This Friday, Disney+ starts the next step in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Spinning out of the Captain America movies, the series follows the character’s two best friends working together (albeit reluctantly) to fill the void left from Chris Evans leaving the series. One of these heroes is Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, as played by Sebastian Stan.
Bucky is an interesting part of Marvel history. He predates most characters in the MCU, created during World War II in Cap’s very first appearance by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby as a blatant Robin knockoff. When Captain America was thawed out and joined the Avengers, it was established that Bucky died in an explosion. It was mandated that Bucky would never come back. He was as permanently dead as Ben Parker and Gwen Stacy.
Then, in the mid-00s, Ed Brubaker took on the writing duties on Captain America and decided to actually go through with bringing Bucky back into the fold. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. As we’ll get to in a second, it even got its own film adaptation!
So let’s go back in time and see the tragedy and triumph of James Buchanan Barnes.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
Bucky Barnes was the childhood best friend of Steve Rogers, a skinny and sickly guy with a tendency to stand up to bullies twice his size. Bucky was occasionally there to get Steve out of trouble. When it came to World War II, both Steve and Bucky wanted to do their duty and fight the Nazis, but only Bucky was healthy enough to enlist. Eventually, he reached the status of Sgt. Barnes.
Steve took part in a science experiment that transformed him into the pinnacle of human health. Unfortunately, due to the scientist behind it being assassinated, Steve was the only super soldier. He was used as a tool for patriotic propaganda under the moniker Captain America, but when touring in Italy, he found out that Bucky and his unit were captured behind enemy lines.
Captain America rescued Bucky and the rest, earning him a more hands-on role against the Nazis and the offshoot organization HYDRA. Cap led a squad tasked with taking down as many HYDRA bases as possible.
One of their missions involved hijacking a train containing HYDRA scientist Arnim Zola. While the mission was a success, Bucky was knocked out of the train and fell to the water below, his fate all but sealed. Steve mourned his lost friend, but soldiered on.
Captain America saved the world from the plans of the Red Skull, but in doing so, he ended up being frozen for decades. Thawing out in the present, he was disheartened to find that practically everyone he held dear was gone.
But not everyone…
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
The plot of the Captain America sequel dealt with the discovery that for years, HYDRA had infiltrated SHIELD and was using its resources to fulfill its own fascist ends. HYDRA’s heavy hitter was the mysterious Winter Soldier, an unstoppable assassin with a metal arm, long hair, and mask. During his early moments in the movie, he was able to horribly wound SHIELD Director Nick Fury and proved himself to be more than a match for Cap in hand-to-hand combat.
Eventually, the mask came off and Steve realized the horrible truth: Bucky didn’t die in that fall during the war. Instead, HYDRA got their mitts on him, replaced his damaged arm with a metal one, and brainwashed him into becoming the ultimate killing machine. He would remain frozen for years at a time, only to be thawed out for special missions. To make matters worse, he had no memories of being Bucky or serving for the US.
Still, the Winter Soldier understood that Captain America recognized him and that put some cracks in his conditioning. He was once again mindwiped to fight for HYDRA and seemed to be all-in on his mission. He and Cap fought on a SHIELD Helicarrier and the Winter Soldier even succeeded in shooting him. An emotionally weary Cap decided he was done fighting his friend, even though the assassin kept angrily punching him and egging him on. As the base exploded around them, Cap weakly told his nemesis that he would be with him, “’til the end of the line,” a quote from happier times in their past.
Bucky’s wordless response was that of realization, confusion, and sadness. Steve’s body fell out of the Helicarrier and into the water below. Though still confused, Bucky knew enough to dive in and rescue this man who seemed to give a damn about him. He brought Steve to safety, then wandered off alone.
Sometime later, Bucky visited a museum. At a display about Captain America’s World War II exploits, the confused assassin read about his own identity with a look of wide-eyed intensity. Elsewhere, Steve and his new friend Sam Wilson – The Falcon – were dedicated to tracking down Bucky and giving him the help he needed.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
With only two people out looking for him, Bucky was able to keep to himself and stay hidden with little problem. Then Helmut Zemo – a man with a deep hatred for the Avengers – framed Bucky for an explosion at the United Nations. One of the casualties was Wakanda’s King T’Chaka, causing his son T’Challa to suit up as Black Panther so he could hunt Bucky down and unleash his vengeance.
At the time, the Avengers were dealt a blow with the Sokovia Accords, which mandated that all superheroics had to be under the thumb of the world’s governments. Though Captain America and Falcon stepped down due to their refusal to sign on, they knew that they were the best option to bring Bucky in without casualties on either side. As they tried to catch Bucky, a furious Black Panther appeared and complicated matters. Eventually, all four were arrested and taken into custody.
Zemo infiltrated Bucky’s cell and read off a series of secret words that would trigger him into once again becoming the brainwashed killer. The reborn Winter Soldier ran amuck through the facility, but was eventually taken down by Captain America and Falcon, who were able to escape with him. Held captive by the two heroes, Bucky was able to prove to Steve that he finally remembered their history together. He also explained that once upon a time, he was put in charge of training a small army of fellow Winter Soldiers who were being kept in stasis in Siberia.
Due to the Sokovia Accords complications, Cap was stuck having to face those who were for government oversight and were therefore tasked with taking him in. A massive battle took place with one side featuring Captain America, Bucky, Falcon, Hawkeye, Wanda Maximoff, and Ant-Man while the other team was made up of Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, Black Panther, Vision, and Spider-Man. In the end, Cap and Bucky were able to escape, though their comrades were defeated and apprehended.
Iron Man became aware of Zemo’s master plan and chose to work with Cap as an ally. The three prepared to face the Winter Soldiers, but found them all killed by Zemo. The true reason Zemo brought them together was to show them footage of a brainwashed Winter Soldier coldly murdering Iron Man’s parents Howard and Maria Stark in the name of HYDRA in the early 1990s. Overcome with rage, Iron Man tried to kill Bucky, only to be defeated by a protective Cap.
At first, Bucky helped Cap spring the others free from prison, but he knew he was too much of a liability due to all the HYDRA programming in his brain. Until he was free of that threat, he needed to be kept on ice. Prince T’Challa, having accepted that Bucky wasn’t behind the death of his father, took him in and promised to help cleanse his mind.
In the post-credits scene, Bucky was shown having lived peacefully in Wakanda, given the nickname “White Wolf.” T’Challa’s sister Shuri found success in freeing Bucky’s mind, but said there was more for him to learn.
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
The cosmic villain Thanos was bent on obtaining the six Infinity Stones and gaining ultimate power. One of the Stones was located on Earth and the last stand to protect it took place in Wakanda. Outfitted with a brand-new arm made from Wakandan technology, Bucky returned to action. Reuniting with Steve, Bucky took part in the battle to protect the Mind Stone. The main highlight involved him teaming up with Rocket Raccoon in the midst of the chaos.
Sadly, Bucky’s latest mission was a failure. Thanos was able to gather all six Infinity Stones and snapped his fingers. A confused Bucky fell over and turned into dust upon hitting the ground. 50% of the universe’s population was wiped out due to Thanos’ belief that was the wisest way to prevent overpopulation.
Faced with the reality of this epic loss, Steve could only sit and say, “Oh God…”
At first, Thanos was able to destroy the Infinity Stones to prevent anyone from undoing his wish. Then the Avengers realized that they could gather the Stones via time travel and wish everyone back. Having succeeded, this soon led to Captain America, alone, staring down Thanos and his entire army. Luckily, he had plenty of allies after all. Portals opened all around and warriors from Wakanda, New Asgard, space, and so on stepped through. This included the resurrected Bucky.
In the end, Iron Man gained access to the Infinity Stones and wiped out Thanos’ side with a snap of his fingers. Sadly, this move killed Iron Man. Bucky was seen showing his respects at Stark’s funeral.
Shortly after, Captain America had to use the time machine to return all the Infinity Stones to their places and times of origin before they were snagged. He said his goodbye to Bucky, who seemed to have a good idea of what his old friend was up to.
Rather than reappear on the time machine when his work was done, Steve remained back in the era of World War II, creating a new timeline where he returned to be with the love of his life, Agent Peggy Carter. The two were married and while the details of Steve’s new life are unknown, he made sure to return to his original timeline by the time he was an old man.
Sam Wilson found the elderly Steve waiting for him on a bench with a new shield in hand. Steve handed it off to Sam, christening him the new Captain America. Despite having his own issues with Sam, Bucky fully supported the decision.
Now Bucky is in an interesting place. He’s cured of his brainwashing and can live his life, but what kind of life is there for a man like him? Especially since Steve is out of the picture.
It looks like we’ll see this Friday with the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.