The Shields of Captain America: Bucky Barnes and Embracing the Darkness of a Nation
If Steve Rogers is the ever-present spirit of the United States, Bucky Barnes represents something much different—the dark past of the nation. America has a lot of skeletons in its closet. Some of those skeletons aren’t even in a closet, but dancing around the house while everyone tries to ignore them. As Captain America, Bucky Barnes reminds us that we are not a perfect union. It will never be perfect, and not because we can’t achieve greatness, but because it’s how the founders wrote the constitution. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union..” The inclusion of “more” acknowledges that we can never be perfect. And if anyone represents a flawed Captain America, it’s Bucky Barnes.
From the Captain America Sidekick to Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier
The first of three brilliant covers from Steve Epting. (Image: Captain America (2004) #43, Marvel Comics)
For the most part, Bucky Barnes doesn’t really have an origin, aside from “why is Captain America bringing a teenager into battle?” Even when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought Steve Rogers back to comics, they had no plans for Bucky. Though there was always some interest in bringing Bucky back, it wasn’t until 2004 that a writer would utilize the former sidekick. That writer? Ed Brubaker, one of the greatest Captain America writers in history. In his Captain America run, Brubaker introduced the world to the Winter Soldier, a nearly unstoppable assassin from Russia’s Red Room. Of course, the Winter Soldier turned out to be none other than Bucky Barnes, back from the dead and kept frozen until needed.
“I think the idea that Bucky was captured by the Russians and used as an enemy against America was something that I came up with during the Cold War as a little kid in the mid-’70s,” Brubaker said in an interview with Vulture. “I knew that if you were going to take away Cap’s biggest tragedy, you had to replace it with another huge tragedy, or he would lose that marble for you to play.”
Using the Cosmic Cube, Steve was able to restore Bucky’s memories. But his friend ran off, having to come to terms with the monster he became. However, Bucky Barnes was a hero, and it wouldn’t be long that his heroic side would emerge again.
The Death of Captain America, the Rise of Bucky Barnes, and Seeking Atonement
The second in Steve Epting’s sequence, showing Bucky Barnes slowly embrace being Captain America. (Image: Captain America (2004) #44, Marvel Comics)
When Steve Rogers died before his trial in Captain America #25, Iron Man, now the director of SHIELD, knew that the world needed a Captain America. Tony Stark considered several heroes for the role, including Sam Wilson and Clint Barton. Neither of them was right for the task at the time. With America still torn apart because of the Superhero Registration Act, the next person to carry the shield had to be just as conflicted. That’s why Bucky Barnes made the perfect Captain America following Civil War—he was still struggling with the man he wants to be, and a past he had little control over.
Readers can easily dismiss the Winter Soldier’s past crimes because of the Russian programming. Bucky, however, actually takes responsibility for everything he did while brainwashed. Sure, it wasn’t his fault. In fact, when on trial, Black Widow and Sharon Carter use proof of his brainwashing to get him out of a prison sentence. So, if he wasn’t in control, why did Bucky work so hard to make up for those actions?
Bucky Barnes and the George W. Bush Era—a Captain America Against the Patriot Act
Steve Epting’s depiction of Bucky Barnes as Captain America—in uniform and spirit. (Image: Captain America (2004) #45, Marvel Comics)
As we discussed in the Captain America: Steve Rogers article, Civil War to Dark Reign primarily reflected post-9/11 surveillance. When Steve “dies” and Bucky Barnes takes the Captain America mantle, he carries the same principles that Steve did. He fights against the Superhero Registration Act…and Iron Man, the very hero leading the SRA, agrees with him. Now, he doesn’t agree that superheroes shouldn’t have to register, but Tony knows that Captain America represents freedom. And even if that freedom goes against the current law, Captain America never represented the government. He represents the people and “The Dream.” When Bucky Barnes becomes Captain America, his role is born out of this ideal. He was the Captain America against the American government. And sometimes that exactly what patriotism is.
Bucky Fights Against a Dark Past to Make a Better Present
First Appearance of Bucky Barnes as Captain America. (Image: Captain America (2004) #34, Marvel Comics)
Even if it wasn’t “him” killing hundreds of innocent people, it was still his history. When America is at its best, it does the same. We look at a past we had no part in forming, but we work to fix it anyway. As Captain America, we see this in Bucky Barnes—but not during The Initiative or even the Dark Reign eras. Instead, we see this throughout The Heroic Age. After the Avengers finally remove Norman Osborne from power, Steve Rogers takes command of SHIELD. However, he wants Bucky to continue being Captain America. Now, for a character tainted with violence and darkness, it would probably seem logical to have him step down. Shouldn’t Steve Rogers, not Bucky Barnes, be Captain America in something called “The Heroic Age,” after all?
But that’s not heroism. Heroes overcome personal challenges as much as external ones. Tony Stark had to overcome his alcoholism. Thor needed to learn humility. Even Steve Rogers had to overcome his inferiority complex. However, for Bucky, it’s a lot different. He seeks atonement for atrocities committed in his name. Throughout American history, we’ve celebrated how we’ve overcome our failures. We see moments like the end of slavery, the signing of the Civil Rights Acts, and the legalization of equal marriage rights as “we did it!” moments. America saw the leaders who came before failed to live up to that promise. Though we might not have committed the sins, it is our responsibility to make them right. We’re always working to change things for the better.
Surrendering the Shield Back to Steve Rogers, and Moving Forward
The last time we see Bucky Barnes as Captain America. (Image: Fear Itself #3, Marvel Comics)
In the event Fear Itself, Bucky Barnes, as Captain America, appears to die. Well, he does, but Black Widow and Nick Fury bring him back with the Infinity formula (comic books!). At this point, we are well into the Obama Administration. It’s also been over a decade since the September 11th attacks. It made sense for Steve Rogers to resume his role as Captain America. Bucky Barnes no longer represented the frustrations and division of the nation any longer. Yes, there was still division and anger, but in a way that called for Steve Rogers.
But that’s not the last we see of Bucky Barnes; though no longer Captain America, he continues as the Winter Soldier—now a hero working behind the scenes. And that atonement he longed for? Well, he might not think he reached it, but others do, especially Nicky Fury. In Original Sin, the Marvel heroes learn that Nick Fury was protecting the Earth from various threats in ruthless ways. After they defeat Fury, they leave that role vacant. But Fury had already chosen his replacement: Bucky Barnes. This broken man, who struggled to live up to his friend’s dream, surpassed the role of defending the image of America to protecting the safety of the world.
Bucky Barnes, as Captain America, never truly overcame his darkness—but he also never let the darkness overtake him. America might always strive to be “more perfect,” but, so far, we haven’t collapsed under the weight of our mistakes and our failures. That’s perseverance. That’s Bucky Barnes.
(Featured Image: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios)
Roman Colombo finished his MFA in 2010 and now teaches writing and graphic novel literature at various Philadelphia colleges. His first novel, Trading Saints for Sinners, was published in 2014. He's currently working on his next novel and hoping to find an agent soon.