With the arrival of 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes — one of the most compelling, controversial, and convoluted characters in Marvel history — was suddenly catapulted to a place of prominence in the pop culture landscape. Though he has technically yet to headline a film of his own, the long shadow he casts over Marvel lore, combined with his enigmatic nature, means that he is one of the most talked about characters anywhere in superhero fandom.
If you want to know the truth about Bucky’s comic book origins, you’re not alone — even die-hard comics fans are confused. Because of intentional obfuscation, an endless string of retcons, and the fact that both Bucky and Captain America have suffered from damaged memories from time to time, the history of the Winter Soldier remains one of the most complex and fragmentary tales anywhere in comics. What other character has been an adorable kid sidekick, a cold-blooded killer, a clean-cut A-list superhero, an interstellar adventurer, and a mentor for a group of reformed evil-doers?
If that sounds overwhelming, fear not. After sorting through over 50 years of comic books, repressed memory flashbacks, and recently de-classified KGB documents (just kidding), we’ve managed to condense down Bucky’s story into just the highlights. What follows are all our favorite bits from the twisted tale of James Buchanan Barnes.
He used to wear tights
In Bucky’s first appearance in the golden age of comics, this soldier wasn’t wearing the olive-drab you might expect. Rather, he was sporting a red and blue superhero costume as Captain America’s kid sidekick, complete with a period-appropriate "golly gee" demeanor. The two sometimes fought Nazis as a duo, and sometimes did so alongside the original Human Torch, his sidekick Toro, and Namor the Sub-Mariner as a group called The Invaders.
Unlike in the MCU, where Bucky and Steve grew up together, comics Bucky and Steve didn’t know each other before they joined the military. Captain America’s identity was a secret, and the reason he decided to take Bucky on as a sidekick was because Bucky accidentally stumbled into Rogers’ tent one night and discovered the truth.
Later comics retconned this origin story of Cap and Bucky’s partnership, instead asserting that this quaint meet cute was actually a piece of American propaganda. In truth, the U.S. Military arranged their partnership for two reasons: to create a symbolic enemy of the Hitler Youth, and to have a morally flexible field agent at Captain America’s side, someone willing to do the darker things that Rogers wouldn’t.
These continuity changes also meant that Bucky’s persona as a wide-eyed optimistic kid was also a fabrication. He was certainly capable of acting that way, but it was just a mask he wore. Underneath, even as a teenager, he was a mature and melancholic soul who wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty.
He died, and it was supposed to be for good
Bucky’s time in World War II ended at the same moment that Captain America’s did. The two heroes needed to disable a Nazi drone plane that was full of explosives, and so both Rogers and Barnes jumped on board, holding onto the outside of the plane with their bare hands. Cap then slipped off the wing, and told Bucky to do the same, fearing that the plane was booby-trapped. Bucky tried to follow Cap’s orders, but his arm was caught. The plane then exploded as Rogers predicted. Bucky was seemingly killed, and Captain America fell into the icy waters below, where he remained frozen for many years to come.
Even though the Avengers would thaw Captain America out in 1964, Bucky didn’t appear again in comics for decades. Up until the early 2000’s, there was an old comics aphorism known as "The Bucky Clause," which is sadly not a movie where the Winter Soldier accidentally kills Santa Claus and is forced to become him, but rather a saying about how comics characters never really stay dead for long. It was, "No one stays dead except Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben."
By 2005, however, two out of three deaths in the Bucky Clause were also reversed. Not only did Jason Todd return as the villainous Red Hood, but Bucky also came back as the Winter Soldier. Look out, Spidey — chances are good that you’re eventually going to have to fight an evil cyborg Uncle Ben.
An on-again Romanoff-again relationship
Once Bucky’s death had been retconned away in 2005, we started learning more about what he had been up to for the past half-century. Turns out his body was recovered by the Russians shortly after it fell into the ocean. They had been searching for the body of Captain America, but were willing to settle for Bucky, as he was also a highly skilled soldier who, once revived, could become a powerful tool for their own ends. In 1954, Bucky was brought back from the dead and given a cybernetic arm to replace the one he lost in the plane crash.
Another thing that Bucky lost in the crash was his memory, and that was replaced with Soviet indoctrination. Bucky was trained in the Red Room Academy as part of the Wolf Spider program, the male equivalent of the Black Widow program. It was there that he met Natasha Romanoff, and the two have had an on-again off-again romance for decades ever since. For those of you wondering why these two characters who were around in the fifties are still fighting crime and looking young today, the answer actually differs between the two of them. Whereas Bucky’s longevity was due to the fact that he was kept in cryostasis while not in the field, Black Widow kept her youthful appearance due to being given bio-technological enhancements that stopped her from aging.
Best frenemies with Wolverine
One of the most horrible missions that Bucky has been forced to complete as the Winter Soldier was given to him by Romulus, a supervillain who was one of Wolverine’s many nemeses, and who also had influence in the Russian government. At the time, the similarly slow-aging Logan was living in Japan. He was married to a woman named Itsu, and she was pregnant with his child.
Romulus sends Bucky to kill Itsu as a way of drawing Wolverine out in the open. Sadly, Bucky succeeds in this mission. Although Wolverine assumes his unborn child has died as well during this attack, the baby has actually survived, having inherited his father’s healing ability. This child is then kidnapped and raised by Romulus, eventually growing up to become yet another one of Wolverine’s nemeses, the supervillain Daken.
In a strange twist, Bucky may have also been responsible for saving Wolverine’s life. In Volume 3, Issue 38 of Wolverine, it’s implied that Bucky was present when Wolverine escaped from the Weapon X facility, and had a hand in helping him escape, although the full story of exactly what Bucky did and why has never been fully explained. Perhaps this act was a rare moment when he was able to fight against his brainwashing and do a bit of good to help a man whose life he had previously destroyed, but this element of Bucky’s past is still largely shrouded in mystery.
His memories are restored by a Cosmic Cube
Captain America and the Winter Soldier finally crossed paths for the first time in 2005. In the pages of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s fan-favorite Captain America comics, Steve Rogers has been investigating Aleksander Lukin, a former KGB general who sent a mysterious assassin to kill the Red Skull and steal a powerful item from him known as a Cosmic Cube. Cosmic Cubes are one of Marvel’s favorite recurring plot devices, being concentrated chunks of cosmic energy that can basically grant whatever wishes their wielders desire.
After Captain America crosses paths with Lukin’s mysterious operative a couple times, Nick Fury discovers a KGB dossier which reveals his true identity as Cap’s sidekick, Bucky Barnes. This revelation, understandably, rocks Cap to his core.
Cap then discovers that Lukin is hiding his stolen Cosmic Cube in a secret military facility. Thinking that Bucky might be stationed there, Cap goes in to confront him. Bucky is indeed there, and as soon as he sees Rogers, he draws a gun. Cap decides to appeal to Bucky using the time-honored power of friendship, dropping to his knees and saying, "Shoot me. If you truly don’t know me, then just do it." And then Bucky shoots him. So much for the power of friendship.
Fortunately, Cap dodges the shot and throws his shield at Bucky, causing him to drop the Cosmic Cube. Cap then picks it up and uses its wish-granting power to restore Bucky’s memories. A bit less poetic than what Cap was hoping for, but it still gets the job done.
Bucky picks up the shield
After getting his memories restored, Bucky feels adrift and purposeless for quite some time. Then the famous Civil War plot arc occurs, in which Captain America and Iron Man get into a very public feud. At the end of this story, Steve Rogers is taken into police custody, and while he’s there, he’s assassinated by agents of the Red Skull, who’s not as dead as everyone thought due to additional unforeseen Cosmic Cube nonsense. Captain America’s assassination sets the perpetually on-edge Bucky definitively over it, and he swears vengeance against Tony Stark for his part in Steve’s death.
Tony manages to talk Bucky down by revealing a letter from Steve Rogers that was set to be delivered to Tony in the event of his untimely death. This letter reveals Rogers’ wishes that someone should succeed him as the next Captain America, and Tony feels that Bucky is right for the job. He tells Bucky that the real person he should be upset with is the Red Skull, offering him the opportunity to set aside their differences and bring the Red Skull to justice together. Bucky accepts his offer, and becomes the new Captain America.
Even after Steve Rogers comes back from the dead — because, as "The Bucky Clause" already taught us, no comic death is permanent — he allows Bucky to continue wielding the shield and holding the title of Captain America, believing that Bucky is doing the Captain America name proud.
A heavy burden
Bucky does his best to honor the legacy of Steve Rogers, but the American public is slow to accept him. One who suffers from an especially bad case of "you’re not my real Dad" is Hawkeye, who gets into a fistfight with Bucky over his right to be Captain America. Falcon and Black Widow get on Barnes’ side a bit quicker. Bucky even manages to rekindle his old romance with his former KGB colleague. Then, when he stops Sin (the daughter of the Red Skull) from assassinating a group of both Republican and Democratic politicians, Bucky finally starts to win the war for widespread public support.
However, even after this, Bucky’s past continues to haunt him. A golden age villain known as the Man With No Face suddenly resurfaces, apparently attempting to create a deadly virus out of the remains of another one of Marvel’s oldest characters, the original Human Torch. By teaming up with his former Invader pal Namor, Bucky manages to take the Man With No Face down.
Another enemy from Bucky’s past who returns at this time is Baron Zemo, who exposes Bucky’s past as the Winter Soldier to the public at large in an attempt to discredit him. Bucky ends up having to go on trial for his past crimes, and even though he’s eventually let off the hook, having to endure that much public scrutiny makes Bucky realize that maybe he isn’t cut out to be Captain America after all.
Bucky’s days as Captain America are numbered as soon as Sin manages to get her hands on an Asgardian artifact known as the Hammer of Skadi. With the power of this item, she leads an attack on Washington DC. Bucky Barnes tries his best to oppose her, but she’s too much for him. She tears off his robotic arm and uses her hammer to beat him into unconsciousness.
With Bucky on the verge of death, Nick Fury takes a dramatic action to save Bucky’s life. Long ago, Fury was injected with a substance known as "The Infinity Formula," which increased his body’s ability to heal and prevented him from aging. Fury decides to give Bucky a blood transfusion, and so the Infinity Formula in his blood is able to heal Bucky.
Since everyone now thinks he’s dead — and given how difficult it had been for Bucky to operate in the public eye as Captain America — Bucky decides to continue to let everyone believe he died at Sin’s hands. He gives Steve Rogers back the mantle of Captain America, and decides to return to his former identity as the Winter Soldier, returning to the place where he’s truly most comfortable: in the shadows, but now as a covert agent for good.
The Man on the Wall
In an event known as Original Sin, Bucky is part of a team of heroes gathered by Nick Fury in order to investigate the death of Uatu the Watcher. By the end of this plot arc, however, Fury explains that he’s had an additional reason for giving the heroes this task: it was an audition.
In addition to being the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Fury reveals that he’s been hiding another secret identity for decades. He’s known as "The Man on the Wall," meaning that he’s been in charge of protecting the Earth from extraterrestrial threats. This title had been passed down from one person to another multiple times in the past. Speaking of what this title entails, Fury says, "I’ve burned worlds. Destabilized galaxies. Dethroned gods. And I did it without any of them even knowing my name. That’s what it means to be the man on the wall. To be the invisible monster who keeps the other monsters at bay."
Fury needs to appoint a successor, suspecting that he’s going to die soon. He’s recently started rapidly aging as an unintended side effect of his blood transfusion to Bucky, which diluted the levels of Infinity Formula in his bloodstream more than expected. In the end, Bucky inherits his title. So now, in addition to being the Winter Soldier, Bucky is also the Man on the Wall, working in the shadows to protect the Earth from alien threats.
Bucky adopts a band of misfits
In one of their more morally questionable projects, S.H.I.E.L.D. created an all-powerful entity made of Cosmic Cube fragments in the form of a little girl named Kobik. Using her reality warping powers, S.H.I.E.L.D. created one of the most twisted prisons imaginable: an idyllic little town called Pleasant Hill, in which all of the inhabitants were captured former supervillains who had their personalities and memories altered by Kobik to make them kind and productive citizens.
In the Avengers: Standoff! comic event, some of the residents manage to regain their old memories and lead a revolt to destroy Pleasant Hill. In the chaos, Kobik escapes S.H.I.E.L.D. custody and starts tagging along with Bucky, hoping to prove to him that she can be good. Bucky agrees to give her a chance, but then she reveals that she’s also brought along some of her friends from Pleasant Hill — supervillains who she believes could be redeemed, including Atlas, Fixer, Mach-X, and Moonstone.
Perhaps because of his own dark past, Bucky decides to give them a chance as well, forming a new incarnation of the superhero team known as the Thunderbolts. After years of searching for his identity as Captain America’s sidekick, the Winter Soldier, Captain America himself, and the Man on the Wall, it seems that Bucky has finally found his true calling: helping other previous evil-doers find their way towards redemption. Perhaps by learning to forgive these other former villains, Bucky may also finally learn to forgive himself. After all, hasn’t the poor guy been through enough?