Monday, March 24, 2014

Winter Soldier Blogathon, Day 5: What to Read, Where to Start, and Why to Care

Wow, you made it through! Or you skipped here. Either way’s fine by me. This entry is designed to be a guide to the Winter Soldier’s appearances in the comics. I’ll start with a chronological rundown of the graphic novels in rough order of publication, and then do a short list of the best jumping-on points for this character. I’ll conclude with one last bit of fannish gushing on why you should care about this character, and a little bit of what he means to me.

Be warned—there’s a lot of stuff to cover. Here’s a picture of my personal collection of Winter Soldier graphic novels, in order:

Yes, I can lift the entire stack at once. Barely.
Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff. But I’ll guide you through it. And as always, I recommend used booksellers like and Powell’s Books over paying full price at new-book retailers. Onward!


What to read: This.
For once, Marvel has made your job easy. If you want to get started on the world of Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier and you don’t want to do any hunting, there’s a terrific new hardcover edition of the complete Winter Soldier storyline, put out just in time for the movie. It’s $34.99, and worth every penny. (If that seems pricey for one graphic novel, note that it’s got thirteen issues in it—the equivalent of two trade paperbacks, either of which would retail for about $20. So even in hardcover, it’s a bit of a cost savings.) There’s one issue missing from this book, but it was a one-off “event story” that took place in an alternate universe and had absolutely nothing to do with the Winter Soldier storyline, which I assume is why it’s been omitted. The book does not suffer in its absence. Don’t worry about it.

If you’d rather go the cheaper route, Volume 1 and Volume 2 of the Winter Soldier storyline are available in used paperback form, though they appear to be out of print.

If you like that story and want to keep reading, here’s a short rundown of later volumes in the series:

3 and 4. Red Menace: Crossbones returns, and Steve and Bucky end up in London.

5. Civil War. Cap joins the resistance to the Superhuman Registration Act. Bucky does some skullduggery for Nick Fury. Contains Winter Soldier: Winter Kills, a beautiful one-shot special about how Bucky spends his Christmas. Hint: it involves violence and awkward team-ups with teen superheroes.

6, 7, and 8. The Death of Captain America, vols. 1-3 (The Death of Captain America / The Burden of Dreams / The Man Who Bought America). This three-volume saga covers it all, from Steve’s assassination to the hunt for his killers to Bucky’s transition to life as the new Captain America. Some of the knottiest plotting in all of Ed Brubaker’s run. I cannot summarize this, but if you really like twisty plots and a million reversals per chapter, this is going to be your crack.

9. The Man With No Face. Bucky-Cap faces the vengeful survivor of one of his nastiest Winter Soldier missions. Guest-starring the Sub-Mariner, who adds a lot of comic relief.

Namor reacts to Bucky and Natasha having a moment. Thanks a lot, Namor.
10. Road to Reborn. A more or less random collection of stories, collecting a series of clues leading up to …

11. Captain America: Reborn. Guess what? Steve’s not actually dead! There’s time travel and mad science and oh so much crazy. It’s a fun story, though.

12. Two Americas. Steve insists that Bucky keep the Captain America identity, so Bucky and the Falcon go hunt down an insane doppelganger of Steve Rogers who escaped during a previous story. Imagine Bucky and the Falcon fighting domestic terrorists in rural Idaho. Yeah, it’s like that.

13. No Escape. Baron Zemo, the grandson of the World War II villain who nearly killed Cap and Bucky at the end of the war, decides to avenge his grandfather’s honor and kill Bucky-Cap off. He eventually settles for second prize …

14. The Trial of Captain America. Once Zemo has exposed Bucky’s past as the Winter Soldier, Bucky goes on trial for his decades of Cold War crimes. Meanwhile, the Red Skull’s daughter, Sin, proclaims herself the new Red Skull and goes on a rampage. Bucky must decide whether being Captain America means a) going along with due process or b) stopping a supervillain from blowing up the Statue of Liberty. Did I mention Bucky has poor impulse control?

15. Prisoner of War. Bucky gets off on the U.S. charges, but the Russians demand extradition. Bucky goes to the gulag and gets thrown into a series of cage matches, which turn out to have a motive even more sinister than bad guys just wanting to watch an American superhero fight for his life. The Winter Soldier’s legacy just won’t leave Bucky alone. Psychological games ensue. Meanwhile, Steve and Natasha try to prove Bucky’s innocence. Espionage hijinks ensue.

16. Captain America and Bucky: The Life Story of Bucky Barnes. After Bucky “died” during the not-very-good Fear Itself crossover, the monthly Captain America comic became Captain America and Bucky for a while. The first storyline, “The Life Story of Bucky Barnes”, presents a series of untold tales from Bucky’s past—including his childhood before he met Steve Rogers, a couple of wartime adventures, and a Winter Soldier tale focusing on his romance with the Black Widow. I have not included the next volume of Captain America and Bucky in this list because Bucky Barnes isn’t actually in it. Long story. After that the title became Captain America and Hawkeye, and then fizzled out. This volume is the only one relevant to this timeline.

17. Winter Soldier: The Longest Winter. With Steve finally back in the Captain America costume (and a new Captain America monthly title), Bucky sets off to clean up a few Winter Soldier-related messes. Natasha comes along for the fun and because somebody has to stop Bucky from leading with his face. Romance and a machine-gun-toting gorilla ensue. Also, Bucky meets Doctor Doom and they get along as well as you’d expect. Ha.

18. Winter Soldier: Broken Arrow. A Soviet sleeper agent, trained long ago by the Winter Soldier, is out to destroy the world that replaced his. A key part of his plan involves getting the Black Widow on his side, in more ways than one. Creepy and action-packed, with great twists.

19. Winter Soldier: Black Widow Hunt. The saga of the sleeper agent continues, as our heroes discover some nasty parts of that plan that I won’t spill here. Bucky fights Hawkeye, Wolverine, Daredevil, Cap, and the Black Widow. There’s really an unreasonable amount of fighting in this book. Oh, and it also rips my heart out and crushes it before my eyes, because … well, you should know by now.

20. Winter Soldier: The Electric Ghost. With the Black Widow out of his life, Bucky sets about picking up the pieces of another old mission—one that killed a SHIELD agent and left a little girl named Tesla Tarasova orphaned. Tesla has grown up into the rather frightening Electric Ghost, who can get into Bucky’s head like no one else. This storyline is the only one on this list that Ed Brubaker didn’t write, and it’s also one of the weakest.

Winter Soldier was canceled after the Electric Ghost storyline, so since then it’s just been individual comics not yet collected in trade form. If you want to check them out, there are two series:

21. All-New Invaders. This comic, written by James Robinson (a man who knows his World War II heroes) is a big team-up between Captain America, the original Human Torch, the Winter Soldier, and Namor the Sub-Mariner, among others. Lots of World War II flashbacks and some really good Band of Brothers-style camaraderie in a group of modern heroes whose bond goes all the way back to the 1940s. Right now the plot involves the alien Kree kidnapping Namor for plotty reasons and Namor’s old war buddies invading the Kree homeworld to get him back—largely because Namor’s such a jerk to most people that nobody else wants to rescue him.

22. Winter Soldier: The Bitter March. I wasn’t impressed with the first issue of The Bitter March, written by Rick Remender, but the second has piqued my interest. The story follows a lone SHIELD agent, Ran Shen, trying to smuggle a couple of ex-Nazi scientists out of eastern Europe  in the 1960s so SHIELD can have their magic formula. Chasing Shen is a bunch of Hydra goons and the Winter Soldier. The first issue focused mostly on Shen, and Bucky was basically playing the Terminator, coming after him over and over again. The second issue, however, got into the Winter Soldier’s head a bit more; it’s starting to look like Bucky is trying to retake control of his own brain, and that’s not going to end well for anyone. Seems like things are heating up!

I’ll make this short and sweet. Find the quote that sounds like you and read the answer:

“I want to know what’s going on when I watch the movie, but I only want to read one book.”
Read the Winter Soldier hardcover, or its two trade-paperback equivalents. That’s you sorted.

Pictured: You, sorted.
“I want the best Bucky-Cap storyline.”
Read The Man With No Face. Action, angst, and a pretty good mystery. This is good for the Bucky-Natasha shippers, too.

Oh, look, the cover is a Bucky fashion show!
“I want a little bit of everything—a sampling of the character from different periods in his life.”
Read The Life Story of Bucky Barnes. It’s your one-stop shop.

Also, there's interior art by Chris Samnee. You want that.
“I want the most kickass Winter Soldier action you’ve got.”
Read Winter Soldier: The Longest Winter. Then keep reading if you like what you see.

Including a gorilla with a machine gun. And a jetpack.
Aside from the fact that I obviously adore this character and these storylines, it’s worth pointing out why I adore them. The Winter Soldier storyline was, at the time, one of the most complex ever to appear in mainstream superhero comics—both in terms of plot twists and in terms of its characters’ emotional arcs. It set the pattern for a lot of the really terrific stories that have come out of the Big Two—especially Marvel—in the last decade. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Winter Soldier gave a lot of people permission to break the rules of comics—as long as they produced exceptional stories in doing so. At the same time, it set the bar pretty high. As I said at the beginning of this series, this is one of only two comic books that I hand people in order to make them cry. Its cinematic scope and the neverending gut-punch of its emotional impact cannot be understated.

You will spend the entire storyline doing this. I am not kidding even a little bit.
Don’t believe me? Look at this incredibly short summary:

In Winter Soldier, Captain America finds out that his long-dead kid sidekick, Bucky, is actually a zombie cyborg assassin working for the Russians. Fight scenes and angst ensue.

Pretty much what I thought would happen when I saw this.
Does that sound remotely interesting? No. In fact, it sounds completely batshit insane. I’ve quoted this summary to non-geeks and gotten completely baffled looks. And yet that’s the bare bones of this storyline. What makes it work—what made me and a million other fans care about it—is the way in which that batshit-crazy story was told. This book makes you care about one of the permanent corpses so much that even the most rule-conscious nerd can be persuaded not to care about the rules. Screw Steve Rogers’ angsty motivation and screw the necessity of conflict; by the end of this book, you want Bucky to live and be happy, no matter what it takes. And yet we’re talking about Bucky the dead kid sidekick, butt of a thousand nerd jokes. And yet, when Steve Rogers came back from the dead in 2011, there was significant fan outcry against killing Bucky off because so many people liked Bucky-Cap better than Original Cap. He had earned their allegiance. Nerds almost never shift their loyalties like that—but this storyline got them to do it.
I own the T-shirt of this.
I MADE the T-shirt of this. And people bought it.
On paper, this story should never work. And yet it did, and it still does, and it’s inspired a lot of great work from a lot of other writers.

I promised myself when I started this series that I wouldn’t talk about my most personal reason for being a diehard Winter Soldier fan, and I won’t. It’s not something you need to hear, especially on a blog whose audience includes children, and in any case I probably won’t be able to talk about it in public for a while yet, if ever. But I will say this: For a lot of fans, especially younger ones (by which I mean under the age of 35), there’s something in the saga of Bucky Barnes that resonates. If you’ve ever felt like you couldn’t escape some horrible piece of your past, he’s a character for you. If you’ve ever been expected to measure up to an impossible standard, he’s a character for you. If you’ve ever had to sit and wrestle with your demons in silence because, for one reason or another, you just couldn’t speak up about them to anyone—here’s Bucky Barnes.

This page probably sums up James Buchanan Barnes better than any other.
He’ll match you ghost for ghost, burden for burden, demon for demon, and he’ll still get up again the next morning. He’ll make fun of himself sometimes, and he’ll play the hardened cynic, even though he’s really got a squishy romantic heart that’s far too close to his brittle surface.
Bucky and Natasha go for a walk in the rain. Squishy romanticism ensues.
He’ll never be the hero Steve Rogers is, and he’ll never live up to Captain America’s example, and he knows both those things—but he usually has no idea how deeply he inspires the man he admires most.
Steve works on his eulogy for Bucky, just before finding out Bucky's not dead.
“This is what it is to be human,” Spider Robinson once wrote: “to persist.”

Bucky Barnes persists. Half man and half machine, half monster and half hero, he is one of the most human characters in modern comics. So here’s hoping his movie turns out half as good as it looks.

And hey, would it kill anyone to get Natasha back in the book? Come on!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Winter Soldier Blogathon, Day 4: My Pet Theories

C'mon. Who did you THINK was going to be at the top of the conspiracy post?
Let's just dive right in, shall we? Here are the interesting, but not terribly well-supported, theories about this movie that appeal to me most.


Let's start with Mr. Ominous View of the City.
1. Robert Redford is the Red Skull (or someone like him). All right, this isn’t so much my theory as the entire internet’s theory, which makes me a bit suspicious of it, but here it is. Alexander Pierce, played by Robert Redford, is apparently some kind of SHIELD mucketymuck. He seems to be more on the political and administrative end than Nick Fury, who’s more of a hands-on director. And he’s said some fairly innocuous-sounding things with fairly obvious double meanings—things like, “Are you ready for the world to see who you really are?” Now, SHIELD might be a bureaucracy, but the storytelling style in SHIELD stories is pretty anti-bureaucratic. I don’t think anyone’s counted the number of times Nick Fury has had to cut through red tape with a machete (or an M-16 … or a nuclear missile …), but it’s got to be big. So a SHIELD-connected bureaucrat is likely to be an enemy of Nick Fury’s, and even more of an enemy to Captain America.
Pictured: the Handshake of Evil.
So why do I, and the internet, think he’s the Red Skull? First, because the Skull absolutely loves impersonating people in power—senators, Cabinet secretaries, powerful CEOs, you name it. Second, there’s no conclusive evidence that the Skull is actually dead. Oh, sure, we saw him get apparently vaporized by the Tesseract in the first movie, but that means bupkes in comic-land. The Skull has placed his consciousness inside the Cosmic Cube at least three times that I know of, and we know SHIELD has that. Third, the Skull was pulling the Winter Soldier’s strings for quite some time while Bucky was under Lukin’s control and the Skull was living in Lukin’s head. He’d be a good candidate for the job in the movie, too. Nazis make perfect villains.
Look, he's even mean to Nick Fury. Classic Red Skull, right there.
Now, I’m not 100% sold on this. I’m pretty well convinced that Alexander Pierce is somebody big and bad, but I’m not dead certain it’s the Red Skull. It’s too obvious, not least because that’s just about how it went down in the comics. I’m not all that sure the filmmakers are interested in repeating a villain this early in a film series no matter how many times Cap fought the Skull in the funnybooks. But it’s sure fun to think about.
And now, a transition.
2. The nurse across the hall is Agent 13. Pure speculation on my part, I admit, but I’m a lot surer about this. Emily van Camp is listed in the cast of this movie as “Agent 13”, but she hasn’t been seen at all except for that extremely brief shot of her in the UK trailer. Considering the huge importance of Sharon Carter in the Winter Soldier comics storyline, her absence is conspicuous. So I’m calling it now—whatever Sharon’s doing in this movie, it’s supposed to be a surprise reveal. And I’m having some trouble believing that the writers would go to so much trouble to set up some random neighbor of Cap’s in an opening scene if she weren’t important somehow. So my current theory is that Sharon is a plant, keeping an eye on Steve Rogers from across the hall while pretending to be a civilian nurse.
Not pictured: nurse outfit.
Why would SHIELD do this? There are any number of reasons, but the first one that comes to my mind is that, aside from the Avengers, Steve has no friends in the twenty-first century, and doesn’t seem interested in making any. He apparently spends his free time alone in the gym. That kind of isolation is going to cause some real psychological trouble down the line, so I wouldn’t be surprised if SHIELD tried to set a valuable operative up with some “starter friends” to ease him into his new situation. The last thing SHIELD needs is a self-destructive superhero. Besides, why would Captain America have normal neighbors? Wouldn’t they at least need to be vetted by SHIELD just to live in the same building? I’m calling it now—that nurse is no nurse.
Still not buying it, Marvel.
3. The Steve-Natasha romance ain’t happening (but the Bucky-Natasha romance might). Yeah, I know there are set photos of Steve and Natasha making out (like that’s not the world’s oldest way to hide your face from security cameras and/or passersby). And there’s a shot in the UK trailer that shows Natasha sitting on the bed of what appears to be a shared motel room. But while all that’s a pretty good indicator that Steve and Natasha go on the run together in this movie, and it might even lead to the beginnings of a romance between them, I’m calling the ball now—that relationship is going nowhere. For one thing, if my theory about Agent 13 is correct, Natasha’s actively trying to set Steve up with somebody else. For another, I think Natasha’s past with the Winter Soldier is too good a twist for the filmmakers to pass up. I mean, is there a better way to ratchet up the drama than to find out that the guy who’s been trying to kill you all movie is a) your former best friend and b) the former lover of your current whatever-Natasha-is? No. No, there is not.
I can't tell whether Cap is looking at the Widow, the body, or the middle distance. It's quite distracting.
Plus there’s that body-under-the-sheet scene. Natasha’s touching the face like it’s someone who matters to her, and Steve’s right there, so it’s not him. Open speculation is that it’s either Fury or Bucky, and my money’s on the latter. Which brings me to:
Does Maria Hill never change her clothes?
4. Fake death(s). Fury gets visibly bashed up and possibly killed in those videos. Bucky’s always been high on the casualty list. Neither character is actually someone whom the writers would want to throw away, and both characters are known for faking their deaths on multiple occasions in the comics. You heard it here first—that’s a fake body under the sheet. And it might not be the only one in the movie. Didn’t The Avengers mention Life Model Decoys?

And now, the big theories. I apologize in advance if I spoil something for you—I have no advance knowledge of this movie that the rest of the internet doesn’t have, so if I end up calling it right, just assume I’m psychic. Or psychotic. One of the two. But if you’re interested, here are the primary ravings of my mad, fannish brain.

OF COURSE my big theories are about this guy.
BIG THEORY ONE: Bucky is a super-soldier. I’m not just talking about the mechanical arm here. My personal pet theory—and the one I most hope to see on the big screen on April 4—is that James Buchanan Barnes was already a kind of super-soldier, sort of a B-list Captain America, before his apparent death in The First Avenger. Why do I think this? Well, let’s start with my (admittedly speculative) evidence, and then deal with the major objections to the theory.
Seriously, what drugs is he on here?
First, we know from The First Avenger that Bucky was a victim of some kind of Hydra medical experimentation. When Cap comes to break him out, he finds a bunch of prisoners (the future Howling Commandos) being used as a slave labor force … and he mysteriously finds Bucky in a separate medical wing, from which no prisoner has ever returned. When Cap enters the right room—from which mad scientist Arnim Zola has just conveniently removed a bunch of papers—he finds Bucky strapped down on a table, apparently drugged and deliriously babbling his name, rank, and serial number. It’s not likely he was just being tortured—the setup is too elaborate, and Bucky’s not likely to know anything the Skull wants to find out. But what kind of experimentation would Hydra be performing? What makes me think Hydra was trying to make Bucky into a super-soldier, in particular?
Aside from the fact that he was dating Clara Oswald from Doctor Who.
First of all, we know the Red Skull was obsessed with the super-soldier formula. That makes the formula, or a version of it, the most likely prospect for any human trials Hydra might be conducting. And no altered humans appear in Hydra’s forces in the movie aside from the Red Skull himself. That suggests that whatever the Skull was doing didn’t work, or (perhaps) that he couldn’t replicate the process—possibly because Zola took his notes and the primary test subject busted out and rejoined the U.S. Army before the Skull could dissect him. Again, Bucky as super-soldier looks good.
Okay, how are you walking and focusing your eyes now? Seriously, how?
Then there’s Bucky’s own behavior immediately after being released. He recovers insanely fast—goes from delirious and staggering to walking and asking pertinent questions inside a few minutes. (Kind of like how Steve came out of his procedure woozy, but quickly recovered enough to chase a taxicab. Of course, this might just be Movie Concussion Syndrome.) And what are the questions he asks? They’re all about Steve’s transformation. “What happened to you?” “Did it hurt?” “Is it permanent?” “You don’t have one of those [a Red Skull face], do you?” Never anything like, “How are we gonna get out of here?” or “Did you bring a division with you?” or “Where can I get a gun around this place?”
Or even, "Nice hat".
Now, I’m sure that if my suddenly superpowered best friend rescued me from an evil mad-science lab, I’d be interested in his well-being and ask about the superpowers thing. But I’d be way more interested in how we were going to get the hell out of Dodge. I would save my questions about long-term side effects for later … unless, of course, I thought I might be in for said side effects myself because I’d just been on Arnim Zola’s table. 
Bucky denies my theory with his closed captioning.
This would also explain (though it doesn’t necessarily need explaining) why Bucky drinks alone in the bar scene—if, like Cap, he can’t get drunk, he may not want his buddies noticing. And it explains why the last thing Bucky does before he gets blown out of the train car in his final scene is pick up Cap’s shield. Yeah, it’s great cover and he’s being shot at—but is he also trying the shield on for size? The comics have made a big deal out of how Captain America’s shield is nearly impossible to handle it correctly unless you’re a super-soldier. I can picture Cap letting the other Howlers try out the shield in camp some night, and everyone laughing when someone accidentally knocked over a tree with it … and I can just imagine Bucky lurking in the background, biding his time to try the thing in private, just in case he turned out not to suck.
And look! He doesn't!
But now we come to the primary objection. If Bucky did have some super-soldier-lite characteristics, why weren’t they covered in the first movie? Why wouldn’t Bucky tell his best friend what was going on with him?
Maybe not right now, but there had to be some downtime.
Well, the first question’s an easy answer—time. If you’re going to compress two or three years of war into a two-hour movie, you’re going to lose a lot of stuff. And it was Steve’s movie, not Bucky’s. And if we’re explaining, as of the second movie, why Bucky didn’t tell Steve about his burgeoning superpowers before, there are a hundred different potential explanations.
Like the fact that the talk would have given him this awkward face.
Maybe Bucky didn’t know, or didn’t know at first, that anything was different. Maybe he didn’t want to bring it up when it wasn’t interfering with the effectiveness of his unit. Maybe he didn’t want to admit weakness. Maybe he didn’t want to be packed off to a stateside lab. Maybe he was keeping his powers in reserve, as a surprise; he was always a hell of a poker player in the comics.
Bucky wins Nick Fury's Hershey bars. There are a LOT of Bucky-winning-at-poker panels I could've used.
He won a hundred euros off the Falcon one night, and Hawkeye still owes him $50. The moral of this story?
Or perhaps the reason’s even simpler: maybe Bucky just wanted to kill or capture Arnim Zola and/or the Red Skull to avenge his treatment at their hands … and he knew his best chance of doing that was being the guy who went in right behind Captain America.
Hey, look where he is.
Perhaps the strongest possible explanation for Bucky’s silence is what Erskine says about the serum—that it exaggerates physical and psychological attributes. (“Good becomes great, bad becomes worse.”) Before the war, Bucky obviously had a darker temperament than Steve, but was strongly loyal to his weaker friend. After his escape, he becomes even grimmer, except when he’s kidding Captain America, but openly says that he’ll follow Steve anywhere. If that loyalty has been dialed up to eleven, did he keep the details of his ordeal quiet in order to avoid burdening his friend?
And so people wouldn't stop giving him guns?
But now we have that second objection. Does Bucky need to be a super-soldier, in order for Winter Soldier to work? Nope. The comics made it work with a biologically normal 19-year-old, and the movie could do that, too. But the Marvel movieverse seems to have a slightly different approach to death that might make this solution necessary.
Pictured: Tuesday at the X-mansion
While comic-book death is an established concept, and comic writers can bring a character back from the dead with little more than a wave of the hand (really, what made Bucky’s resurrection so unusual was that it involved so little hand-waving), the movies so far have reserved resurrection only for very special, usually superhuman characters like Thor and Iron Man. The only mere mortal I can think of who got the Lazarus treatment is Phil Coulson, and the rather squicky details of that have taken most of a season of Agents of SHIELD to uncover. This more serious approach to death means the writers of Winter Soldier must jump a higher bar in order to bring Bucky back. We saw him get blasted with a Hydra weapon and dropped from a great height, at high speed, into a frozen river. That’s usually pretty fatal in movieland.
Unless, of course, you’ve already seen someone get dropped from a great height, at high speed, into an Arctic ice field … and survive. The only difference here is that Captain America is a super-soldier, and his survival might be attributed to the biological differences between super-soldiers and the rest of us. But Bucky isn’t a super-soldier. Unless he is.
Deep freeze in five ... four ... three ...
And even if we’re going to argue basic logistics—who pulled him out of the river and revived him? Who even knew where to look? Why would they care?—we’ve got a candidate with this theory. The mission where Bucky died was the mission that captured Arnim Zola, the one person who would have known the most about whatever was done to Bucky and the man who saw Captain America come running in personally to rescue this random test subject. And General Philips told Zola during his interrogation that his capture cost the life of “Captain Rogers’ closest friend.” Zola’s not dumb. He probably knew who Bucky was. And if something in those experiments made Bucky valuable, then Zola had motivation to retrieve Bucky’s body—or at least sell its location to the film’s bad guys.
Told you we'd see him again.
And the mention of those ultimate bad guys—who still haven’t been revealed in any of those trailers, remember—brings me to my absolute favorite batshit-crazy conspiracy-theory never-gonna-happen-but-wouldn’t-it-be-awesome-if-it-did hypothesis …
BIG THEORY TWO: The Winter Soldier is working for SHIELD. Not just the bad guys secretly running one of the SHIELD factions. SHIELD itself. The people pulling Bucky’s strings are the nominal good guys—and that makes everything worse for everyone.
Pictured: Nazis and the (possible) Nazi who sent Armstrong to the moon.
This theory begins with a bit of real-life history. After World War II, the various Cold War players rushed to recruit as many German scientists as they could. One of the best-known of these efforts was Operation Paperclip, which whitewashed many scientists’ Nazi pasts in order to bring them to the United States. (The most famous beneficiary of this was rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who went from designing V-2 rockets for the Nazis to building spacecraft engines for NASA.) So it’s not unreasonable that the Marvel Universe version of the U.S., and possibly even SHIELD itself, would end up with former Hydra scientists in its ranks—like Arnim Zola.
And his fedora.
As I mentioned above, Zola knew what (if anything) was done to Bucky in that medical ward, and knew approximately where and when he fell from the train. He knew the value of an abandoned asset and where to look for it. That’s something that might interest SHIELD. After the war, they were in a prime position to recover Bucky and turn him into the Winter Soldier.
And they didn't even give him a haircut.
But wait, I hear you saying. SHIELD is the good guys, started by the good guys after they beat the bad guys. And that’s true. Marvel’s “Agent Carter” short film shows the founders of SHIELD as Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, and possibly Dum-Dum Dugan. Surely they’d never be a party to brainwashing Bucky Barnes into doing their dirty work for them. They’d never do that to Steve Rogers’ best friend. Not to their comrade-in-arms.
From left to right: Bucky's best friend and his two other friends. Except maybe not.
But as it turns out, they might. Even in the comics, Bucky’s transformation happened over several years, as technology became available and the needs of his captors changed. Why wouldn’t it be the same here? All that’s needed for this theory to work is to get SHIELD involved in the recovery of the remains and start the ball rolling. If Zola offered up a dead super-soldier, Howard Stark (who, according to his son Tony in The Avengers, “never shut up about” Captain America in later life) might well jump at the chance to preserve tissue samples. Peggy Carter might see the recovery as a chance to bury Bucky, as Steve would have wanted—particularly since she never got to bury Steve. Dugan, if he were involved, would likely be on board with bringing a brother soldier’s bones home.
"Oh, look, new toys to play with!"
And then … well … whatever happened, happened. Maybe somebody took a chance on reviving Bucky, and it worked, albeit without his memories. Again, I could see Peggy and Howard putting Bucky back on ice until they could figure out how to bring him all the way back. I could even see Howard building Bucky’s metal arm for when he woke up—hell, it looks like the kind of design that might have inspired Iron Man a generation or two later.
Paint it red and gold and put it over an actual arm ...
And a few years after that … we know Peggy didn’t stay with SHIELD forever. We know Howard ended up in the private sector. We don’t know what happened to Dugan, but all in all it seems possible that one frozen semi-super-soldier got lost in the shuffle. Lost, and then found by someone who didn’t know him, didn’t care about him, but looked at him and thought: What a wonderful opportunity …
Obviously, his shirt had gone AWOL by then.
By this point, we’re getting into the 1970s, let’s say. An era of dirty tricks, in fact and fiction, and the decade that produced some of the spy movies that made Robert Redford famous. The oeuvre matches. Now Bucky comes out of the ice, perhaps under the control of a younger Alexander Pierce, and begins building his legend. Most people in the intelligence community don’t know about him. Most people in SHIELD don’t know about him, though the Black Widow hears about him somehow. And when the Cold War ends, Bucky’s put back into storage …
This is only here because it's awesome. Carry on.
And he stays there right up until Steve Rogers comes out of the ice, and Nick Fury catches a mild case of idealism in The Avengers. Then Pierce, or whoever is working through him, needs to consolidate his own power, and that means knocking Fury off his perch. The best way to do that is to make Fury fail, and publicly. And what better way to do that than with a big, splashy terrorist attack that nearly kills Fury himself? The Winter Soldier would make a good false-flag operative. The pieces all fit. Maybe Pierce (or whoever) knows that this move forces Captain America to fight, and possibly kill, his closest friend. If Pierce is the Red Skull, he’d enjoy that; anybody else might just find it amusing. Either way, it ratchets up the tension.
Everybody run. Bucky's got a gun.
Because the one big advantage to this batshit-crazy theory is that it actually ups the ante. If you thought the comics were emotionally excruciating, with Bucky working for the bad guys, I can guarantee it’ll be even harder with him working for the wrong good guys. This theory is actually harder on Captain America than the original books, because this time he has to save Bucky, and the world, with no SHIELD squad to back him up, no brilliant scientists or huge resources to fix what’s been done to Bucky’s mind, no friends he can trust. He’s alone in an unfamiliar world, with his past about to eat him alive … and if that’s not the man out of time, I don’t know what is.
But at least he knows that if they're shooting at you, they're bad.
Either way, I’ve got tickets to a pre-midnight premiere screening on April 3. And you’ll probably hear the squealing a long way off.
One last angsty face. The angstiest of them all. Eeeeee!