The Falcon & The Winter Soldier concludes with Bucky Barnes in a far healthier mindset, but are his demons truly gone? Like most of his fellow Avengers, Bucky comes to the MCU with no small amount of trauma. The childhood friend and military comrade of Steve Rogers, Bucky got himself captured by HYDRA and became a guinea pig for Red Skull’s cowboy super soldier trials, before falling out of a mountain train and being presumed dead. As is turns out, death would’ve been preferable; Bucky spent the following decades under HYDRA brainwashing, rechristened the Winter Solder and given a swanky new metal arm.
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Bucky killed both HYDRA enemies and innocent civilians until Steve Rogers discovered his best friend’s survival in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and dragged him back from the brink, coaxing out the Bucky Barnes he once knew. Falcon & The Winter Soldier finds Bucky’s rehabilitation almost complete. Forgiven by the U.S. government (more or less), Bucky is feeling the moral backlash of his Winter Soldier crimes and is desperately trying to atone.
By the final episode’s end credits, Sebastian Stan’s character is faring much better, but his identity remains muddled. Bucky speaks of the Winter Soldier like a separate persona, doesn’t fully embrace the White Wolf title given to him in Wakanda, and leaves the Captain America gig solely to Sam Wilson. Everyone needs a “superhero name” in the MCU, but while Sam drops the Falcon act to become Captain America, Bucky is still just… Bucky. And there may be good reason for this, as Falcon & The Winter Soldier drops numerous hints that, as much as Bucky tries to shake the past, the Winter Soldier is still laying dormant within him, ready to activate when the time comes.
The Final Episode Title Card
In a moment designed to send chills through the MCU fandom, the final title card in Falcon & The Winter Soldier transitions from “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” to “Captain America and The Winter Soldier.” Not only does this cement Sam Wilson as the unquestionable successor to Steve Rogers, it also celebrates Sam’s emotional journey over the six-episode series; once detached and reluctant about wielding the Captain America shield, now embracing the mantle and putting his own modern stamp on Marvel’s most patriotic hero. When the excitement dies down, however, it’s hard not to feel like Bucky Barnes got shortchanged. His journey of recovery is every bit as significant as Sam’s, but he remains tagged “the Winter Soldier.” Bucky has even more reason than Sam to change his existing moniker, since Falcon was merely upgrading to a new name, rather than trying to outrun a persona forced upon him.
Some viewers believed that Falcon & The Winter Soldier‘s ending neglected Bucky in favor of focusing solely on Sam Wilson. While that may be true, the closing title card could be more than simply oversight. The new title could prove that Sam Wilson’s Falcon is gone for good, but the Winter Soldier lingers on inside Bucky Barnes.
Kari Skogland’s MCU Future Tease
When the above was put to Falcon & The Winter Soldier director Kari Skogland, her answer was simply “more to come.” This follows confirmation by showrunner, Malcolm Spellman, that an earlier version of the card read “Captain America & The White Wolf.” While both creatives are predictably guarded, it’s clear that Bucky staying billed as “the Winter Soldier” is no coincidence.
The title card could indicate that Bucky Barnes’ journey of healing isn’t over quite yet, and the rehabilitated assassin has more therapy sessions to attend before he can truly consider the Winter Soldier history. But if this were the case, Bucky’s Falcon & The Winter Soldier ending would be entirely meaningless. The completed book of names, messing around with the Wilson kids, confessing to Nakajima, sleeping with Sam’s sister (probably) – all of this was designed to draw a line under Bucky’s recovery, and even more conflicted introspection in future MCU releases doesn’t sound especially worthwhile.
Fortunately, Skogland’s “more to come” tease could have more exciting implications: foreshadowing Bucky’s eventual relapse, and the Winter Soldier’s reemergence. While this would also risk negating Bucky’s character development, there’s far more potential in a Hulk-like struggle for control between “Bucky Barnes” and the “Winter Soldier” than there is continuing down Falcon & The Winter Soldier‘s recovery route, suggesting this is why the title card said what it did.
The Wakandan Arm Failsafe
Even before the title card hint, Falcon & The Winter Soldier was subtly warning viewers that Bucky’s inner Winter Soldier hadn’t vanished, and a big red flag comes courtesy of the Wakandans. Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers requested a favor of King T’Challa, and Wakanda took Bucky under its wing, undoing his HYDRA brainwashing. Falcon & The Winter Soldier shows a glimpse of this process, with Ayo reciting HYDRA’s trigger words to test if Bucky would “activate.” The Buckster doesn’t flip, and Ayo proclaims him free of the Winter Soldier – so why do the Wakandans install a secret fail-safe into Bucky’s mechanical arm?
During a scrap with the Dora Milaje, Bucky’s arm is effortlessly disabled by Ayo, and the look of betrayal on his face clearly reveals this feature wasn’t included in the instruction manual. Bucky’s metal arm clanging to the floor essentially confirms that despite their success de-programming the Winter Soldier, the folks of Wakanda were never completely confident that the demon had been exorcised. Evidently, the likes of Shuri and Ayo believed the Winter Soldier may, somewhere deep down, remain lodged within Bucky’s psyche, and could resurface at some point in the future. Should this occasion ever arise, Shuri ensured the Winter Soldier could be easily… disarmed.
Baron Zemo’s Skepticism
If Wakanda’s warning wasn’t enough, Baron Zemo also seemed unconvinced of the Winter Soldier’s vanishing act. When Bucky and Sam reluctantly team with the Sokovian in Falcon & The Winter Soldier, it’s the Baron’s former errand boy that goes in first. Zemo casually reels off HYDRA’s old trigger words, just to see for himself whether Bucky is reformed, but even though his code provokes no reaction, Zemo ominously warns that “something is still in there.”
Baron Zemo is somewhat of a reformed character in Falcon & The Winter Soldier, and even cooks up a grudging mutual respect for Bucky Barnes. As such, his observation can’t be waved away as villainous mischief or cunning manipulation tactics. Zemo honestly believes that the Winter Soldier lives on within Bucky, and given his in-depth knowledge of HYDRA’s super soldier program, Baron Zemo’s opinion carries weight. That he and the Wakandans both harbor skepticism about Bucky’s recovery should be a huge concern.
For the avoidance of doubt, Zemo clarifies his assessment of Bucky’s mental state during their private plane ride to Madripoor. Explaining his plan to enter the lawless country in disguise, Zemo tells Bucky, “James, you will have to become someone you claim is gone.” By stressing the word “claim,” Zemo provides a sarcastic reminder that Bucky may not be as cured as he thinks.
Bucky’s Convincing Winter Soldier Act
When the troubled trio finally reach Madripoor and step inside Selby’s bar, the subterfuge begins for real. Sam must pretend he’s the Smiling Tiger, who enjoys dressing like a pimp and drinking dangerously, while Bucky needs to act like the Winter Soldier of old – the permanently-frowning, brainwashed assassin under Baron Zemo’s control. But while Sam struggles to maintain the pretense (and is ultimately the reason they’re rumbled), Bucky takes to his Winter Soldier persona like the proverbial duck to water. Slipping right back into his former ways, Bucky decimates the goons in the bar, and arguably gets carried away handing out beatings, being far more aggressive than the situation calls for. This doesn’t go unnoticed by Zemo, who quietly quips to Sam, “didn’t take much for him to fall back into form.” While Bucky might be operating on muscle memory or recalling the Winter Soldier’s movements, his Falcon & The Winter Soldier act is convincing enough to fool everybody – himself most of all.
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