It’s been ten years since Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) first appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Over the last decade, his character has evolved from a self-assured young recruit in World War II to a haunted 103-year-old man adjusting to life after fighting as the hero and also the enemy, the Winter Soldier.
More so than any other character, Bucky Barnes has been a means to explore the psychological effects of war, namely PTSD. According to the NHS, post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by violent, frightening or distressing events. It is common for someone who is suffering from PTSD to be haunted by these traumatic events through flashbacks or nightmares. They may also suffer from insomnia, feelings of isolation and guilt. On average 12% of American veterans experience PTSD.
Unlike the heroic WWII soldier, the Winter Soldier was a trained assassin Bucky had been brainwashed to become by the terrorist organisation, Hydra. In the first episode of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Bucky relives one of his Winter Soldier missions in a nightmare; waking up in a sweat on the floor in his living room. This Easter Egg is reminiscent of a conversation between Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) aka The Falcon and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) aka Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier; neither of them could get comfortable in their bed after sleeping on the floor during the war.
Similar to Bucky, Steve also had to adjust to life in the 21st century, after World War II, but he was remembered as a War Hero. Bucky is more commonly known as the Hydra soldier, which leaves him at war with himself — who he was before the war and who he has become — as he battles to make peace with his dark, tragic past.
In a flashback to Wakanda in roughly 2018, one of the Dora Milaje (a team of women who serve to protect the country), Ayo (Florence Kasumba) is helping Bucky overcome his programming by repeating the words used to control him as the Winter Soldier. Bucky is sat in floods of tears and pain as he attempts to resist the urge to become the assassin he was wired to be. Despite the physical pain he manages to remain himself and is told that he is “free.” Yet, whilst his mind is free from controlling commands, he isn’t free from his trauma.
In contrast, in Captain America: Civil War, on hearing his old commands, Bucky transforms into an aggressive killer. After each kill, his brain was wiped with electrical charges, whilst seeds of his old identity seeped through the cracks. He was for the majority of his life unknown to even himself. It’s been hard for this character to trust anyone, including himself, as so much of who he was was kept from him for decades. His only constant memory (triggered by seeing him alive and unaged since the 1940s) is his childhood best friend Steve.
Bucky’s evolution, similar to Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) in WandaVision, has been dark, sorrowful and grueling. Both of their new respective Disney+ series’ have explored the impact that their trauma has had on their mental health as part of Phase 4 in the MCU. Bucky’s narrative has followed the psychological impact that war can have on soldiers, while WandaVision explored the impact that unprocessed grief can have.
Equally, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has allowed the franchise to explore how much Bucky’s personality has changed and the events or triggers that have shaped him. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Bucky is confident, especially when it comes to dating. Now, in his latest series, he struggles to focus for a whole date without being triggered and reliving his trauma. The years spent relentlessly fighting has shattered Bucky’s sense of self. It’s only now that he’s free from mind control that he’s able to rediscover his identity and rebuild his mental health.
Marvel has used Bucky’s character to explore men’s mental health in more depth and with more care than ever before, as Bucky is the first superhero in the franchise to go to professional therapy. The new series distinguishes Bucky from the other male superheroes as he’s seeking help to improve his mental health, whereas Steve never managed to move forward from the war (he literally went back in time instead).
In Episode 5, Sam offered Bucky some “tough love” in counselling, reminiscent of what Sam offered soldiers back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Sam is helping Bucky bridge the gap between what he’s done and what he’s haunted by, with the present. To help him rebuild his life and mind in a way he understands, he suggests being of service to those he’s wronged. The fact that Bucky is able to open up to Sam is a sign that his path to redemption and self-discovery is working. Bucky is confronting his PTSD to finally be at peace with himself, which is an admirable storyline that could see his character through the next decade of the franchise, too.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is streaming now on Disney+
Words by Jess Bacon
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