There used to be a saying in comics that nobody stays dead except Bucky Barnes and Uncle Ben. In 2005 Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting decided to break that rule by bringing Bucky back and what followed was one of the best runs on Captain America and the introduction of the Winter Soldier to the Marvel Universe. That decision, while controversial to some longtime fans, was so well executed that now, less than ten years later, the character has hit the big screen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
There was widespread excitement on the Internet as soon as Marvel announced the title of the Captain America movie. At the time I hadn’t read the Captain America comics that reintroduced Bucky, but even I was thrilled at the announcement. Anyone that followed Marvel Comics knew that bringing in the Winter Soldier was going to make for an emotionally powerful story. Comic storytelling is at its best when there are real emotional stakes for the heroes and it’s hard to get more personal than your best friend and beloved side kick being resurrected as a seemingly unstoppable foe.
Bucky Barnes has always been an extremely important part of Steve Rogers’ history. During the Golden Age he was Steve’s sidekick—back when Captain America was part of Timely Comics, the precursor to Marvel. They fought side by side during World War II, but he seemingly died during the war. During the same incident that killed Bucky, Captain America was frozen in the ice not to awaken again until the Avengers found him. Since that time various authors have addressed Bucky’s loss and what it means to Steve. Dealing with that loss is one of the most defining aspects of his character.
Then Bucky came back.
In Captain America volume 5 issue #1, Brubaker began his run with a deceptively familiar story. It appeared that he was once again pitting Steve against the Red Skull with the Cosmic Cube on the line. Instead, Brubaker pulled the rug out from under everyone by having the Red Skull assassinated by an unknown element at the end of the first issue.
What follows is a difficult time for Steve as the threats he faces become ever more personal. The graves of other men who used the name Captain America are desecrated and another of his former sidekicks is murdered and framed for the crimes. At the same time the Cosmic Cube is being used to mess with his head, trapping him in altered memories of the past and making it difficult for him to focus on the present. It culminates in a horrific terrorist attack on Philadelphia that kills hundreds, an attack where Sharon Carter (Agent 13 of S.H.I.E.L.D. and close friend of Steve) recognizes the culprit as Bucky Barnes.
As you might imagine, Steve’s world is shattered by the news that Bucky is alive. They meet in the aftermath of the terrorist attack and Steve realizes that Bucky has no idea who he is. Their first meeting has become an iconic moment that has carried over word for word in various mediums from the comics, to the cartoon Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to the recent movie. It’s a powerful moment for both Steve and the reader.
The comic next delves into the history of Winter Soldier. He was recovered by the Soviets during World War II and experimented on. Eventually they wiped his mind, fitted him with a cybernetic arm, and used him as an elite assassin against the West during the Cold War. It’s a tragic story that involves continual mind wiping, being cryogenically frozen for years between missions, and generally having every bit of his agency and life stripped from him to turn him into the perfect tool. Yet even with that, some small aspect of Bucky survived making it impossible for them to effectively use him for any length of time before he started to rebel and had to be mind wiped again.
Unsurprisingly, Steve refuses to accept that Bucky is lost and that all that is left is a villain. He rejects the idea that Bucky is beyond saving and finds a way to do it. The initial story of the Winter Soldier is ended when Steve uses the Cosmic Cube to restore Bucky’s memories and Bucky then shatters the Cube. That is, however, only the start of Bucky’s long road forward as a hero. He has to deal with his past and create a new future for himself.
Warning, what follows are in-depth spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
I read the comic story right before going to see the movie and was extremely pleased at the way the movie adapted the story. Many, many things were different because the Marvel Cinematic Universe does not have the decades of characters and stories already set up, however I think they made a wonderful adaptation.
First of all, the look of the character was spot on:
Beyond appearances, the movie managed to streamline the Winter Soldier backstory without actually actively omitting any of it. They glossed over the Soviet connections and made Hydra the primary threat, which helped keep the story easy to follow in the context of the Captain America trilogy. Instead of having Soviets experimenting on him it was Hydra, however they didn’t actually do anything to erase the Cold War story from the comics which should relieve fans.
The thing they did best was keep the emotions intact. Steve was shattered when the Winter Soldier’s mask was removed to reveal Bucky and they kept that iconic line “Who the hell is Bucky?” straight from the comic. If anything they managed to improve on the emotional impact of the comic. They showed us Bucky’s confusion as he started to remember Steve, only to be mind wiped again which really drove home the tragedy to the viewer.
The best change though, in my opinion, was how Bucky got his memories back. The movie didn’t use the deus ex machina excuse of the Cosmic Cube (or the Tesseract as it is called in the movies), but used the strength of his history with Steve to finally penetrate the conditioning. The comics hinted at his ability to remember when exposed to familiar things when they mentioned that he disappeared on a mission and was later found in New York, but the movie took that a step further and allowed Steve’s relationship with him to overcome the mind wiping. It wasn’t perfect and was hard earned, but it was a powerful moment for the viewer.
It’s not easy for comics to shock readers and provide new twists after decades, but Brubaker proved that it was possible when he brought Bucky back. If the popularity of the character on the big screen is anything to go by, the Winter Soldier will be around for a long time to come. It’s hard for new characters (and despite Bucky’s history the Winter Soldier is basically a new character) to gain popularity when pitted against all of the other established comic characters, but thanks to good writing and an emotionally resonant story he’s done it. Let’s hope they keep him alive for many years to come.
You can find the introduction of the Winter Soldier here:
Captain America, Vol. 1: Winter Soldier Ultimate Collection. Written by Ed Brubaker; art by Steve Epting. Published 2010; collects Captain America #1-9 and #11-14. Find it on Amazon or buy it from comixology.
What do you think about the Winter Soldier on page or screen? I’d love to discuss him with you in the comments!