In the first and second weeks after Captain America: Civil War premiered, a number of people expressed dissatisfaction with the portrayal of Bucky Barnes—noting that they found it sloppy, underdeveloped, or out of character, reviews that aren’t surprising in view of the diffuse and seemingly divergent nature of his story arc. It is true that of all the characters in the film, he has what is perhaps the most contradictory arc, but it is also highly consistent with both who he is now and who he has been in the past. On the one hand, Bucky, who just wants to stay off the radar and ensure that he can never again be used as a weapon to hurt other people, spends the majority of his screen time dealing with events that are completely out of his control. On the other hand, those events ultimately lead him to the achievement of the goal he was seeking all along. Thus, he is both dragged into action against his will and, paradoxically, taken exactly where he wants to go.
Part One: Memory and Control
At the start of Civil War, Bucky Barnes has no intention of ever seeking Steve Rogers out. Or—at the very least—he has no intention of seeking Steve out as long as he has reason to believe that his Winter Soldier programming still poses a tangible threat. As the narrative of the film unfolds, we discover that Bucky has remembered, if not everything, almost everything about his time as the Winter Soldier. He remembers every mission he has run, every training exercise he has undergone or overseen, every instance of torture his programming prompted him to docilely submit to. He remembers every person he has killed—some of whom were friends. Memory is a burden for Bucky, but it is also a responsibility—a prerequisite of the control he desperately seeks to maintain.
We see him deploy memory as a means of control throughout the film. Perhaps the most notable instance of this is in his encounter with Zemo at the Task Force Headquarters. As Zemo, in the guise of a psychologist, persists in calling him James, he responds, “My name is Bucky.” But this is not so much a correction as it is a mnemonic device. Bucky has been expecting something like this to happen for a long time; he has expected to be caught, confined, and subjected to duress. And he has hoped that the truth of his identity will see him through the crisis. His safe house has been taken from him, his backpack with its notebooks of life details has been taken from him, his freedom of movement has been taken from him. He has nothing left in that Task Force cage but the clothes on his back and a knowledge of who he is, and he is terrified of what will happen when he loses that knowledge. So when he says “My name is Bucky,” he’s not responding to the “psychologist’s” questions; he’s reminding himself of a truth that is integral to the maintenance of the control that has become his number one priority.
This emphasis on strict control is constant throughout the film. All of Bucky’s actions— with the exception of those taken when he is reprogrammed as the Winter Soldier—are highly controlled. He consistently pulls his punches, fights significantly under his power level,(1) and ensures that his non-superpowered allies can keep pace with him in combat. He has a detailed contingency plan for how to get out of his apartment and go on the run.(2) He keeps meticulous notebooks of his memories. As much as possible, he knows himself: who he was, what he is capable of, how to control himself, why it’s necessary. The necessity of control is a major factor in his decision to hold himself aloof from Steve, but there are other powerful motivations at work—kindness and the desire to do right.
Part Two: The Practice of What Is Just
Bucky’s initial reunion with Steve is short, but highly charged, and it’s greatest significance lies in his refusal to admit what they both know—that his name is James Buchanan Barnes. This is not always the case. Bucky can, and does, acknowledge his identity to Steve when it is necessary to do so. In the aftermath of the Winter Soldier’s attack on the UN Task Force, Bucky dispenses with pretenses immediately upon recovering and demonstrates who he is without fanfare or hesitation. He does this because he knows the situation calls for a mission focus that precludes prevarication or stalling. He remembers, in vague bursts that are obviously growing sharper by the moment, what happened, and he knows what he has to do: prove his identity, provide valuable intel, and prepare to fight the fight that needs to be fought. The reunion in Romania, by contrast, calls for something else entirely.
It’s made abundantly clear from his first appearance on the busy streets of Bucharest that Bucky knows someone will come for him eventually. He tenses up when he hears sirens not because he fears prosecution for his crimes by legitimate authorities, but because he expects that someone posing as a representative of those authorities will try to take him away, take his autonomy away, and turn him into a weapon again. His experience has taught him (“It always ends in a fight…”) that someone will always come for him and put him back in harness. After the UN bombing, the arrival of Steve in his safe house presents a massive complication. With Steve in the mix, Bucky’s transformation back into the Winter Soldier is no longer just a question of the collateral damage he could do. It’s a question of emotional damage as well. He knows he’s been framed, he knows there must be a secret purpose behind it, he knows it’s very possible that he is going to be forced to become the Winter Soldier again. He doesn’t want Steve’s pain to be exacerbated by the knowledge that the real Bucky Barnes was in there when the worst came to worst. When Bucky tells Steve “I read about you in a magazine,” he is not just guarding himself from whatever emotions he might feel upon being reunited with his childhood friend. He is also fulfilling the role that he always played in Steve’s life: that of champion and protector.
As a person with an inherent protective instinct, Bucky Barnes has a deeply ingrained sense of what is right and just. And that knowledge tears at him every moment. He knows it isn’t right that Steve’s friends should risk themselves to clean up what he undoubtedly perceives as his mess. He knows it isn’t right that King T’Chaka and countless others should become victims of his unchecked enemies. He knows it isn’t right that he should go technically unpunished for the Winter Soldier’s crimes. And he knows it isn’t right that others should be put at risk by his inability to control the weapon inside. To truly be a protector—to be the man who does the best thing for everyone—he must set aside his own concerns, whatever they are, and he does from start to finish.
Conclusion: On Reaching the End Be Without Sorrow
Bucky’s decision to reenter cryostasis in the aftermath of civil war is possibly the single most “Bucky” thing that Bucky has ever done in any of the films. It is a selfless sacrifice on behalf of what he believes is right. More than that, however, it is the culmination of his personal arc. He began the film with his ability to protect others by staying off the radar ripped away from him. In Wakanda, he finally achieves the goal that he has been desperate to reach since that time. In cryo, completely off the world’s radar at last, he can be assured that no one is going to come for him, that no one is going to take him, that no one is going to use him to do the kinds of terrible things that he has been struggling to live with since he woke up. Having done what he could to ensure that he no longer poses a threat, he can finally rest and sleep the sleep of the just.
1) Just how much Bucky is holding himself back is made clear through his encounters with T’Challa. In their first encounter, he holds himself back to such a degree that T’Challa is visibly startled when he fights the Winter Soldier in the UN building and suddenly realizes just how strong the man actually is. Later, during the airport battle, Bucky again holds himself back and—having learned the identity and grievances of the Black Panther—tries to reason with him. ⇧
2) This plan would probably have worked were it not for T’Challa’s intervention and Bucky’s unwillingness to fight him at full capacity. ⇧
ETA: This essay has been lightly edited for clarity.