The following contains A LOT of Avengers: Endgame spoilers. We have a completely spoiler free review right here.
It’s an understatement to say that Avengers: Endgame has a lot of storylines to address. Even with its three-hour runtime, it was never going to get to everything. That being said, it does a pretty damn good job, checking in with most of the characters, themes, and plot points that have been important in the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
However, for a movie that is so much about Steve Rogers, and that ostensibly wraps up his story forever, Endgame is disappointingly short on the Stucky—aka the relationship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, a dynamic that has been foundational to the Captain America story in both the comics and in the MCU.
The lack of interaction between Steve and Bucky in Endgame is one of few character-driven missteps the movie makes, and one that feels at least in part problematically motivated by if not an aversion to than a dismissal of the active shipping fandom around the two characters.
However you may feel about the nature of the Steve/Bucky relationship (the #Stucky romantic pairing is the MCU fandom’s most popular ship), there’s no arguing that Bucky Barnes has been an important part of Steve Roger’s life. In The First Avenger, it was Bucky’s capture that first spurred Steve into proper superhero action, parachuting behind enemy lines to save his childhood friend who beat up his bullies and gave him a home when his mother died.
In The Winter Soldier, Steve’s climactic fight is with his brainwashed best friend. In a definitive act of love, Steve drops his shield and stops fighting, rather than hurt his friend any more than he has already been forced to. The movie ends with Bucky dragging an unconscious Steve out of the Potomac to safe ground and Steve then setting off on a quest to find Bucky.
We catch back up with Steve and Bucky in Civil War, following two years of Steve and Sam having unsuccessfully searched for Bucky. What follows is a Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes love story—how you define that love, either as platonic or romantic, is up to you (the filmmakers define it as the fraternal kind), but it is an entire movie about how Steve will do anything, including fight his friend Tony Stark and give up the Captain America mantle, to protect Bucky.
“What’s fascinating about the Cap-Bucky story, as well, is it’s a love story,” Civil War co-director Joe Russo told Empire. (Russo, and his brother Anthony, also directed The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Infinity War, and Endgame.) “These are two guys who grew up together, and so they have that same emotional connection to each other as brothers would, and even more so because Bucky was all Steve had growing up.”
The love story continues, in some small way, in Infinity War. While Steve may lose many people he loves, the loss for him is personified by Bucky. Bucky is the first to disappear, Steve’s name on his lips as he does so. Can you see how, were one inclined to shipping, this might be a dynamic to explore through fanfiction, fanvids, and fanart?
Let’s talk about who is inclined to ship. While the most obsessive of male fans traditionally channel that passion into the accumulation of canonical knowledge, a curatorial mode of fandom, the most obsessive of female fans traditionally channel that passion into the creation and consumption of emotionally-minded (sometimes, though not always, romantic) fanworks, a transformative mode of fandom.
While many outside of shipping culture focus on the romantic and sexual elements that can be a part of it, it is also a space that is intensely interesting in processes of emotional labor. Transformative works-geared fandom is a space filled with people who have been socialized to do most of society’s emotional labor without recognition for it or, in the case of our relationships with some men, any or very little emotional labor in return.
For fans who have been socialized as girls and women, it can be extremely cathartic and radical to explore what the world would look like if men did that labor for each other and themselves. In that way, male slash fanfiction in particular serves a similar purpose to Netflix’s new Queer Eye reboot, about which Laurie Penny writes for The Baffler:
[Queer Eye‘s] canny reversal of cultural power is cathartic to watch if you’re a woman who dates men: here are men gleefully doing for one another what some women and girls have spent our lives being pressured or cajoled into doing for them. Here, at last, are a corps of men going through the rigors of top-to-bottom self-invention for our approval.
Given that most of the people who get the chance to make big-budget movies are men, the curatorial mode of engaging with story is prioritized and the transformative mode is, at best, de-prioritized and, at worst, pathologized and actively railed against. (Curatorial fandom tends to be very hostile towards transformative fandom.)
In Endgame, this presents in the devaluation of the Stucky dynamic in any context. Unlike so many of the other important MCU dynamics who were ripped apart by Thanos’ snap, Steve and Bucky’s reunion happens off-screen, seemingly deemed not important enough to merit even a quick aside during the climactic battle, as, for example, Tony Stark and Peter Parker or Rocket and Groot do.
When faced with a finite amount of narrative space, of course storytellers must make choices about which stories and characters they want to prioritize. Howver, in Endgame, the relationship between Steve and Bucky—one that has been very important to three of the most popular MCU films thus far—falls frustratingly low on that list, and it’s hard not to wonder if that decision is at least partially motivated by the franchise’s own discomfort with the Stucky shipping fandom.
This might be a jump if not for the precedent the MCU set with Civil War, which included a shoehorned-in romance between Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter. Hours after attending the funeral of Peggy Carter, Steve’s long-lost love and Sharon’s aunt, the two kiss in what is one of the MCU’s most uncomfortable “romantic” moments—and the MCU once tried to convince us that Natasha/Bruce should be a thing.
The scene feels less motivated by an organic, character-driven development of their relationship (the two don’t really know each other—they were neighbors for a bit when Sharon was undercover, keeping an eye on Steve in The Winter Soldier)—and more as a way to shout “no homo” at the audience, as Bucky and Sam are looking on approvingly from a nearby car like Steve’s college frat bros.
In Endgame, rather than give Steve and Bucky any kind of narrative priority, the story throws all of Steve’s personal closure in the Peggy Carter basket. Lord knows I love Peggy Carter and was properly devastated when Steve missed that dance at the end of The First Avenger, but she is far from the only love of Steve’s life—even if you are comfily seated on the Steve and Bucky Are Bros Bandwagon.
In general, the Stucky dynamic gets almost no narrative space in Endgame, as if the Russo brothers think that, if there are no scenes of Steve and Bucky making eye contact, people will stop shipping them together. Arguably the best “Stucky” moment comes when Steve travels back in time and ends up fighting himself, telling the other Steve that Bucky is still alive in an effort to distract him. (It works.) And Bucky isn’t even in that scene.
We get only one scene that features any actual interaction between Steve and Bucky. It comes at the end of the film, prior to Steve’s final jump into the past. The two trade the “Don’t do anything stupid.” “How could I? You’re taking all of the stupid with you?” lines first heard before Bucky leaves for war in The First Avenger.
“I’ll miss you, buddy,” Bucky tells Steve in their one Endgamescene—because god forbid one of them express sentiment to the other without a dudebro qualifier. Though there is an implication that Bucky knows that Steve won’t be coming back, they share a hug and part ways as if Steve’s work trip isn’t an incredibly dangerous mission through time following a five-year separation following a decades-long separation following a period when they were each other’s only family and one of them was shipped off to war.
Let me pause here to remind you that this is a franchise that is comfortable with expressions of male intimacy. In Endgame, we see Tony and Peter Parker, Tony and Steve, Rhodey and Tony, Sam and Steve all openly expressing affection for one another in both verbal and physical ways. Male intimacy seems to be OK, up to a point and only as long as the powers that be have yet to hear about the fandom’s shipping of the characters. (Bad news bears: There is a shipping fandom for pretty much every dynamic. Please continue to let male characters hug and be emotionally vulnerable with one another, storytellers.)
We, again, get another narrative opportunity for a Steve/Bucky moment upon Steve’s “return.” Bucky is the first to notice Old Steve, and he and Sam walk over to him. However, the moment is given solely to Sam, with Steve and Bucky not even making eye contact.
Sam is a character that has been set up in the world of the MCU in a similar way to Bucky: he was Steve’s friend when Steve was lost, awoken in a world he didn’t know and didn’t understand. When Steve went looking for Bucky, Sam went with him. In Civil War, Sam noted that “people who shoot at you usually wind up shooting at me too.”
Sam and Steve’s final Endgame scene is wonderful in so many ways—it gives closure to Sam and Steve’s friendship, not to mention speaks to the promise of Captain America’s future—but it feels like a huge missed opportunity for closure when it comes to the Steve/Bucky relationship. Bucky lingers in the background, not interacting with Old Steve at all, seemingly there just to let Sam know that he’s cool with him taking the Captain America job.
Meanwhile, we see Steve’s happy ending in the form of Peggy Carter and a return to his past, an ending that forgets (or simply doesn’t care) that Peggy had a great life after Steve’s “death,” marrying, having a kid, building SHIELD, and going on lots of adventures. Endgamestraight-up ignores all of this with its ending in favor of giving Steve a conventional happy ending that works against one of the major themes of the movie: the importance of learning how to move on.
Instead, Endgame posits a reunion with Peggy, a woman who—while, admittedly, is totally awesome— Steve once knew for two years back in the 1940s and with whom he has already had some form of closure when they reconnected in the 21st century, as the ultimate happy ending. This ending relies on one of the most overrepresented tropes in cinematic history rather than choosing an ending for Steve based on what these movies have told us about his character and what he values.
As far as the Stucky of it all, I’m not sure what the MCU is trying to do with their, what feels like to me, an overreaction to shipping culture and transformative fandom more generally. If storytellers think that no longer showing shipped dynamics together on screen will keep fans from shipping them, then they don’t understand fandom at all. (They don’t.)
Are franchise storytellers so afraid of shippers that they would undercut the characters and dynamics they have worked so hard to build and obviously care about? So much of Endgame is about paying tribute to the MCU’s story so far before it moves on to the next chapter in the franchise’s story, and that tribute should include more of the Steve and Bucky friendship.
I don’t think anyone, even the most ardent of Stucky shippers, expected for Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes to declare their undying romantic love for one another (but, if you are out there: stay optimistic, cinnamon roll)—many shipper probably don’t even care if they do canonically because fanworks have power, too.
However, it would not have been overly optimistic to expect for this franchise to include at least one scene that payed earnest homage to a dynamic that has been such a large part this story so far, one that has meant a great deal to a vital, passionate part of the MCU audience and fandom.