Captain America is a symbol. The star-spangled Avenger stands for classic American ideals: hope, truth, justice, and other romanticized values. These values stem from the character’s origins in World War II, representing a nostalgia for simpler times. Within the Marvel Universe, Captain America embodies a higher standard of heroism. Every hero in the world of Marvel strives to measure up to Steve Rogers’ legacy. Yet behind all of the idealism and heroics, the title of Captain America is a burden. The battle for freedom never ends, and the Captain must always stand as an example for American ideals. When Steve Rogers is no longer able to carry the weight of this burden, who is there to take up the mantle? Writer Ed Brubaker answered this question in 2008, when Cap’s former sidekick, Bucky Barnes, took up his mentor’s shield.
From the character’s first appearance, Steve Rogers captured the essence of Captain America. Rogers was just a skinny young man living in the great depression, uplifted by an opportunity to serve his country in World War II. More importantly, Rogers was transformed into a peak physical specimen, embodying both physical and idealistic virtues. Frozen in time at the end of the war, Rogers was recovered in the modern age, as a man out of his own time period. Brubaker depicts the haunted nature of Rogers’ psyche by frequently flashing back to the horrors of war. Citing Stan Lee’s original work on Captain America, Brubaker says, “I loved the way Steve Rogers just looked haunted and tragic all the time whenever he wasn’t in action”. Indeed, Rogers carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. The battle has never truly ended for the sentinel of liberty, from his World War II experiences to his modern day battles as a man out of time. Despite the character’s tragedy, Rogers remains a steadfast hero. As Captain America, Rogers is the longtime leader of the Avengers, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and a shining beacon of hope to all those around him. All of these qualities, plus Rogers’ own appealing sense of idealism, make him nearly impossible to replace.
If anyone could replace Rogers, it would be his old sidekick, James “Bucky” Barnes. Bucky served alongside the Captain in World War II, acting as the Robin to Rogers’ Batman. However, Brubaker wrote Bucky as much more than the typical teen sidekick. Bucky acted as a lethal operative within the US Army, often going to dark places that Rogers wouldn’t. Brubaker clearly loved writing Bucky, giving him quite a snarky attitude and relatable sense of humor. Bucky is often portrayed with a chip on his shoulder, constantly trying to prove his worth in the army. Long thought dead at the end of the war, Bucky was resurrected in the beginning of Brubaker’s run. It was revealed that, for decades, Bucky was kept alive by the Soviet Union and brainwashed into an assassin known as the Winter Soldier. Bucky’s transformation illustrates a perversion of the American ideals, warping a beloved teen icon into a mindless assassin. Only through Rogers’ efforts was Bucky’s memory restored, starting him on the path to redemption.
Bucky’s salvation at the hands of Rogers demonstrates a brotherly bond between the two soldiers. Throughout the Winter Soldier storyline, Rogers constantly fights to get through to his former sidekick. Several flashbacks emphasize the tragic bond between Barnes and Rogers. Many scenes, such as when Barnes and Rogers attend a movie, portray Bucky as the light to Rogers’ heavy, duty-bound attitude. Barnes’ sense of humor plays off of Rogers’ intensity, lightening Rogers’ burden. On the other hand, Rogers’ role as an older brother shapes Barnes, inspiring him to live up to the example of Captain America. Brubaker’s flashbacks to World War II also reveal the shared trauma of Rogers and Bucky. Several scenes flash back to Bucky being tortured in front of Rogers’ eyes, highlighting Rogers’ feelings of guilt and responsibility for his friend. Furthermore, Rogers shoulders the guilt that he couldn’t save Bucky from being turned into the Winter Soldier to begin with. Recovering Barnes’ memories, Rogers is able to save his surrogate brother. Moreover, Rogers sets Barnes on the path to becoming the new Captain America.
Brubaker set the stage for a new sentinel of liberty in 2007, during the famous “Death of Captain America” storyline. Major villains the Red Skull and Aleksander Lukin plotted the assassination of Steve Rogers, leaving a star-spangled hole in the superhero community. Brubaker personally commented on the fascinating story possibilities brought about through Rogers’ demise, saying, “We don’t often spend enough time on ramifications in mainstream comics, so here was a place to build a whole storyline around them”. Indeed, the loss of Captain America greatly demoralized not only the superhero community, but the American public as well. A symbol of the nation was struck down, leaving many to wonder if the ideals for which he stood were also dead and buried. Yet Bucky Barnes knew something had to be done about Rogers’ assassins. Realizing that he had to carry on in the Captain’s honor, Barnes set out to stop the Red Skull and Lukin once and for all. Funnily enough, Brubaker did not originally intend for Bucky to become the new Captain America. Yet passing down the mantle to Barnes gave Brubaker a sense of storytelling clarity, saying, “The ultimate destination was always the same, I just wasn’t entirely sure how I’d get there until Bucky became the new Cap, which wasn’t part of the original plan, either”. Passing the mantle of Captain down to Barnes not only opened up further story possibilities, but it also filled the void which Rogers left behind. While Barnes did not wish to hold the title of Captain America, someone needed to carry on Rogers’ ideals. During a time of political turmoil, plotted by the Red Skull, someone had to carry the shield, and Bucky was not about to let anyone else take it. The burden of being Captain America shows itself here, as the never ending battle carries on with or without Steve Rogers. While Captain America is not a title that one wishes to carry, it is a necessary example to uphold American idealism.
Both Rogers and Barnes carried the mantle of Captain America as a burden. Yet the manner in which each character carried this title varies quite a bit. Brubaker depicts Rogers as more of a model soldier, with a strong moral compass. People easily follow Rogers, such as his fellow Avengers, as he is a natural leader. The super soldier serum merely enhanced all of the upright qualities about Rogers, even during times of adversity. Barnes, on the other hand, is much more impulsive and flawed than Rogers. Several times throughout Brubaker’s run, Barnes knowingly runs into traps, throwing caution to the wind. Bucky’s attitude is reflective of his time in World War II, as the rash young sidekick of Captain America. Furthermore, Barnes has a much darker past than Rogers. While Rogers carries the tragedy of being a man out of time, Barnes has to live with the atrocities he committed as the Winter Soldier. It is the dark past, combined with Bucky’s character flaws, which make him connect well with readers. Wearing the flag and the shield allow Bucky to grow and atone for past sins. Rogers has been the upstanding ideal, so Barnes is given the opportunity to strive towards Rogers’ example. Additionally, Bucky’s practical use of firearms and snarky remarks physically illustrate his unique characteristics. While Rogers possesses the super soldier serum, Barnes has to make do with his own unique skill set, making the title of Captain America his own.
Despite their differences in style, both Rogers and Barnes tackled many of the same villains. Both versions of Captain America encountered villains from World War II coming back to haunt them. For example, Baron Zemo, the Red Skull, Aleksander Lukin, and even a Captain America clone appeared throughout Brubaker’s run. These villains demonstrate Brubaker’s love for the Captain America lore, as he comments, “I also really liked the WW2 stories that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did in Tales of Suspense, before the book became Captain America”. The main difference between Rogers and Barnes’ villains, however, is that Bucky dealt more with the sins of his own past. Many of the villains encountered during Bucky’s tenure were people whom he had wronged as the Winter Soldier, adding more depth to Barnes’ redemption arc. Bucky has to confront the ghosts of his past in order to earn the title of Captain America, a struggle which makes him that much more compelling. Rogers, on the other hand, constantly deals with political threats to freedom and democracy, such as Aleksander Lukin’s assault on New York. Bucky often dealt with similar threats, but Brubaker frames these challenges as a way to live up to Rogers’ example. Rogers’ idealism and perseverance always won through, and now Bucky has to carry these ideals to give the American people hope, such as saving presidential candidates from assassination plots.
Bucky’s supporting cast also differs greatly from Rogers’. Where Rogers had Sharon Carter of S.H.I.E.L.D. by his side, Barnes’ main love interest is Natalia Romanova, aka the Black Widow. Personally, I am much more in favor of Barnes and the Widow as a couple. Natalia and Bucky share a history, carrying on a secret relationship when he was the Winter Soldier and she was training to be an assassin for the KGB. Their shared trauma at the hands of the Soviets gives them a bond which carries on into Bucky’s time as Captain America. Natalia is a partner for Bucky, supporting him and often saving him from himself. Rogers and Carter, however, are much less compelling as a couple. As an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Carter is often at odds with Rogers, torn between her orders and her love for Steve. Rogers and Carter are also often a very on again/off again relationship, which can grow tiresome to see. There isn’t a lot which Carter has in common with Rogers, other than the fact that he dated her great aunt (gross!) Ultimately, Bucky and Natalia are a far more compelling couple.
Both Rogers and Barnes share one ally in common: the Falcon. Sam Wilson acts as a nice constant between the two Captains. With Rogers, the Falcon is a trustworthy and loyal partner in crimefighting. Wilson always has Rogers’ back, and is there when he is needed. With Bucky, Wilson serves as more of a mentor. Much time between Wilson and Barnes is devoted to the Falcon providing guidance on how best to carry the shield. This new dynamic is a fun change of pace, as the reader gets to see the Falcon share his perspective with the new Captain. As Brubaker said in an interview, ““One of the things I’d dug about the Cap series when I was a kid was all the people around him. He’s an interesting character partly because of how everyone else looks at him”. Another common role that both Captains play is in the Avengers. Yet the team dynamic within the Avengers is different for both Captains. Rogers served with the “classic” Avengers, such as Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, and many others. Additionally, Rogers always served as the leader and the heart of the team. Bucky, on the other hand, is a member of the “new” Avengers. This team is more of a ragtag group of heroes, consisting of characters such as Spider-Man, Wolverine, Luke Cage, Ronin, and others. In this street level version of the Avengers, Bucky is “one of the guys” rather than the leader that Rogers was. Barnes is constantly exchanging banter with his teammates, confronting them about the mistreatment of his apartment, and getting used to this new generation of heroes. The interactions which Barnes has with heroes such as Luke Cage and Ronin establish him as the new Captain America, with unique new character relationships.
Ultimately, Barnes could have had a much longer tenure as Captain America. While 2008-2011 seems like a long time to hold the title, much of this time was focused on Barnes finding his footing as the new Captain. It would have been nice to see Bucky as a confident, fully-formed Captain America, becoming a leader within the superhero community. As the original teen sidekick and one of the first heroes of the Marvel Universe, becoming a leader would be a nice bit of character development for Bucky. For example, shortly after Rogers’ death, Bucky fights alongside the Young Avengers as the Winter Soldier. What makes this scenario appealing is witnessing Bucky’s reaction to a new generation of heroes. Giving Barnes more of a chance to be a part of this new generation, as Captain America, would be a character defining moment. Bucky’s short tenure as Captain America is only compounded by Rogers’ return from the dead in 2009, shortly into Barnes’ time as the sentinel of liberty. Bringing back Rogers so soon casts a shadow over Barnes, as readers are left wondering when Steve will return to his former mantle. Less time is focused on Bucky living up to Steve’s legacy when Steve is alive and well. Of course, some good character development did come from Steve’s return. For a time, Bucky got to keep the mantle of Captain America, while Steve became the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. This new status quo gave Bucky more room to develop as a hero, while Steve saved the world in a different manner than before. Furthermore, the burden of Captain America was lifted from Steve, allowing him to rest, while someone new took on the mantle. Yet this change didn’t last. As soon as the Captain America movie was released in 2011, Steve Rogers conveniently reclaimed his role in the comics, and Bucky returned to the title of the Winter Soldier.
At the end of the day, Brubaker should have been given more time with Bucky as Captain America. From the beginning of his run, it was quite apparent that Brubaker had a great time writing Bucky. The Winter Soldier storyline began Brubaker’s run, turning Barnes into a compelling character and an integral part of Brubaker’s time on the title. Additionally, several flashback scenes and storylines highlighted much of the love which Brubaker had for Bucky’s personality and personal history. Indeed, when discussing Captain America, Brubaker said, “I loved that mix of espionage and superheroics he got across”. Bucky is a clear example of this mix, offering a history as a teenage sidekick and a dark past as a Soviet assassin. As soon as Rogers was forced back into the role of Captain America, the quality of Brubaker’s run dropped significantly. Storylines became much less developed and characters were not nearly as compelling. In fact, a second writer, Cullen Bunn, had to be brought on to co-write Brubaker’s final storyline. It became apparent that Brubaker’s heart wasn’t in the title with Steve shoe-horned back into the lead. Overall, passing the mantle of Captain America to Bucky feels right, like a passing of the torch. Bucky is qualified, as Captain America’s former sidekick and a highly trained assassin. The role serves to redeem Bucky and develop him alongside a new generation of heroes. Most importantly, passing the title of Captain to Bucky gives Steve Rogers a much needed rest from his burden. Captain America can still inspire based on Rogers’ example, but passing the torch means giving someone else a chance to live up to Rogers’ ideals. Who better to carry on the legacy of Captain America than his former sidekick?
That’s all for this week! Thanks for reading! Be sure to follow the blog on Twitter @book_column and share with your friends! See you next week for another installment in the new legacy series of the Comic Book Column!