or murdered in Zola’s experiments. Tim Dugan, one of the future Howling Commandoes, said that nobody who went in to the experimentation room came out again.
Nobody, that is, except Bucky Barnes. Steve finds his best friend half-conscious and strapped to a table, repeating the same thing over and over – name, rank, and serial number.
Things only repeated under interrogation and torture. Even after Bucky had given up hope of rescue, his honor and duty to his country remained.
Bucky sees Steve’s transformation, and his only reaction after a shocked smile is, “I thought you were smaller.” Some have said this is only because he was dazed, that his reaction would have been different if he was completely himself, but this attitude carries onto the bridge after Schmidt begins the destruction of the facility. With a broken bridge and a chasm of fire between him and his friend, Steve says, “Go!” Bucky’s immediate response, even after weeks of torture and pain, is, “No! Not without you.”
Captain America and the 107th make it back to their base, but Bucky is not the same man he was when he left. In many ways, Bucky never did come back. He’s darker, changed by captivity. His love for Steve shines through as he raises a cheer for Captain America, but his face falls, and it isn’t until Steve seeks his face out that Bucky smiles. He’s putting on a show for his best friend, hiding the confused, broken pieces that ask what happened to him? Why will he need me now? How did our roles change so suddenly? What am I going to do?
He has returned from hell to a world where he is overshadowed by a shined-and-polished monument to his friend. Loyalty defeats resentment, but the carefree boy died in HYDRA’s lab and Bucky is now a haunted man, willing to cover his hands in dirt and blood and quiet anger.
Captain America isn’t the man he knows – he’s seen the true Steve, and that is who he’s willing to fight for. In an interesting moment, a HYDRA soldier surprises Steve, only to be cut down by a perfect shot to the head. Steve turns around, and his expression changes from concern to surprise to puzzlement when he sees Bucky, a sniper rifle in his hands and a stone-cold shade in his eyes. This is a side to Bucky Steve never saw and does not possess – the unflinching killer. Because Steve has not yet realized that Bucky may have entered Austria, but the Winter Soldier came out.
Bucky’s new status as ‘sidekick’ is a bitter taste to swallow – he is overlooked in favor for Steve, and even remarks with a strained laugh, “I’m turning into you. This is like some horrible dream.” His loyalty is still strong and he even jokes with Steve now and then, trying to bring some semblance of their old normality into the present where everything is different.
They’re an unstoppable team – until Bucky saves the life of his Captain and plunges, not to his death, but to his demise. He is given the same serum as Schmidt and Steve, and his qualities – what he is truly made of – are amplified.
Loyalty. Willingness. Tenacity.
He goes from the perfect soldier to the perfect supersoldier, a weapon of mass destruction. For seventy-two years he is put in cryosleep, awoken, told to kill, told to report, repaired and frozen again. He no longer sees himself as a person, or even human. He is ‘the Asset,’ a tool to be welded by those in charge. He tears through any opening he can find and when there is none, he makes one. He gets the job done and takes down anything in his way.
“He’s a ghost,” Fury tells Steve about the Winter Soldier, and he is right in more ways than one.
The Winter Soldier doesn’t question.
Until he sees a man on a bridge, and the man looks straight at him, and calls him a name.
He doesn’t remember Bucky, but he knows this man. He falters, confused, uncertain – and then panics, throwing a wild shot at Steve and running back to the people he hates and serves and knows. But this man on the bridge dug a needle in his mind, messed with his head. His overseers describe his mood as ‘unstable’ and ‘erratic’ when he returns. Pearce demands a report, and when the Asset does not immediately respond, strikes his face. The Asset doesn’t flinch, and we see how fully in their control he is. He is captive in a room, sitting – untied – surrounded by men he could easily destroy.
“That man on the bridge,” he says with single-mindedness, voicing his own thought for perhaps the first time in years. “Who was he?”
“You met him earlier this week on another assignment,” is the vague response.
“I knew him,” says the Winter Soldier. Pierce, upset by his Asset’s insistence, gives us a lot of insight. Bucky has been treated like an abused child – beaten, praised, sent to do horrible things, and put back in cryosleep as soon as he began to think.
Bucky lifts his eyes. “But I knew him,” he repeats, and it’s written across every line on his face. He needs to know, so desperately wants it to be real, to remember something that was his; and he knows the pain his question will bring. He asks it anyway. His face shutters, resigned and bitter, as he’s strapped down. He opens his mouth willingly but resentfully, to bite the bullet, and yet we see the fear as his mind is once more reduced to a blank slate.
He’s sent to take down Steve once more, but this time there is no mask, no faceless, emotionless battle. This fight is raw; the Winter Soldier torn in pieces, fighting his best friend, fighting to kill his questions and their consequences. It becomes a battle between men, not machines.
“You know me,” Steve pleads.
“No, I don’t,” Bucky screams, afraid to admit the other man is right. The man who saved his life, even as he bled out from a bullet wound.
“You’re my friend,” says Steve, throwing down his shield; the blue star sacrificed for the red.
“You’re my mission,” the soldier snarls. Instinct, fury, bewilderment and agony can’t overcome that one loose thread in his mind, no matter how hard he tries, and as Steve, bloodied and bruised, manages, “I’m with you…to the end of the line,” the soldier freezes.
He watches Steve fall, paralyzed by that one tiny, overwhelming thought.
And for reasons he can’t explain or reason, he follows. He pulls Steve – oblivious, unconscious, mission – out of the water.
He walks away.
He walks away, a ghost in search of his human; a winter soldier in search of a man.
In search of Bucky Barnes.
Footnote: This is not a complete article. There are many other things I could talk about; from the metal arm to the fight choreography and beyond; if you want me to expound any more, just ask the questions in the comments. ^_^