WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS
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!
HOW THIS SERIES WILL WORK:
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.
THE WINTER SOLDIER STORYLINE
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.|
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.|
|Me, ten years ago: "What, seriously?"|
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.
A QUICK HISTORY LESSON: THE PERMANENT CORPSES
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.|
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.
SOMEHOW, IT GETS WORSE
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?|
|"The enemy will never see him coming." NEITHER WILL YOU.|
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.|
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.|
“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.
NEVER TRUST THE GENIE
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.|
|THIS IS NOT A PLAN, STEVE.|
|Is ANYBODY surprised by this?|
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?|
|Step one: screaming.|
|Step two: flashbacks from hell.|
|I called it. You called it. EVERYONE CALLED IT.|
All that’s left is a little pile of ash.
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.
THE REST OF THE STORY
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?|
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|
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.
Who uses a newspaper as camouflage anymore?
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.
|I WOULD READ THIS FOREVER.|
|This guy's name is Ursa Major. You can't make this stuff up.|
|The covers were ... interesting.|
|Also, there was a gorilla with a machine gun.|
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:
|MY HEART. IT IS BROKEN.|
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.
TOMORROW: WHAT'S IN THE TRAILERS