This article contains spoilers for Captain America: Civil War, but it’s spoiler-free regarding Avengers: Infinity War.
As a big Marvel fan, you might assume that you have figured everything about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and turned the movies inside out. You might be wrong.
Just before the gritty final fight in Civil War, Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark discovers that Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes – as the brainwashed HYDRA agent, The Winter Soldier – assassinated his parents back in the 1990s. Unveiling this information is the master plan of Daniel Brühl’s Zemo, with his intention being to tear the Avengers apart by getting Tony to go toe-to-toe with Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers.
Although many may have guessed it already, the audience officially learns this friendship-ruining fact at the same time as Iron Man. Zemo plays the grainy security footage of Bucky butchering the Starks, and thanks to the movie magic of editing, we in the cinema get to see the fully HD version. This is where there’s a surprise.
As he comes face to face with his killer, John Slattery’s Howard Stark utters two brief words which are loaded with meaning and connotations: “Sergeant Barnes?”
Just before he is killed, Howard recognizes Bucky. It’s a moment that, once you’ve noticed it, forces you to remember that Dominic Cooper’s young Howard Stark and Sebastian Stan’s not-evil-yet Bucky fought on the same side in Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s easy to get caught up in Tony’s emotions at this point in the film, but let’s consider Howard’s perspective on this scene: in the final moments of his life, he recognises a man from decades prior. A man he thought was dead. A soldier that fought HYDRA and the Nazis. Howard sees him, remembers him, and is killed by him.
The Captain America trilogy can at times feel like three random films that just so happen to have Steve Rogers in them: The First Avenger was a period piece and a prelude to The Avengers; its sequel, The Winter Soldier, is mostly remembered for the downfall of SHIELD and all those Hail HYDRA memes; and Civil War has the bombastic airport fight to distract us with, as well as the introductions of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther.
I had previously thought that the bond between Steve and Bucky and the doomed romance between Steve and Peggy were the only real narrative through-lines of the trilogy, but in this Civil War re-watch, I stumbled unknowingly onto another one. Since they are played so differently, decades apart in the narrative, it’s easy to forget – or at least forget to care – that Dominic Cooper and John Slattery are playing the same person.
When Cap watches that grainy footage, he’s seeing Bucky kill an ally and a friend that helped him defeat The Red Skull. Howard pressed the buttons that gave Cap his muscles, flew Steve into danger when no one else would, and handed over the shield that became Captain America’s iconic weapon of choice. Howard was an important figure in the birth of Captain America, and – as much as Tony’s pain is more obvious in the heat of the moment – it can’t have been easy for Cap to watch that recording either.
When you watch the final fight knowing this, the brutal blows take on even more emotional resonance. Cap isn’t happy with Bucky either, but he’s not willing to let Tony kill him. And let’s not forget the final words that the crumpled Iron Man shouts at Captain America: “That shield doesn’t belong to you. You don’t deserve it. My father made that shield!”
The fact that Howard recognized Bucky in his final moments says a lot about Tony’s dad. Although Dominic Cooper’s version of Howard may have seemed like a cocksure fondue enthusiast in that first movie, the heroic ‘deaths’ of Bucky and Cap in the third act of The First Avenger seem to have had a lasting impact on the man. Similar to how Tony turned from arms dealer to superhero after his time as a captive in a cave, we know that Howard transitioned from a showboating businessman into a founder of SHIELD and a low-key hero of the MCU – perhaps the legacy of Cap and Bucky that influenced that decision.
We already know that Howard spent some time scouring around in the ice looking for Steve after his disappearance, and that he “wouldn’t shut up about” Captain America during Tony’s childhood. Further to that, I’d argue that recognising Bucky all those years later tells us that Howard dwelled on the events of The First Avenger for quite some time. While Bucky and Cap were incapacitated for decades immediately after The First Avenger, Howard – like Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter – had to live with the events of that movie in real time.
In all the years he had to reflect on the events of The First Avenger, maybe Howard scrubbed up on Bucky’s role in proceedings (thanks to that museum exhibit in The Winter Soldier, we know that the details of Bucky’s plummet from that train were recorded somewhere, somehow). It may be a bit of a reach to suggest this, but isn’t it possible that Howard spent some time trying to locate Bucky’s body, just as he did for Cap?
Every other time I watched Civil War, I read Zemo’s footage as proof that Bucky killed Tony’s dad. But in the context of the Captain America movie trilogy, it’s equally important to remember that – in killing Howard – Bucky also killed one of Steve’s friends; a friend who was a key component in the creation of Captain America, and a friend who knew all about Bucky.
There seem to be numerous reasons why HYDRA sent The Winter Soldier after the Starks: Civil War focuses on the super serum in the boot of their car, but Arnim Zola’s PowerPoint presentation in The Winter Soldier’s bunker scene suggested another motive for the assassination. When Zola reveals that HYDRA’s tentacles have been embedded in SHIELD for decades, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow says, “SHIELD would have stopped you.” Zola responds by saying, “Accidents will happen,” as a newspaper clipping referring to the Stark’s death in a ‘car crash’ appears on the screen.
The Starks were onto something, then. It seems safe to assume that they were close to discovering HYDRA’s infiltration of SHIELD, but perhaps the story is even more connected than that. Maybe Howard did indeed search for Bucky’s body at some point, and maybe it was this search led him to very nearly uncovering HYDRA’s continued existence. Perhaps Howard’s search for Bucky is the exact event that resulted in Bucky – as The Winter Solider – showing up and killing him.
Whether or not you agree with my rambled theories, it was undeniably a nice touch from the screenwriters to include this little moment of Howard recognising Bucky. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely wrote all three of the Captain America movies, and even though Marvel gave them lots of heavy lifting to do in other areas (tease The Avengers, destroy SHIELD, tear the Avengers apart, introduce new heroes) they didn’t miss this tiny chance to link their films together and hold onto their characters’ shared history and emotional connections.
Marvel Studios are clearly impressed with their work, since Markus and McFeely have since landed the scriptwriting gigs for Infinity War and Avengers 4, and we are very much looking forward to seeing what tiny moments they surprise us with next. The MCU has plenty of bombastic battles, but it’s this focus on characters and relationships that keeps us coming back…