“Is Bucky Barnes a victim or a villain?”
While the answer seems obvious to some, the MCU’s perspective is murkier. Fans hoped that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier would allow Bucky to work through his victimhood; a meaningful project both in-universe and out. But this does not transpire onscreen. Instead, the show turns the trauma that Bucky suffered into trauma he caused. The story retrofits a previously nonexistent agency into Bucky’s past as the Winter Soldier. Rather than telling a story of survival and recovery, TFATWS retcons Bucky’s history in order to more comfortably deal with it.
The MCU has always struggled with the paradox of Bucky. He has never been, for example, the stereotype of a “strong male character.” Instead, he’s a man whose autonomy was stolen, who was rendered helpless at the hands of his captors. Bucky’s masculinity and his victimhood are at odds for Marvel; his fragility and the overpowering bond he shares with Steve Rogers clash with the normative picture that Marvel often paints. In this vision, there’s no room for Bucky or his pain. But if Bucky is presented as a guilty villain who must atone, then his victimhood goes unrecognized. Instead of addressing his trauma, the show villainizes it.
Despite how achingly powerless Bucky reads as the Winter Soldier, we see hints of this perspective throughout the MCU. Captain America: Civil War writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely said in a 2016 interview that [for Bucky to find happiness was] “a little too unpunished” and that he was “100% guilty.”
TFATWS picks up this damaging through-line and runs with it. Kari Skogland, director of TFATWS, said, “Bucky will always have to be responsible for his past … His redemption is that he could take responsibility for his actions and allow himself the guilt. He allowed himself to own that and say, ‘I did that,’ and admit that he cannot always hide behind his lack of control.”
Indeed, this is the show’s project for Bucky. In a six episode-arc, he transforms from a victim into a victimizer who “deserves” his shame. Against the backdrop of his absolute suffering, the audience is asked to agree that he is at fault for his trauma. And thus, that the single avenue open to him is atonement. But there is only one term for this sudden shift of culpability onto a trauma survivor: victim-blaming.
From Victim to Villain
Attempts to affirm Bucky’s position as a villainous aggressor run deep through TFATWS. Bucky’s narrative project takes form as a list of people to whom he must make amends. This builds his journey, by definition, around the assignment of blame. In truth, Bucky should be allowed to conclude that he didn’t harm anyone. That, in fact, his name belongs on a list of those deserving of absolution. But the narrative denies him this.
Previous depictions of the Winter Soldier revealed a tormented captive used as a weapon. Contrastingly, TFATWS makes Bucky complicit in his time as the Soldier. Bucky always uses “I” statements when it comes to his past (e.g. “The power I gave her”), a retroactive injection of agency completely at odds with Bucky’s position as a powerless prisoner at the time. The story itself seems to back this up; Bucky even says, “Hydra used to be my people.” In a new flashback, he kills an innocent man and utters, “Hail Hydra.”
The Winter Soldier had always been a silent, muzzled figure. In the described scene, he not only speaks, but affirmatively declares his allegiance to his captors. The emphasis on his alleged agency feels intentional, underscored by depictions of the violence Bucky was forced to commit in lieu of visuals of his decades-long torture.
The show casually re-traumatizes Bucky and uses the sequence as proof of his culpability. In Madripoor, Bucky is forced to violently perform as the Winter Soldier while his body is, in essence, trafficked by Zemo. But the show doesn’t indicate that it understands how harrowing it is for a victim of repeated assaults to relive their trauma.
Here, Zemo asks Sam to consider how little it took for Bucky to “fall back into form,” implying that Bucky somehow wants to be the Soldier again. Zemo’s comment stings of language used to discredit victims of sexual assault. Bucky’s assault, while never expressly sexual, was overtly physical. His body was used without his consent, and again by Zemo in the scene. But the show ignores this discussion in favor of emphasizing Bucky’s villainy.
Excepting one fleeting sequence in Wakanda, at no point in the narrative does any character understand Bucky’s victimhood. Instead, nearly every character serves to establish Bucky as either unstable or rightfully guilty. And Bucky’s therapist, Dr. Raynor, becomes the most insidious voice that upholds Bucky’s place as an aggressor.
A Dangerous Depiction of Therapy
With TFATWS, Marvel had an opportunity to sensitively depict therapy, which it has previously struggled to do. Again, it falters. The show depicts therapy as a condition of Bucky’s contrived pardon—moreover, a punishment. Bucky’s story arc is analogous to a prisoner of war, an assault victim, someone who has been trafficked. Meanwhile, Marvel prefers to depict him as a willing soldier in the field. Thusly, the narrative won’t allow him to access this trauma. Not even through his therapist, who exists only to reinforce a framework in which he is a perpetrator.
Dr. Raynor is legitimized by the narrative as a credible source into his mental state; this power could have confirmed Bucky’s victimhood and emphasized that he has nothing to forgive himself for. But it upholds exactly the opposite. Raynor should be duty-bound to tell Bucky that he is not guilty, regardless of what Bucky fears. Instead, Bucky’s aforementioned “amends” list seems to come from therapy; the rules that Bucky follows to “make amends” are Raynor’s as well.
The doctor condones Bucky placing himself into traumatic situations without equipping him to process that pain. Once again, the show offers no indication that it’s aware Bucky has anything to heal from, only things to apologize for. In its depiction of a hurting man and his therapy, the MCU is damagingly cavalier.
The Damage Done
In a viral Twitter thread, a real-life therapist detailed the issues with Bucky’s therapy scenes. The following quote stands out:
the crimes that others used him for is abhorrent. The lack of trauma informed care as astounding in the way it is being framed that he has to atone for sins that weren’t his. Its clearly reinforcing the idea in his head in ep 2 when he says “HYDRA were my people".— Al Elizabeth, DSW, LICSW (@MadeOfAwsm) April 4, 2021
Bucky’s therapist victim-blames her patient, participating in the narrative gaslight of the audience. This is one of the most egregious messages the MCU has ever espoused. For anyone who has suffered trauma or engaged with the sensitive project of mental health, it is painful to witness.
Acknowledging trauma and seeking help for issues of mental health still carry great stigma. At the end of the day, TFATWS reaches a large number of people, many of whom are likely facing hardships of their own. Thus, the decision to broadcast therapy as a combative, invasive punishment that is all too willing to blame a patient is truly an irresponsible choice.
By refusing to acknowledge Bucky’s pain or to focus on his healing, the show reinforces cruel and false real-world narratives about the roles victims play in their suffering, and about what blame should fall onto those who have been hurt. If the show was not prepared to discuss Bucky’s trauma, they should not have featured him at all.
Featured Image: Marvel Studios