Monday, March 17, 2014

Winter Soldier Blogathon, Day 1: Who is the Winter Soldier?

This paragraph pretty much only exists to tell you to STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS. Seriously. This is your last chance. Abandon all hope of surprise, ye who enter this blog series. There is no meaningful way to discuss the Winter Soldier storyline, or the movie that’s arisen from it, without spoiling at least a few really big plot points. So if you’ve somehow avoided all the chatter about this movie so far that’s spilled the Winter Soldier’s identity and backstory, and you don’t want to know walking into that theater who he is and why he’s fighting Steve Rogers, STOP READING RIGHT NOW.

Still with me? Okay, then!

Day 1—
All about the Winter Soldier as he appears in the comics. Highlights include the funniest-ever use of a burning zeppelin.
Day 2—A rundown of things you can expect from the Winter Soldier movie, based on the trailers. Highlights include the identity of the second gunman on the grassy knoll.
Day 3—A rundown of things you can expect that weren’t in the trailers. Highlights include a very, very secret love interest.
Day 4—My personal list of batshit-crazy theories about how this movie is going to go. Highlights include the word “squicky”.
Day 5—The reading list, and my brief (but highly emotional) rant about why you should care about this character, and this movie.

Short answer: The last person anybody expected, and the most heartbreaking person imaginable for Steve Rogers. There are two comic books I lend to my friends to make them cry. This is one.

To explain who the Winter Soldier is and why he matters, I’ll have to take you back to 2004, when Marvel Comics relaunched the monthly Captain America comic book with a brand-new #1 issue.

With crime-comic writer Ed Brubaker writing the scripts and Steve Epting drawing some moody and realistic art, the comic quickly established itself as a gorgeous and meaty combination of superhero adventure and spy thriller. The story begins with a mysterious ex-Soviet general, Aleksander Lukin, killing a Russian super-agent sent to disrupt his plans. Strangely, Lukin then orders his men to give the body full funeral honors. Not your typical supervillain. After that, Lukin meets with the Red Skull, who wants to buy some decommissioned Soviet super-weapons of the sort generally found in Cold War comics. There’s only one thing Lukin won’t sell—a tank containing the shadowy figure of a man with a metal arm. Lukin says he won’t part with that unless the Skull is willing to trade the Cosmic Cube (the Tesseract, if you watch the movies), a powerful glowing cube that can reshape reality. The Skull says that a) he doesn’t have the Cube and b) he wouldn’t give it up if he did, and soon he will have it again, blah blah blah world domination—it’s your standard Red Skull rant.
Fast-forward to five years later and the end of the comic, after some scenes establishing that Captain America is having some personal problems (the Avengers have broken up and he’s squabbling with his ex-girlfriend, SHIELD agent Sharon Carter) and that the Skull has some big plan in the works. Turns out that plan is reassembling a broken Cosmic Cube and powering it up. We’re all very focused on the Skull as he takes a call on his cell phone while he’s fondling the Cube. It’s General Lukin from five years ago, making one last offer. The Skull turns him down flat, goes into his usual rant—
A million fans saw this and FREAKED.
—and then suddenly has a fist-sized hole through his chest from a sniper’s expanding bullet.
The Skull falls to the floor, dead. A shadowy figure enters the apartment and takes the Cube from the corpse’s hand … at which point we see that the hand picking up that Cube is made of metal. Whoever was in the tank, he’s out in the world now. And he’s working for Aleksander Lukin. From here on out, what looked like a story about the Red Skull trying to take over the world becomes a story about Captain America trying to figure out who killed the Red Skull, and why.

And then it becomes a story about the Winter Soldier—the killer, and the owner of that metal hand.

It’s Sharon who figures that out. In the course of all the running around and spycraft in this story, she gets captured by the Winter Soldier and used as a hostage to lure Captain America to just the right place at just the right time. Cap’s already rattled by this point because Lukin has been using the Cube to mess with him from a distance—forcing him to relive his memories of World War II, often with subtle and disturbing differences.

It's not just you, Cap.
Cap’s beginning to doubt his own recollection of important battles and major events in his life, especially the day that his 19-year-old partner, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, died and Cap himself was frozen in ice. He’s just remembered a long-forgotten detail—that Bucky didn’t get blown up because he insisted on defusing a flying bomb, but rather because he got his clothing snagged while trying to jump free, as Steve ordered him to do. Bucky didn’t die because of his own stubbornness or incompetence; he died because Steve bailed out a couple of seconds too early to save him. The guilt of that realization is just indescribable.
Aaaand ANGST.
And then Sharon tells him that she got a good look at the Winter Soldier’s face … and she’s dead certain that he’s Bucky.
Me, ten years ago: "What, seriously?"
Steve doesn’t believe it at first, but when he encounters the Winter Soldier in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing (which the Soldier set off), even he’s struck by the resemblance—even if the Winter Soldier is not:
Who the hell is Bucky? Remember that line. You’re going to hear it a lot in these comics, and you’re probably going to hear it in the movie, too. And it may cause you to need therapy.

People who die in comics don’t usually stay dead, especially if they’re popular characters. It’s so common for characters to die and pop back up that there’s even a special term for it—comic-book death. Superman didn’t stay dead. Two dead Robins have failed to stay dead. Jean Grey of the X-Men has died and come back to life so many times that we’ve all lost count.

To save you the trouble--it didn't last.
But there are a few exceptions—what you might call the permanent corpses. Characters who not only stay dead, they must stay dead in order for existing characters to keep selling comics.

Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben is a classic example of this. If Uncle Ben isn’t dead, Spider-Man isn’t motivated to be Spider-Man. The same goes for Batman’s parents. And Bucky is—or was—one of those permanent corpses. His tragic death, retconned into Captain America’s backstory when the character was revived in the 1960s, turned a fairly flat World War II patriotic hero into an angsty, tragic figure in keeping with the Marvel Comics style. Cap’s “man out of time” schtick was only good for so long—eventually, he’d have to adjust to life in the “future” and he’d be just another superhero. But a superhero who’s constantly reminded of his greatest failure—that his partner, best friend, and surrogate little brother died because of the very screwup that made him immortal—that’s a story with legs. That one sticks around. So, according to accepted fan wisdom, Bucky has to remain dead.

Doesn’t he?

But it turns out there’s a way to make Live Bucky even harder on Steve Rogers than Dead Bucky. As Lukin continues to mess with Cap’s head (and plant confidential Soviet files in Cap’s apartment), we find out how Bucky made it to the 21st century while only aging about five years. It’s revealed that Bucky did die that day, either from blood loss (the blast took off his left arm) or from the freezing water he fell into. A Russian submarine picked up his body, thinking he might be Captain America. A Soviet general named Karpov, who had seen Cap and Bucky in action, thought Bucky might have gotten a dose of Cap’s serum and ordered the frozen corpse to be studied. Because Bucky was frozen so soon after death, the Soviets were able to revive him as if he were only recently dead. He was missing most of his memories, but he could still wipe the floor with ordinary soldiers, even with only one arm.

Bucky can take all of you with one arm ... oh. Too soon?
By the time Karpov figured out that Bucky was just a tough little sonofagun, not a super-soldier, the Cold War was raging. Karpov remembered that Bucky had basically been a teenage commando, backing up Captain America and doing the kind of throat-slitting that you’re not allowed to do when you’re wearing the flag on your tights. So Karpov fitted Bucky with a metal arm, implanted him with a false set of memories and some basic assassin-type programming, and proceeded to use him against American targets.
"The enemy will never see him coming." NEITHER WILL YOU.
Bucky eventually proved himself unreliable—the longer he was out of the deep freeze, the more his real personality tried to reassert itself—so Karpov got into the habit of putting his assassin into stasis between missions and reprogramming him on each awakening. They called him the Winter Soldier in part because of these regular deep freezes (and partly because of something Karpov said to Cap during World War II—that the Americans have superheroes to fight their wars, while the Russians have only their winter). The Winter Soldier continued to serve until Karpov died, at which point Bucky was put back into his tank, this time for a couple of decades—until he was found and awakened by Karpov’s protégé, Alexander Lukin.

And reading this file, for Steve, is actually worse than thinking Bucky was dead.

I can’t emphasize enough how emotional this story is for Captain America. The only reason readers care about Bucky at this stage is that Steve Rogers is so visibly destroyed by what his friend has become. Bucky hasn’t shown much of a personality in the present day—he might as well be a robot—but Steve’s face and body language do a lot of Bucky’s emoting for him. On top of that, a series of flashbacks to the good old days shows Bucky regularly getting Steve to lighten up in a way he never does now:
No, Bucky, you may NOT start a riot in a movie theater.
And there’s even a flashback to a scene where Bucky gets a good look at a German mind-control experiment, and the horror and disgust is evident on his face:
So Steve knows exactly how much his friend would hate what he’s become. He knows that Bucky would want his “big brother” to kill him rather than let him remain a zombie assassin, especially since his role in Lukin’s plan involves killing hundreds if not thousands of innocent American civilians. And as Nick Fury, Sharon Carter, and pretty much everyone in the story points out to Steve at some point, it’s not really Bucky Barnes anymore under all that programming. Whatever you think of the Winter Soldier’s occasional erratic behavior, he came face-to-face with Captain America, in full costume, and didn’t recognize him. He didn’t even know his own name:
Told you this would be back.
It’s appropriate, then, that there’s one dissenting voice in the chorus of “just kill him already”. That voice belongs to a character who’s been controlled by the bad guys before, and who might be Captain America’s best friend in the present day—Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon. There’s a beautiful six-panel exchange that pretty much sums up their friendship:
“The only question that really matters, Steve, is what do you want to do?”
“… Save him. Somehow.”
“Okay. So how do we do that?”

And so the climax of the storyline isn’t about catching Lukin or stopping his evil plans for the Cube. It’s about saving Bucky. And it’s all about saving Bucky.


Meanwhile, the Cube has begun messing with Lukin’s head along with Steve’s, and Lukin’s rattled enough that he sends the Winter Soldier to lock the Cube away in a secret underground complex. Cap, the Falcon, and SHIELD track him to that location, and the superheroes go in before backup can arrive.

We've all had days like this, I think.
What follows is a moderately epic knock-down, drag-out running fight through the complex between Cap and the Winter Soldier. It comes to a head after Bucky expresses surprise that hitting Captain America in the head with a cyborg arm doesn’t actually kill him, and Steve realizes that the crazy ex-Soviet killer is still trying to kill people. This comes as a shock, somehow, and Steve challenges Bucky to shoot him in the head if he really doesn’t remember their past relationship.
I want to point out right here, just in case you were unclear on the dynamics that Bucky shoots him. Or tries.
Is ANYBODY surprised by this?
Luckily for all of us, Captain America can dodge bullets pretty well, and he bounces his shield off a handy wall, slams the Winter Soldier in the back with it, and makes the guy drop the Cube. Super-soldier super-speed beats a robot arm in a race any day of the week, so Cap dives faster and gets the Cube. And then, well …

The thing you need to know about the Cosmic Cube is that it’s basically Aladdin’s lamp, with a really untrustworthy genie inside. It will misinterpret pretty much anything you say, if it can. You don’t want to give the Cosmic Cube complicated verbal instructions, and Cap has learned this from about a million prior encounters with it. So, with only a second or two to make his wish before the Winter Soldier tackles him again, he goes with:

Hey, where have we heard THAT line before?
Sounds good, right? Impossible to screw up? Well, this is what happens:
Step one: screaming.
Step two: flashbacks from hell.
Turns out that suddenly regaining your real personality—and finding out you were a mind-controlled super-cyborg assassin—is not terribly good for your mental health. This is what Bucky says once the screaming has stopped:
I called it. You called it. EVERYONE CALLED IT.
Which, to be fair, is what everyone’s been saying all along. As much as this story is about the friendship between Bucky and Steve, it’s also about Steve trusting his convictions over his common sense. Which is also why this happens next:
All that’s left is a little pile of ash.
And regret.
To Sharon and the Falcon, watching from the peanut gallery, it looks pretty simple: Bucky couldn’t live with what had been done to him, so he killed himself. Steve is unconvinced. “Bucky’s a survivor,” he says. And he’s right, because the scene shifts to the abandoned site of the Army base where the two of them first met:
Now it’s Bucky having the flashbacks, and it’s just as bad:
For the next year’s worth of comics, Steve is alternately battling the Red Skull (who turns out to be living inside Lukin’s head) and trying to find Bucky and prove he’s still alive.

Once Bucky has his memories back, he sets out to kill Lukin and the others who controlled him—and he plans to kill himself in the process. That plan doesn’t exactly work out the way he expects, although it does lead to an accidental team-up with Steve in London that includes one of my favorite panels ever. Steve’s in town to fight some neo-Nazis, and Bucky’s in town to shoot Lukin in the face with a sniper rifle. Bucky has the shot all lined up when he notices that Lukin is apparently smiling at something out the window. Bucky looks up and sees:

Now, if you saw a flaming zeppelin crashing into the Thames, how would you react? Really? Well, this is how Bucky reacts:
I love that he drops the gun while he's at it. The UK's full of guns, right?
This panel makes me giggle every time I see it. It’s become an inside joke with my friends—someone will say “flaming zeppelin” or just “omigod, Cap” or mime a flaming dirigible (yes, that’s something you can mime) and I will crack up. Bucky has no way of knowing what Steve has been up to, but he sees a fireball and assumes that his best friend has to be in the middle of it somehow. And he’s right. Oh, the life of a superhero.

Bucky and Steve team up to take down a giant robot, but Bucky slips away again before he and Steve can have the heart-to-heart talk that Steve clearly craves. Bucky loses his Russian-made arm in that fight, and Nick Fury secretly outfits him with a new one, with a red-white-and-blue star to replace the red one. After that, Bucky spends a lot of time doing cloak-and-dagger work for Fury and avoiding Steve, apparently because there’s no good way to have a conversation about how you murdered a bunch of innocent people, tried to shoot your best friend in the face, and then faked your own suicide.

Punching giant robots > talking about your feelings
And then Steve goes and gets himself assassinated.
I won’t bore you with too many details, but it’s like this: the U.S. passed a law requiring superheroes to register with the government and accept both training and monitoring. Iron Man was for it and ended up leading the pro-registration side. Cap was against it and ended up leading the resistance. Bucky kept doing spy work for Fury and kept his head down, but when Steve surrenders to federal authorities and is about to be tried for treason, Bucky is in the crowd outside the courthouse, waiting for Fury’s word so he can start the rescue operation.
Bucky incognito.
Who uses a newspaper as camouflage anymore?
Unfortunately, a sniper and another, close-up shooter kill Cap before the rescue attempt can go down. Bucky participates in the hunt for the various people involved in the assassination, but he also steals Cap’s shield from the government lab where it’s being kept. Doing that brings him into conflict with an old girlfriend:
Yup, it turns out Bucky and Natalia had a thing back in the 1950s when the Winter Soldier was a combat instructor for the Black Widow program. So there’s that.
Bucky steals the shield and, through a complicated chain of events, ends up taking up the mantle of Captain America, pretty much because Steve had asked that somebody take over if he died and Bucky wasn’t going to let anyone else carry the shield.
The “Bucky Cap” stories were some of the most fun of Ed Brubaker’s run on the character, focusing on Bucky’s ongoing quest for redemption, his struggle to live up to Steve’s example, and his complicated relationship with the Black Widow. She acted as his liason with SHIELD, pointing him at trouble spots, although she wasn’t above throwing a little scare into him sometimes. It turns out there’s one kind of Captain America job that he’s absolutely terrified to do:
I just want to say that the Bucky-Widow ’ship was, in my opinion, one of the best romances in comics, ever. The fact that Bucky (or, as she insisted on calling him, James) and Natalia were both strong, complex characters with their own clashing agendas, but that they still clung to each other emotionally like shipwreck survivors on a piece of flotsam, kept the story from ever degenerating into something that made one or the other of them secondary.
Eventually Steve came back from the dead, although he insisted that Bucky keep the shield and mantle. That went south when one of Bucky’s enemies recognized him and splashed his secret history all over the media. Bucky surrendered because he wanted to be tried for (and, his friends hoped, cleared of) the Winter Soldier’s crimes, but while he got off on those charges, it turned out the Russians had already framed and convicted him in absentia for a few unsanctioned murders. Bucky was packed off to a Russian gulag, where he spent a lot of time battling other superpowered prisoners in a series of brutal human dogfights.
This guy's name is Ursa Major. You can't make this stuff up.
Bucky eventually escaped and made it back to the U.S. in 2011, just in time to get his heart ripped out by one of his old enemies, newly amped up on evil Asgardian magic. He survived, barely, but Steve (who thought Bucky was dead) took back the Captain America name while Bucky was secretly recovering, and once Steve again found out that Bucky wasn’t dead, they agreed to let Bucky slip back into the shadows again as the new Winter Soldier—now with his free will intact, of course. Ed Brubaker was free to launch a new Captain America title starring Steve just as Captain America: The First Avenger hit theaters, and Bucky moved on to his own adventures with Natalia in the new Winter Soldier monthly comic.
The covers were ... interesting.
During the relatively short run of Winter Soldier, Bucky mostly tracked down old Soviet weapons and sleeper agents that he was just now remembering, trying to stop the bad guys from using them on civilian populations. The comic was notable for lots of action, some pretty decent character development for Bucky, and the hands-down best portrayal of the Winter Soldier-Black Widow partnership ever. From page one, it was clear that these two were a perfect team, and that each was incomplete without the other. Two normally grim characters with shadowy pasts who can nevertheless make each other laugh, argue about pancake houses (Bucky apparently loves them, Natalia can’t stand them), and enjoy a walk in the rain? Hell yes!
Also, there was a gorilla with a machine gun.
But you know that’s not going to last, right?

One of the last storylines before Winter Soldier was canceled—and Ed Brubaker’s last storyline on the book—ended with Natalia having her memories of Bucky permanently erased by one of their enemies. While she otherwise recovered from her ordeal, Bucky pretty much got his heart ripped out all over again when he rescued her from the bad guys and she said:

In one of the more controversial moves in recent Marvel history, possibly rooted in the popularity of the Widow-Hawkeye pairing in The Avengers, Bucky didn’t try to re-implant the Black Widow’s memories of him. As he pointed out to Steve, one of the reasons he and Natalia were so close is that both of them had had their heads messed with way too much, and knew what it was like. He refused to put her through that again, no matter how much that refusal cost him. (Dude, you could’ve asked her what she thought of all this!) Bucky went solo for the remainder of Winter Soldier, though the red-white-and-blue star insignia on his metal shoulder was replaced by a black star, edged in red, as a sign of permanent mourning for his lost love.

Of late, Bucky’s been appearing in Winter Soldier: The Bitter March, a flashback story set during his mind-controlled years, and The All-New Invaders, a modern-day series that teams him up with Steve, the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch in a fight against the Kree Empire.


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