If you read a post I wrote last year called “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” then you know I saw and enjoyed the film for which the post is named. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has to be one of the best “buddy movies” I have seen in ages!
Why do I call The Winter Soldier a “buddy movie”? Well, for starters, Cap is the ultimate best buddy. He will never leave a man behind if he can help it. And in The Winter Soldier he meets another fellow with the same “buddy” mindset: Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon.
Although they have not met each other prior to this, Cap and Falcon hit it off very quickly. Recognizing that the other has seen battle and understands the way it changes a man’s perspective on life, the two almost immediately fall into “battle brother” mode. They identify with each other, and can speak together about things other people would not appreciate.
What also helps each man relate well to the other is the fact that they have both lost previous “battle brothers.” Sam’s fellow paratrooper was killed midair by an RPG, while Steve lost Bucky on a HYDRA train ride. But only one loss proves to be physically permanent. Sam’s buddy, Riley, is most definitely dead. Bucky, unknown to Cap, is certainly alive.
And he is out to kill his best friend.
This brings me to the moments in the film which greatly impressed me. The first is Bucky’s encounter with Cap in the streets of D.C. It is a hard fight – I think I might have held my breath while watching it! Cap finds himself fighting a man who is his match in skill and strength. He has fought other tough guys before (Thor and Loki) and held his own. But he has not had to think, react, and fight in quite this way since he last faced the Red Skull, a fellow Super Soldier.
The fight is disorienting for Bucky as well. Cap’s startled recognition of him at the end of the battle stirs Bucky’s buried memories, and Cap has matched the Winter Soldier in hand-to-hand combat. According to Natasha, the Winter Soldier has never failed to kill his target – even shooting through her to do it once. So it may be safe to say Bucky came to feel he was somewhat unbeatable during his long years of servitude to HYDRA.
But Cap would not die. He stood up to the worst Bucky had to throw at him and survived. Cap is Bucky’s equal in combat. Which is part of what seems to confuse Bucky early on – no one is supposed to be the Winter Soldier’s peer in combat!
His target – Cap – should not have met Bucky blow for blow but should have messed up, been too slow, or not seen a blow coming. However, he did not. Cap saw everything coming, matched the Winter Soldier’s speed and skill with his own, and took punches that had knocked down hundreds of other men before him. He is Bucky’s equal.
That shakes Bucky from his professional detachment. It is not just the disturbing memories Cap stirs up nor the fact that HYDRA will not give him a straight answer about Cap’s identity. They are his handlers; they are only supposed to supply him with targets, not answers. Cap survived his attacks. Twice – once at his apartment and a second time in the streets of Washington, D.C. The Winter Soldier has never left a target alive. Any target who fought back, as Cap did, fought a losing battle. The Winter Soldier was unbeatable.
But Cap held him at bay.
The next scene to get my attention came after Cap, bleeding and bruised, goes back to save Bucky. He works his way across the crashing Helicarrier toward his best friend, and then lifts the fallen rafter (which has to be twice as heavy as it would normally feel to Cap now, because of his injuries) high enough so Bucky can scoot out from beneath it.
Watching Bucky during this scene was great. You can see he is puzzled by Cap’s actions. He is here to kill this man, but this man is helping him. He is saving his life, though he knows it could cost him his own. This behavior is anathema to the Winter Soldier’s programmed thinking. Bucky has never gone back to save an enemy. He leaves them to die. All HYDRA operatives do that.
But not this man. Not Cap.
Bucky’s expression also suggests that he perceives, faintly, that there is something familiar about his target’s gesture of friendship. Something he should know, something he does know but which he has been forced to forget by HYDRA.
Yet the Soldier does not want to think about this strange idea. He does not want to dwell on the fact that what his target is doing is right because it means his whole worldview is wrong. It is not hard to imagine the battle going on inside his head. I would think it might have gone something like this:
He’s doing the right thing. I wouldn’t have done it. HYDRA wouldn’t let me do it. They’d say it was weakness to save an enemy. This is weird.
It can’t REALLY be right. Missions come first. Targets don’t do this. They die. I kill them. It makes the world a better place.
But he’s still helping me. I remember that what he’s doing is…is right, somehow. And I know him. I know this. It IS right!
But…but it can’t be right! Because…if it is…then what I’ve been doing all these years is WRONG!!! It CAN’T be wrong! I can’t be wrong!
Some might say Cap‘s entrance into Bucky’s internal debate was poorly timed. I think it more likely that it may have been timed just right. He starts pushing his friend into the memories HYDRA has done their best to erase. If Cap does not awaken his true memory now, then he may never get another chance to do it. He may lose Bucky again, this time forever. “You know me!” he tells the other man.
From there on, Bucky’s internal battle is paralleled by his physical attacks on Cap. He cannot fight his mind, but he can fight Cap. So he hits him, shouting, “No I DON’T!”
But is it Cap he is trying to prove wrong in this fight, or himself?
Cap knows Bucky is fighting with himself. He knows his old friend is confused, lost, and disorientated. He knows that the confusion, after all these years of programming, frightens Bucky and has left him scrabbling to reorient himself. He also knows that he will not fight his friend to the death, only to an awakening.
Cap drops his defenses. When he does, the memories Bucky has of him come back even stronger than before. He gets angrier. He cannot be wrong. His mission is his life, the only thing that gives him purpose. He has to finish it, or he is nothing at all.
He keeps fighting his memories, taking it out on Cap in the form of brutal punches which the other man does nothing to block. “You’re – my – MISSION!” he shouts.
“Then finish it,” Cap says, seemingly unperturbed. “’Cause I’m with you to the end of the line.”
That does it. Bucky’s eyes widen after Cap repeats an affirmation of trust and friendship Bucky gave him decades ago. The look in Bucky’s eyes after Cap finishes speaking is wild, almost insane, as the memories of his past come crashing in on him and shatter the “order” HYDRA forced on him. After all this time, he is finally beginning to recall himself.
However, it is only a beginning. Bucky has recalled himself, but only in a small way. A crack has opened in the “order” HYDRA programmed him with, but it is only a crack in the wall. Such cracks need to be widened, and that takes time. And time is what he and Cap do not have at the moment.
His reawakened memory holds him back and stops the final blow on Cap. But his rigid immobility, temporary as it is, also means he cannot move or make a coherent decision. He is trapped between his programming and his old memories, the same way Frodo was pinned between Sauron’s and Gandalf’s separate wills in The Fellowship of the Ring. Except, where Frodo remembered that he could choose what he would do, Bucky is too confused to choose a course of action.
Until the Helicarrier starts to fall apart and his base instinct for self-preservation kicks in. Bucky saves himself as the bottom of the Carrier drops away, taking Cap with it. But he knows he cannot let the man who has broken his HYDRA programming die. So he dives into the Potomac River and hauls Cap out, then looks down at him to ensure he is still alive.
Bucky knows now that he and Cap were friends a long time ago. But he cannot stay and pick up their friendship. He has changed while Cap has not, and to pretend he has not changed is impossible. Also, Bucky must come to terms with what he has done as a HYDRA operative. He is messed up. He is dangerous (he probably has the worst case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Marvel history – or any history!). In this state he cannot stay to reform his friendship with Cap. He has to relearn who he is first.
So he leaves and goes to look himself up in a Smithsonian Institute exhibit built to commemorate Cap and the Howling Commandos. And we are left to wonder: is he remembering his past at last?
Or is he taking what others have to say about his past self as a medicine so bitter that it could poison him again, but in a different way than HYDRA did?
The fact that Sebastian Stan was able to pull off his part in Captain America: The Winter Soldier by saying nearly nothing is amazing to me. And he had to portray his character almost entirely by facial expressions, since the Winter Soldier expresses himself almost exclusively through action, not words, in the second Captain America film. I was very impressed with his performance.
What do you think about all this, readers? Did I get Bucky right in this post or not? I hope I did. I would not want to disappoint his best friend by mistreating him again. Cap would not like that much, though I think I would be in less trouble than HYDRA was!
The Mithril Guardian