In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, villains typically perish by the end of the movie, one way or another. Only a few breaks from that mold. Adrian Toomes, “The Vulture,” and Helmut Zemo are captured and imprisoned. In Ant-Man and the Wasp, the heroes realize that their antagonist, “Ghost,” is simply misunderstood, and they befriend her. Talos and the Skrulls turn out to be victims of the Kree, and they persuade Captain Marvel to fight (but not kill) the Kree leadership.
Notably, some of the surviving antagonists join the protagonists. Loki is a prominent example, of course, but another is so significant that people hardly remember he was ever on the wrong side: Winter Soldier.
Was Winter Soldier a Villain?
Audiences know that beneath the creepy facemask and brainwashing, he is Steve Rogers’s lifelong best friend. When we first met Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes in Captain America: The First Avenger, he defended his buddy and socked a bully in the kisser. We watched him fight, seemingly die, return as a tool of HYDRA’s schemes, break free, fight for his life, vanish in the Snap, and return. It’s been a roller coaster, but through most of it, we know that he is a good guy.
Despite this, the Winter Soldier does serve as one of the antagonists (if not the primary one) in the Captain America film named for him. Bucky’s actions as an unwitting HYDRA agent had a major, decidedly negative impact on the world and people of the MCU. He is not truly responsible for those, which is why a distinction must be made between Bucky and the Soldier. As a result, the latter is worth discussing as part of our series on MCU villains.
The New Fist of HYDRA
The story of Winter Soldier begins after the apparent death of Bucky Barnes. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Bucky falls from the side of a snowy mountain, and Rogers believes him to be killed in action. In truth, HYDRA agents from the Soviet Union captured him, experimented on him, and brainwashed him. The kid from Brooklyn was gone, and his body was merely the enhanced host of a cold-blooded assassin designed to obey and execute his masters’ orders. That was the Winter Soldier — a human weapon.
From then on, HYDRA would periodically release the Soldier from his cryogenic slumber to do their dirtiest deeds. Once the job is done, they would erase his memories and refreeze him, often for years at a time. His enhanced physique, including a cybernetic arm, and his longevity cause others in the intelligence community to dismiss rumors of the Winter Soldier as a legend. Over several decades, he is, as Black Widow claims, “credited with over two dozen assassinations.”
The Path to Redemption
Winter Soldier is introduced to the MCU proper in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Alexander Pierce, a double-agent working for HYDRA, tasks him with assassinating Nick Fury. Captain America gets in the way and, upon seeing the face beneath the mask, becomes obsessed with bringing back the boy he knew and lost. Even as the Soldier tries to kill Rogers and enact HYDRA’s plans, his old friend stays with him. “I’m with you to the end of the line,” Rogers says, echoing something that Bucky once told him.
Rogers’s efforts succeed. The Soldier begins to remember his life as Bucky. After pulling an unconscious Rogers from the Potomac River, Bucky runs away on a new mission — not for anyone else, but himself. As the movie closes, he visits a museum wing devoted to Rogers and his wartime associates, determined to learn who he used to be.
It Always Ends in a Fight
Unfortunately, Bucky cannot escape the sins of his time as the Winter Soldier. Much of the conflict in Captain America: Civil War revolves around the framing of Bucky for a terrorist attack. Several Avengers, led by Iron Man, set out to capture and imprison the erstwhile assassin. Captain America, along with some allies, instead work to protect Bucky, igniting an internecine conflict. Eventually, all parties involved are shocked to discover that Bucky, as the Winter Soldier, was responsible for the deaths of Tony Stark’s parents. The fallout of the revelation dissolves the Avengers.
This leaves Earth’s superheroes completely unprepared for the arrival of Thanos two years later. The Mad Titan’s success in his evil endeavors is not truly the fault of Bucky. However, like much of the character’s story in the MCU, Bucky did contribute to the failure of the team, largely due to forces beyond his control and the manipulation of others. This makes it all the more tragic that Bucky is the first person to vanish onscreen after the Snap. That happens in full view of the best friend who worked so hard to save him and already watched him die once before.
The Future of Bucky Barnes
At the end of Civil War, T’Challa vows to use Wakanda’s extensive resources and knowledge to save Bucky. In the post-credits scene of Black Panther, we learn that T’Challa’s genius sister Shuri successfully deprogrammed the soldier out of the man. However, his peaceful life ended when Thanos arrived, and he took up the gun and the metal arm once more to help save the world. Even now that Thanos is gone, he may not be free from trouble just yet. Note that the new Disney+ series featuring him will be called Falcon and the Winter Soldier, not Falcon and Bucky.
As noted earlier, Bucky has had a long and troubled journey through the MCU that briefly but fatefully veered into villainy. This makes him all the more interesting to watch. His experiences as the Winter Soldier make his losses feel more impactful and his successes feel more earned. Both sides of the character, hero, and villain, have been and will remain compelling.