Choosing Who We Become: Bucky Barnes and Past Trauma

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier - I knew him" | Art by maXKennedy. Used with permission.

After Bucky Barnes falls from the train in Captain America: The First Avenger, he loses a limb, along with so much more. Captured by the evil HYDRA, he is turned into a living weapon and brainwashed into forgetting who he really is. All he can do is follow orders, without any concept of his old identity.

Then, decades later, Bucky is sent to kill his former best friend, Steve Rogers. Steve recognizes Bucky and tries to remind him who he is, but Bucky’s identity has been reduced to vague memories. Bucky senses that he’s missing a part of himself, but after all the trauma he’s endured, he doesn’t know how to restore his old identity.

Bucky eventually disobeys his orders and saves Steve, then disappears and researches his past life. He ends up living undercover in Bucharest, trying to regain his memories so he can return to the man he used to be.

Bucky realizes he can’t be the man he was, but he can choose who he becomes.

The sad events of Captain America: Civil War make it clear that Bucky can’t fully escape the trauma of his past. Although he wants to be a decent person again, the “programming” that the enemy built into his brain enables Zemo to unleash Bucky—as the Winter Soldier—on the Avengers, sparking the rift that tears the team apart.

Grief and trauma can make us feel like we’ve lost ourselves. A few months ago, my dog passed away due to cancer, and I felt like I’d been robbed of a limb. My dog provided so much joy and stability that, without her, I didn’t feel like myself. As time went on and the sorrow gradually receded, I realized I would never return to my old “normal.” The trauma I experienced changed me and had a ripple effect on other parts of my life. Instead of returning to who I was, I learned that recovering from this crisis meant growing into a new, stronger version of myself.

Bucky realizes he can’t be the man he was, but he can choose who he becomes. At the end of Civil War, he decides to return to suspended animation “until they figure out how to get this stuff out of my head.” He can’t undo the events that made him a weapon, but he can save himself from hurting anyone else. His expression in this scene suggests he’s at peace with his decision. After enduring so many changes that were forced upon him, at last, he gets to make a change for himself.

Bucky could have used his pain to justify a vendetta or as a licence to lash out. Instead, he acknowledges his brokenness and uses it as a starting point for finding peace. When life breaks us, we have the same choices as Bucky. We can waste energy fighting events we can’t control, but we’ll become even more broken in the process. Or, we can use our broken pieces as building blocks for a new future.

Marvel hasn’t revealed the end of Bucky’s character arc yet, but he’s already come a long way. By the conclusion of Civil War, he’s no longer a victim of his harsh circumstances. Instead, he’s come to grips with what he’s endured, and he’s making his own choices about where to go from there.

The teaser trailer for Avengers: Infinity War shows Bucky fighting side-by-side with Steve and other Avengers. In some ways, he’s come full-circle, but he’s also not the same clean-cut kid who fought with Captain America and the Howling Commandos during the second world war. Instead, he’s a warrior with plenty of scars, but hopefully those scars have taught him strength and compassion.

Grief and trauma can make us feel like we’ve lost ourselves.

The past few months of my life have involved a few major changes. Some, like quitting my job, were positive choices I made. Others, like losing my dog, were traumatic and unexpected. I’m not a person who likes change, but through dealing with these transitions, I’ve learned that when my life maintains a status quo, my character often does, too. Both good and bad changes have the ability to make me a better person, if I approach them as a starting point the way Bucky did.

While recouping from the loss of my dog, I’ve learned to move beyond trauma and let it soften my heart while toughening my skin. Pain will come in life, but I’m no longer afraid it will destroy me. No matter how many times life tries to shut me down, I know that I’ll be able to reboot from that point of crisis and move forward.

Instead of running from his crises or mourning for his lost innocence, Bucky embraces both pieces of his past and uses them to define his future. In the end, he isn’t James Buchanan Barnes or the Winter Soldier—he’s both. And he’s something new: a redeemed man and an Avenger.

Caitlin Eha

Caitlin Eha

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect magazine
A published writer and aspiring novelist, Caitlin can usually be found with her head in the clouds and her heart in a faraway land. When she isn’t devouring a new favourite book or feverishly writing one of her own, she enjoys archery, cosplaying, jewelry making, and time with her Lord.
Caitlin Eha

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