In 2011, the inaugural Phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ushered in Captain America: The First Avenger, which told the origin story of the one and only Steve Rogers. Appearing alongside him was his loyal and irreplaceable best friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, who was a modified adaptation of his comic counterpart.
Over the course of the past decade, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes has undergone what easily charts as some of the most impressive and sweeping character development that the MCU has ever seen. From a self-assured sergeant, to a brainwashed assassin, to a damaged-yet-healing man fighting to finally pull himself out from the depths of hell to regain personal agency over his life, the story of Bucky Barnes is tragic, poignant, thrilling, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. Nobody else could have possibly pulled off this character the way that Sebastian Stan did. In celebration of the finale his latest MCU venture, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, we’re looking back on the story and legacy of Bucky Barnes and Stan’s portrayal of the character.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Hailing from Brooklyn, the MCU’s Bucky Barnes was born in 1917, and he was childhood friends with Steve Rogers. He was constantly there as a steadfast support system for Steve — who was much shorter and smaller at the time, since he had yet to receive the Super Soldier serum — through difficult times, bullies, and the death of his mother. Later, the competent, confident, smooth-talking young man would go on to enlist in the United States Army to join the fight of World War II in the early 1940s. While serving on the front lines, Sergeant Barnes and his unit were ambushed and eventually captured by HYDRA, and Bucky ended up receiving Arnim Zola’s recreated version of the Super Soldier serum in the process.
In 1943, Steve — now Captain America — rescued Bucky and the rest of his men, and Bucky was both shocked and confused to see a much larger and stronger version of his best friend. They later went on to form the Howling Commandos in an effort to target HYDRA. All was well until a mission to capture Zola in 1945, in which Bucky fell off of a train and plummeted down into the icy river below. He was presumed dead.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Thanks to Ed Brubaker’s ingenious comic revival of Bucky Barnes and subsequent introduction of the Winter Soldier, another story was still in the cards for Stan’s character. In 2014, Sebastian Stan returned in what’s arguably one of the MCU’s best films ever created — Captain America: The Winter Soldier — as a brainwashed assassin working under HYDRA. This follow-up tale to the Captain America saga was much more violent, darker, grittier, and emotionally heavy than its predecessor. And despite his lightheaded, flirty, and easygoing portrayal of Bucky Barnes in 2011, Stan easily slipped into the cold, tortured persona of the brainwashed killing machine the Winter Soldier. This film was pivotal for both Bucky and Steve Rogers, as the latter’s entire world was rocked when he realized that his best friend wasn’t dead after all, and he fought tooth and nail to get through to him.
As the Winter Soldier, Stan had limited room to express himself through words, but his body language and facial expressions told a heart-wrenching tale all on their own. Bits and pieces of the man trapped inside the Winter Soldier slowly began to fight their way to the surface throughout the course of the film. Scenes like when the Winter Soldier sat with a broken and haunted stare after his street battle with Steve and uttered to his HYDRA handlers, “But I knew him,” before they wiped his brain once more; when he effortlessly caught Captain America’s vibranium shield on the rooftop; and his desperate, frenzied fight with Steve in the helicarrier — “You’re my friend” “You’re my mission,” would be forever seared in the minds of Marvel fans.
Captain America: Civil War
2016 saw the return of Bucky Barnes once more in Captain America: Civil War, in what would prove to be the most complex iteration of his character yet. Finally free from the clutches of HYDRA, Bucky was holed up in solitude in Romania and had carefully began to try to understand exactly who he was before the Winter Soldier. Unfortunately, thanks to Helmut Zemo’s idea to use him as a pawn in his hellbent revenge plan against the Avengers for the death of his family in Sokovia, Bucky spent this film ricocheting on the edges of madness. Zemo reactivated the Winter Soldier at one point, with the intent of using him as a means to an end in order to destroy the Avengers from the inside out. However, with the help of Steve and Sam, Bucky managed to grab onto the figurative ledge before flying off the deep end again.
Civil War examined various facets of Bucky Barnes, ranging from swift and dangerous moments as the Winter Soldier, to the caged, pained, desperate, and ashamed attitude of a man struggling to break free from his past. Glimpses of the old Bucky were interspersed throughout, too, like his comedic and snarky banter with Sam. Whereas the changes in Bucky’s demeanor were stark contrasts between the previous two films, Civil War required Stan to exhibit a careful precision as he tiptoed back and forth between the ghosts of his character’s past and the reality of his future. The end of the film found Bucky seeking asylum in Wakanda, where he would hopefully be cured of HYDRA’s brainwashing for good.
Avengers: Infinity War & Endgame
While in Wakanda, Bucky lived a simple, peaceful life in a remote village, and he earned a new moniker — the White Wolf. It was reassuring to see that he was given a chance to truly begin to heal and thrive in a calm, safe environment. However, all of that changed in Infinity War when he was recruited to join the fight against Thanos and then ended up being dusted in the Blip. Five years later when the Avengers managed to bring everyone back in Endgame, he returned to Wakanda to face off against Thanos once more in the final battle. Bucky and Steve shared a bittersweet goodbye before the latter left on his final mission, one that he would purposely choose not to return from for many years. It was heartbreaking to see Bucky say goodbye to his best friend, the last remaining semblance of family — of his previous life that was stolen from him — that he had left.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier
Given the fact that Bucky ultimately didn’t receive much screen time in the aforementioned Avengers films, fans were thrilled to hear that he would be leading his own series beside Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson. For Sam, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was very much about his journey to becoming Captain America after Steve passed on his shield to him in Endgame. However, for Bucky, the series finally presented the opportunity for audiences to witness his journey of healing, amends, and forgiveness, something we likely wouldn’t have had the time to see in a film.
Perhaps most importantly, the fourth episode opened with a missing scene that took place before Infinity War — a flashback to Wakanda six years prior, sharing the moment when Ayo showed Bucky that the Winter Soldier deprogramming was successful, and he cried in relief when he realized that he was finally free. The scene was undoubtedly the most gut-wrenching moment in Stan’s entire career portraying Bucky Barnes.
Throughout the show’s six episode run, a new version of Bucky Barnes rose from the ashes of the Winter Soldier. He wasn’t quite the same carefree man from the 1940s, but Stan carefully carried echoes of Bucky’s past with him as he adapted to his new life. In addition to the previously mentioned Wakanda flashback, Stan really nailed all of tough and emotional moments that were thrown at him, like his: debilitating nightmares of the Winter Soldier, sensitive attachment to the shield, fake transformation back into the Winter Soldier, strained relationship with Ayo and Wakanda, harrowing battle for the shield against John Walker, final conversation with Zemo at the Sokovia memorial, heart-to-heart with Sam, and finally, the heartbreaking moment that he eventually found the strength to tell his friend Yori the truth about what happened to his son at the hands of the Winter Soldier.
That’s not to say Bucky’s journey in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was nothing but a sad tale of the ghosts of his despair haunting him, though. It’s a given fact that Sebastian Stan himself has a tendency for humor, and even more so when paired up with Anthony Mackie, at which point the two are essentially a dynamic duo of hilarity. Because the purpose of the show was also to explore the testy, irritable relationship between Bucky and Sam, Stan was able to flex his comedic acting muscles, bringing forth the perfect blend of snappy sarcasm and well-timed quips.
When all was said and done as the sixth and final episode came to a close, Bucky proudly completed his book of amends and then returned to Louisiana to celebrate Sam’s newfound title of Captain America. Although the two spent more than enough time early on bickering about how to label their working relationship, in that moment it appeared that they finally accepted they were friends. And for the first time in a long time, Bucky finally looked truly happy. The pure, uninhibited, and unbridled happiness that he deserves as he now allows himself to let go of his past and embrace his future.
Though it’s yet to be confirmed what Marvel has planned for Bucky Barnes, the latest chapter of his story has only just begun, and it’s rich with limitless potential. Sergeant Barnes, the Winter Soldier, and the White Wolf have left a lasting, immeasurable impact on the MCU, and we have Sebastian Stan to thank for that.