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Despite the focus on “Team Iron Man” and “Team Cap,” Captain America: Civil War revolves around the same character as the previous Cap movie: Bucky Barnes, A.K.A. the Winter Soldier. Since the character was revived and reinvented in Marvel’s comic book line in 2005 by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, he has struggled to find his place in both the comic book and movie universes — but those journeys have gone in very different directions. Spoilers for Captain America: Civil War follow.
At the end of the big screen Civil War, Bucky voluntarily submits to being returned to stasis until such a point where he can be freed from HYDRA’s brainwashing — a moment that’s bittersweet for fans who’ve held out hope that he had turned a corner in his status as living weapon at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, undoubtedly, but also one that’s dramatically different from what happened to the character following his reawakening in Marvel’s comic book mythology.
For the comic book Bucky, the problem wasn’t getting over his brainwashing — Captain America helped with that, thanks to a Cosmic Cube (The powerful Macguffin movie audiences might remember from the first Captain America movie) — but what a former Winter Soldier does for an encore.
In 2006’s Captain America Vol. 5 No. 21, less than a year after his re-introduction, he allied himself with a Nick Fury who’d abandoned SHIELD in an attempt to rebalance the scales after his work as an enemy agent, but that status quo was short-lived — by 2007’s Captain America Vol. 5 No. 34, he had received a surprising promotion, becoming the new Captain America in the wake of Steve Rogers’ apparent death.
Bucky was a different type of Captain America than his former partner — for one thing, he carried (and used) a gun — but his desire to live up to the legacy he’d inherited fueled stories for a number of years, with the concept successful enough to keep him in the outfit even after Steve Rogers was returned to life, and with the character appearing as Captain America in a number of different series including New Avengers and the “event” titles Secret Invasion, Siege and Fear Itself.
It was Fear Itself that ended Bucky’s era as Cap; in the third issue of the 2011 series, he was seemingly killed by the daughter of the Red Skull, but a later issue — the curiously numbered Fear Itself No. 7.1 — would reveal that he had escaped that fate, and gone underground to reclaim his identity as the Winter Soldier with a brand new mission: trying to solve problems and undo damage he’d created while brainwashed, which he could do in his own series: The Winter Soldier ran 19 issues from 2012 through 2013.
Thanks to the 8th issue of the 2014 event series Original Sin, Bucky earned his most out-there mission yet: safeguarding the Earth from any and all extra-terrestrial threats. That mission ran for 11 issues of the wonderfully surreal Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier series, which purposefully played with the limitations and tropes of the superhero genre; Bucky fell in love with an alien queen named Ventolin and decided to attempt to renounce violence after preventing the destruction of a planet Mer-Z-Bow. Writer Ales Kot was as playful as artist Marco Rudy in the approach to this short-lived psychedelic series, and the result is amazing.
However, all good things come to an end — even alien romances. Bucky returned to Earth in this February’s Avengers Standoff: Welcome to Pleasant Hill No. 1, having been warned of a potential catastrophic event. With the assistance of Captains America — both the most recent incarnation, Sam Wilson, and the original, Steve Rogers — that was averted, but in its aftermath, Bucky ended up leading the latest incarnation of the Thunderbolts, a team of supervillains trying to go good. (Thunderbolts Vol. 3 No. 1 was released this week, to coincide with the release of Captain America: Civil War.)
What’s interesting to see throughout Bucky’s entire comic book career post-revival is that, even though he escaped going back on ice because of his programming, he’s nonetheless just as trapped by the need to redeem himself, over and over again.
Even when the character seems to evolve beyond his past as a killer, as in the Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier series, publishing demands will bring him back so that he can anchor the redemptive arc of a new Thunderbolts series. True, the comic book Bucky is still running around his version of the Marvel Universe — but is he really any better off than his movie counterpart?
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