Happy Belated Valentine’s Day! In honor of this holiday, I’m going to talk about my favorite OTP. OTP stands for One True Pairing and is part of the ‘shipper’ culture. A shipper (in this context) is someone who strongly ‘ships’ two characters. Ship is short for relationship. So, a fan of the (typically) romantic relationship (real/canon or otherwise) between two characters. The OTP can refer to the ‘correct’ pairing in a fandom, or can be someone’s favorite couple. Today, I suppose I’m talking about both. This is my favorite couple, one that is not recognized by canon, and I am going to explain why it is correct.
The Pairing: Steve Rogers/Captain America and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier, Marvel Cinematic Universe
After careful watching and rewatching, I feel like there is a great deal of evidence to support this theory, even if it is not acknowledged by Marvel/Disney/etc. Both the creators and actors are aware of this fan-favorite pairing (it’s the most popular of the Marvel Cinematic Universe pairings) and continue to deny the theory, but even if it wasn’t intended, I feel that there is a lot of evidence of a deeper relationship.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America franchise is, at its core, a story about a hero trying to do what he thinks is right. It is a story of action, adventure, and intrigue. It is also a love story.
In the original comics, Bucky Barnes is Captain America’s plucky teenage sidekick. I can imagine then that it was something of a surprise for big fans of the Captain America comics when James Buchanan Barnes is instead introduced as Steve Rogers’s childhood friend, a man who is actually a year older than he is.
Anthony and Joe Russo have directed two of the three Captain America movies (The Winter Solider and Civil War, plus Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame). They, along with the rest of the cast and crew are well aware of the amount of shipping that goes into Steve and Bucky, but when Civil War was released, they described the film as a brotherly love story. I disagree not only because Civil War is I think the least like a love story of the three, but also because I think the Captain America series as a whole is a romantic love story confined by the early twentieth century sensibilities these characters were raised with.
THE FIRST AVENGER
The first film, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) sets up the key characters and their personalities early on. In 1942 Brooklyn, small sickly Steve Rogers starts a fight with a man for being disrespectful during a movie theatre newsreel about the war efforts. It’s in this back alley that the audience is first introduced to Bucky Barnes, who comes to Steve’s aid. Their conversation makes it clear that this is a fairly regular occurrence as Bucky speculates “Sometimes I think you like getting punched”. It also depicts the men as especially close as Bucky puts his arm around Steve as they leave the alley.
This is my Exhibit A. The fact that Bucky is so used to this is telling. It means he is regularly searching out Steve to help him and keep him safe. This already shows a close bond. However, it is Bucky’s constant need for physical contact that I find interesting. Romantic relationships were already more formal, so little touches were meaningful. These constant friendly touches help the audience learn quickly that the two are close, but at that time would suggest something closer.
Exhibit B is when they take their dates to the World Expo. Here, Bucky again demonstrates that Steve is a main priority for him. He is far more concerned with his enjoyment than their dates. He is passive as his date (Doctor Who and Victoria’s Jenna Coleman) drags him around, but in a clear message to the audience leaves with both girls to go dancing (something that later becomes something of a euphemism). It gives the message that Bucky is a ladies man, but I think this could be overcompensating and that perhaps his talent with women is due in part to his ability to relate to them.
He still does not leave without arguing then saying goodbye to Steve. To me this is a lot like the relationship advice: don’t go to bed angry. There is a very real possibility that they may never see each other again. They display open affection, departing with a hug rather than a manly handshake.
I feel that these opening scenes serve as a way to establish each man’s priorities, which continue to be relevant throughout the franchise. For Steve, it’s about doing what’s right, helping other people, their welfare, but Bucky’s main priority is the health, happiness, and welfare of Steve. He constantly demonstrates that as he tries to make him happy and protect him from both himself and other people.
Just before the procedure that gives Steve Rogers his Captain America powers (in a scene that establishes dancing as a euphemism), Steve tells Peggy Carter about his inexperience with women. In this film, Peggy is Steve’s love interest, and this scene is meant to reflect that, but I think some of the lines can be read another way. Steve says, “Well, asking a woman to dance always seemed so terrifying. And the past few years just didn’t seem to matter as much. Figured I’d wait…[f]or the right partner”. Rather than say that Steve gave up in recent years because it got too frustrating, it can be argued that it didn’t matter as much in recent years because he still had Bucky, whom he can’t dance with anyway.
Steve’s feelings become more apparent when he arrives in Europe and learns Bucky’s unit (the 107th, which was the unit Steve’s father served in when he died in World War I) has been captured and is presumed dead. Even just hearing that something has happened to the 107th has Steve frantic, demanding to know if Col. Chester Phillips has written a condolence letter to Bucky’s family. Despite the fact that Phillips is certain he has, Steve almost ignores the information. There is a 99% chance that Bucky is dead, but he is still jumping out of a plane into a war zone and behind enemy lines to rescue him. Even with his superpowers, I think this speaks to a devotion beyond best friends. Bucky is the most important person to Steve. This suicide mission is my Exhibit C. Even as close friends as they are, I feel that the bond would need to be deeper than that for Steve to risk his life that way.
Later, when they are celebrating the rescue at a London bar, Steve is approached by Peggy while talking with Steve. Bucky tries to flirt with her, playing it off as feeling retribution when she ignores him, “I’m invisible… I’m turning into you. It’s like some horrible dream”, but his eyes, his focus stays on Steve. He looks sad. He can see the growing bond between Steve and Peggy, who saw Steve the way Bucky always has even before the serum, and it’s a bittersweet moment. He wants happiness for his best friend, but harbors his own feelings, too. Exhibit D is this little slice of camera work and acting, as the camera lingers on Bucky’s reaction rather than the growing attraction between Steve and Peggy.
Exhibit E is for End, the film’s falling action. Steve is devastated following Bucky’s apparent death. He did everything he could, literally hanging outside of moving train, but he still lost him. Peggy finds him attempting to get drunk (metabolism is too fast), eyes red from crying. While Peggy talks him down, Steve still seeks vengeance in what could be another suicide mission. He makes himself bait, trusting that he will be taken to Hydra leader, Johann Schmidt rather than killed on sight. Steve has superhuman abilities and advantages, but he’s not bulletproof. He almost admits this is about vengeance, but you have to wonder if his safety is no longer a concern for him now that Bucky is gone.
While I feel that this film sets the foundation for the relationship between Steve and Bucky, which becomes critical in the following films, that is subtext. The main and very relevant relationship is the growing romance between Steve and Peggy. Peggy is the first woman to see him for who he is, and it is likely, had he survived, they would’ve married. Similarly, had Bucky not fallen off a train in the alps, he would have similarly found a nice girl and settled down, rather than attempt a romantic relationship with Steve. Why? Because it was 1944.
THE WINTER SOLDIER
The romantic Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014) is my Exhibit F as it follows the cliché of a romance film.
Captain America: The Winter Solider is all about relationships. Different types, the roles they play, their significance, and how they can be used for and against us. While the film is mainly a political spy thriller, underneath that is a love story. It follows a very clear arc, using a formula often seen in romantic comedies or dramas. It’s a very clear trope, first establishing that the main character is not in a relationship, nor is he looking for one. in fact, he is pining over lost love. When that lost love is learned to be alive, the main character uses the strength of their bond/power of love (true love’s kiss) to overcome their obstacles. (We probably would’ve gotten true love’s kiss, had Bucky been female.) Some examples of this trope that immediately come to mind are Shrek (2001), Sailor Moon (1991-1997), and Once Upon A Time (2011-2018).
At the beginning of the film, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow is determined to find Steve a girlfriend, constantly trying to set him up. This could be interpreted as Natasha trying to protect herself by finding someone for Steve other than her, but I really believe she is the best friend in this rom(not)com. Following a mission, Steve visits the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian and you have to wonder if this is his first time there. He lingers longingly in front of the Bucky Barnes memorial, after walking through the legacy left by his deceased friends and comrades.
When he returns to his DC apartment later, there is a song playing on the record player in Nick Fury’s attempt at concealment. I think this song choice is very deliberate. “It’s Been A Long, Long Time” since Steve and Bucky have been together. Steve’s thought Bucky was dead for a long, long time, after all. The lyrics so clearly describe their relationship, it’s impossible to imagine it wasn’t deliberate: “Haven’t felt like this, my dear/ Since I can’t remember when/ It’s been a long, long time/ You’ll never know how many dreams/ I’ve dreamed about you/ Or just how empty they all seemed without you…”
Other hints that Steve is pining for Bucky specifically is when he later tells Natasha, “Believe it or not, it’s kind of hard to find someone with shared life experience”. This suggests he has his previous love, Bucky, in mind, since they literally grew up together. Sam Wilson/Falcon’s relationship with Riley is also meant to serve as a direct parallel. Sam knows how it feels to lose someone that important (which I think implies a romantic relationship there as well). Later, Steve essentially shuts down when he learns the truth about Bucky, and even the Winter Soldier is thrown for a loop.
As someone unfamiliar with Captain America prior to the MCU, I found the Winter Soldier reveal surprising, but probably not anywhere near as shocking as Steve did. It’s a poignant moment, quiet, suspenseful music builds towards a moment when everything just stops; the music stops and the action slows. For dramatic tension, the Winter Soldier doesn’t immediately attack, and Steve straightens from an attack posture. The Winter Soldier conveniently stares moodily, giving Steve long enough to choke out, “Bucky?” It’s almost automatic the way he responds, “Who the hell is Bucky?” He attacks then, but that doesn’t stop Steve from trying to approach. When they are interrupted, the look on the Winter Soldier’s face is heartbreaking— hope, confusion, resolve. It’s an expressive moment.
Later, back at Hydra’s evil lair, the Winter Soldier is distracting, insisting that he knows “the man on the bridge”. Alexander Pierce treats him like a child, trying to dissuade him, and when that doesn’t work, it gives the audience a chance to see how well trained/brainwashed the Winter Soldier is as he willingly submits to electroshock, a procedure he’s obviously undergone before. But still, that something, that that brief moment with Steve broke through, is an impressive demonstration of the strength of the bond between Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers.
The launch of the helicarriers is the next time Steve meets the Winter Solider. In a true love’s kiss kind of moment, after not only refusing to fight him, but also saving him, Steve recites the promise the pair made in a flashback to his mother’s death: “I’m with you to the end of the line.” (That a train separates them would’ve been some impressive foreshadowing.) It’s enough to break through Hydra’s spell so that when Steve falls from the helicarrier, the Winter Soldier/Bucky saves him from drowning.
Exhibit F demonstrates the romantic nature of their relationship by using romantic tropes and symbols.
After learning that the Russos describe Captain America: Civil War (2016) as a [brotherly] love story, I tried to look for the signs when I rewatched it and I have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. I think it is about close bonds, with a focus on one or two in particular, but I don’t think the movie itself is a love story or a romance.
From the get-go we see that this movie is going to be about their relationship as the opening fight scene ends with Brock Rumlow/Crossbones talking about Bucky. The way Rumlow taunts Steve in Exhibit G indicates that he knows how important Bucky is to him. He teases the idea that Bucky remembered him but then delivers a gut punch when he claims Bucky blames Steve for the torture he’s gone through. It’s painful that someone he cares so deeply for has gone through something horrific and heartbreaking that he’d be blamed, even if he already blames himself.
When Steve and Bucky finally reunite, it is in an apartment in Bucharest, Romania in Exhibit H. When Steve first arrives to find it empty, it gives him an opportunity to see how Bucky’s been living as well as some insight into where his head might be. He opens a journal to a page with his picture on it, showing that the image meant enough to Bucky to glue it in there. The conversation makes it clear they are still able to read each other, and when the fight begins, even though it is the first time they are fighting together as enhanced individuals, they instinctually work together to protect each other. Even though Bucky’s priority is escape, a lot of the fight choreography is meant to show how they seamlessly work together, indicating that their strong bond never went away.
Throughout the film there are many of these small moments meant to show how close Steve and Bucky are. We receive some blatant symbolism after Bucky is captured. While he makes it clear he prefers Bucky to James (a fact I think is significant since that is what Steve calls him), Tony Stark is trying to get Steve to sign the accords. In Exhibit I, he has a pair of pens previously used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Steve refuses, he returns the pens saying he doesn’t “want to break up the set”. Steve and Bucky are a set he similarly does not want to break up.
Later, in Exhibit J, after Steve and Sam Wilson have once again subdued the Winter Soldier, Bucky is asked to prove he’s no longer effected by the Russian trigger words. He recites facts about Steve with a smile and a chuckle because they are fond memories of someone he loves. There is another similar moment on the Quinjet when they fly to Siberia where you could easily argue that Steve is a little salty about “Delores. You called her Dot.” It’s a fond memory because it’s with Bucky, but there is jealousy there.
Before that, however, we have the Sharon Carter kiss. Exhibit K: The kiss itself seems forced, which could just be bad chemistry between the actors, but while Sharon looks into it, Steve does not. It looks forced to me, like Steve feels he needs to give Sharon SOMETHING in return for all their help. Hayley Atwell, the actress who plays Sharon’s Great Aunt Peggy Carter, has actually spoken out about how inappropriate she found the kiss. It’s creepy for a number of reasons, beyond just the fact that he was in love with her great aunt (a relationship that was only a handful of years ago for Steve who was asleep for 70).
Then, there’s the smiles. While Sam looks genuinely happy for the possible romance, Bucky’s smile always looks strained every time I watch it. It could be that he thinks it’s a terrible time for a relationship, or that he sees how forced the kiss looks, but I think it could be deeper than that. Bucky wants what’s best for Steve, what will make him the most happy, but I think he’s in love with him and seeing him kiss someone else is still painful.
Exhibit L, the final fight between Bucky, Steve, and Tony, is intense. It’s another opportunity to see how in sync Steve and Bucky are, despite having never fought this way together before. It’s also a scene where Steve makes it clear who the priority is. Steve has already become an international fugitive, essentially given up everything. Now Steve is making a deliberate choice knowing exactly who he is hurting and why. This scene is perhaps one of the most powerful as Steve literally gives up everything (gives up his shield) for Bucky.
We don’t see much of their interactions or possible romance in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), since it’s main focus tends to be EARTH, SPACE, and TONY STARK. As people on Earth, Steve and Bucky have to share with a lot of other Earth-bound heroes. That Bucky is the first to turn to dust is significant. Bucky just keeps slipping through Steve’s fingers. While this movie is less about Steve than Tony, it is his return to fighting for something he believes in and people he wants to protect. Steve is called the first avenger, so of course Bucky would be the first to go. He was chronologically, the very first loss in the MCU, and losing him again will be devastating for Steve. We’ll see just how much losing half the universe does impact Steve and the other survivors in Avengers: Endgame, April 26th (one year after the release of Infinity War).
I will continue to maintain that there are romantic feelings between Steve Rogers/Captain America and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier. I believe that Steve absolutely did/does love Peggy Carter, though, and that the relationship between Steve and Bucky is constrained by their early twentieth century upbringings. It is unlikely, that the feelings these two share will ever be explored for a vast number of reasons, including the fact that Chris Evans’s contract will be up with Avengers: Endgame (2019). Disney has announced a Falcon-Winter Soldier miniseries, which could delve into it, but is mainly significant because both these characters pick up the Shield in the comics. I’d love a scenario which depicts these two characters fighting over the Captain America mantle, especially if the choices become a black American veteran or a gay ex-Soviet brainwashed assassin/WWII veteran, but more likely Disney will just tone down the ex-Soviet part and continue to ignore any indications that Bucky Barnes is not straight as an American flagpole.