Redemption in the Marvel Universe: Grant Ward and Bucky Barnes

The following essay was originally posted to my tumblr blog.

Warning: Here Be Spoilers.

In a recent interview, Jeph Loeb—the executive producer of the show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Head of Television for Marvel Entertainment—spoke about the possibility of a redemption arc for the AoS character Grant Ward.

One quote of Loeb’s, in particular, caused something of a furor on tumblr:

The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) has done things that are far more heinous than anything Grant Ward has ever done as far as we know, and yet, at the end of the movie, you’re rooting for him to come back on the side of the angels. (1)

While not outraged by this statement, I am genuinely conflicted about it.

On the one hand, Grant Ward is a horrible person, who has chosen to do horrible things and who—as of the season 1 AoS finale—has demonstrated no sense of remorse for his actions. Thus, in my opinion, there is no redemption for Grant Ward as he currently exists.

On the other hand, however, redemption arcs are the bread-and-butter of comic book stories. Many, many people who are superheroes in comics today started off as supervillains or have gone through supervillain phases: Rogue, Emma Frost, Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton, Magneto, Scarlett Witch. Alternatively, many superheroes have fallen into supervillainy and subsequently recovered (or not): Charles Xavier, Jean Grey, Bishop, Tony Stark (subject to dispute, I know, but in my opinion everyone on the side of the Superhuman Registration Act in Civil War counts as having a supervillain phase, and I particularly dislike 616 Tony Stark—deal with it).

What’s troubling to me about Loeb’s statement is not that it implies a possible redemption arc for Grant Ward, but that it seems to do so without an awareness of what makes a redemption arc plausible. People are rooting for Bucky Barnes not because they are capable of looking past the crimes he committed as the Winter Soldier but because they understand him to have been nearly as victimized by those actions as the people he killed were. His experience of years of torture and mindcontrol at the hands of HYDRA (in the MCU) constitutes a viable excuse for his actions. Simply put, he was not in control of himself when he committed those crimes—i.e. he is not culpable for those crimes.

However, while Bucky Barnes is clearly a victim, Grant Ward is clearly not (2). There are explanations for why he did the things he did, yes, but there are no excuses. (Recognizing the difference between an explanation and an excuse is, I feel, absolutely crucial to understanding a character like Grant Ward.) As a result of this, a majority of people are not rooting for Ward. They understand that he, unlike Bucky Barnes, is fully culpable for his actions. Now, I’m not saying that Ward cannot be redeemed, but redemption is an uphill battle. Even for someone like Bucky Barnes, who wasn’t in control of himself during his time as the Winter Soldier, it is a task that takes time and dedication. (And this is another major reason why people root so hard for Bucky; in the comics—and no doubt in the films—he took [will take] full responsibility for his actions as the Winter Soldier and actively, tirelessly worked to make things right.)

In all honesty, I could see a redemption arc for Grant Ward that played out over the course of several (later) seasons, but not one that happened immediately within the second season. But if he did go on to have a redemption arc, his culpability for his crimes would mean that he would not be starting in the same place that Bucky Barnes did/will.

There’s a lot of room to explore interesting themes with the character of Grant Ward and the characters who knew him and were betrayed by him. I think he has the potential to make a great ongoing villain—the sort of character audiences love to hate. The kind of villain whose past relationship with our heroes makes for a lot of high drama and emotional resonance and whose continued presence provides room for the exploration of themes of guilt, mistrust, and grief in the wake of betrayal (and attempted, or hoped-for, redemption) that comic books do so well.

But this quote by Jeph Loeb definitely makes me nervous. As it stands right now, Deathlok has more remorse for his actions than Grant Ward does, so if they’re thinking redemption arc for Ward then they’re going to have to be extremely careful about how they handle it. And rushing is absolutely not the way to go.

Notes:
1) Vanessa Frith, “‘Agents of Shield’ Season 2 Spoilers: How Much Will Ward Feature [POLL]? Execs Discuss Skye & Ward’s Relationship [VIDEO],” Enstars (July 18, 2014).
2) I realize that this is a potentially inflammatory statement. However, I stand by my assertion that Grant Ward is not a victim. He was at one time a victim of child abuse, but having suffered abuse does not absolve him of responsibility for his crimes. The stereotypical character who does bad things because bad things happened to them is an exceedingly sloppy narrative device that, in my opinion, perpetuates extremely damaging stereotypes about people who have been abused. Abuse cannot be framed as an excuse for acts of violence; to do so is to insinuate that anyone who has suffered abuse cannot help but enact a vicious circle of abuse. There must be a point where an abused person who goes on to abuse others ceases to be considered a victim and comes to be seen as a victimizer. You may still feel a sense of sympathy for them—an understanding of the context in which they do the things they do—but you cannot absolve them of their actions.

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4 thoughts on “Redemption in the Marvel Universe: Grant Ward and Bucky Barnes

  1. I would say that ‘redemption’ is the wrong way to describe what Bucky needs. The mind control he was subjected to absolves him of blame for the actions of the Winter Soldier, i feel…

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    • I agree. Bucky is not responsible for the Winter Soldier’s crimes. At the same time, though, he is driven by a need to redeem himself (misguided though it may be). In both the comics and the films, Bucky sees himself as a perpetrator. He remembers the Winter Soldier’s crimes, and he remembers them from a first-person perspective. He (physically) did terrible things, and even though it wasn’t him, he just can’t accept that as an excuse. He has to atone. I think that’s what makes him such a remarkably compelling character! 🙂

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