Sunday, May 11, 2014

Pain, Personhood, and Parity: The Depiction of Bucky Barnes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

This essay contains multiple spoilers for the ending of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If you have not yet seen the film, please proceed at your own risk.

The day before I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the fifth time, I spent an afternoon in the park with one of my closest friends and her two-year-old son, Son'eu. As we wandered the pathways of the vast gardens of the Hama Rikyū Park, my friend and I took turns running herd on Son'eu—who at two is a bundle of seemingly unlimited energy and endlessly varied short-term interests. Over and over again, we chased him away from steep precipices, pulled him back from the water’s edge, and got him down from an assortment of dangerously high (for a two-year-old) places. We also spent a considerable amount of time picking up after him.

It was this act of picking-up-after that stuck with me during my viewing of The Winter Soldier the following day. The behavior of the Winter Soldier character reminded me strongly of Son’eu; for Son’eu is at that stage in life when anytime he finishes with something (in the case of our most recent outing, a partially-drunk mango smoothie), he drops it on the ground and walks away. It does not matter if the thing in question has been finished; if he is finished with it, he drops it on the ground and walks away. And we pick up the pieces.

Throughout the film, the Winter Soldier displays this pattern of behavior. He drops every single weapon that comes into his hands, and it does not matter if the weapon itself retains its usefulness. It does not matter if the gun's clip is empty or still loaded with bullets; if the Winter Soldier is done with it, he drops it and moves on to something else. He picks up or pulls out a weapon, uses it for as long as it engages his attention, and tosses it aside in favor of something new. It is an exceptionally childlike action.

There has been a lot of commentary written about the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (1) in the month since the film was released in the US, and much of it has characterized his actions as those of a dog or an animal, but I believe that what he really is is a child caught in the formative stages of personality development. A number of his exhibited behaviors suggest this: his habit of dropping things when he no longer needs or wants them—child; his tendency to become frustrated and erratic when something does not go as he expects—child; his kneejerk rejection of Steve Rogers' attempts to help him (even though deep down he senses that Steve is committed to, and working for, his best good)—child.

The Winter Soldier is a dangerous child having a lethal temper-tantrum all the way through this film. He is a two-year-old dropping half-empty mango smoothies on the ground when he is done with them. He is a little boy trying desperately not to cry.

Part One: Pain and Personhood
The emotionally regressed state of the Winter Soldier is understandable in light of how often he is implied to have undergone repeated mental conditioning. According to the original comics (and supported by the hints given in the film), the Winter Soldier was given a memory wipe to ensure compliance every single time his handlers woke him up out of cryo-sleep. He then spent a few days awake on a mission and was immediately put back to sleep after the completion of that mission. That sleep was presumably not restorative. After all, the cryo-stasis prevented his body from aging; it also therefore probably prevented his brain from doing the necessary mental repair-work that only happens while the body is in a true, deep sleep. When we consider that the Winter Soldier had his memory wiped before every mission, and that he had at least twenty-five missions that the intelligence community knew of, that is a serious, serious number of mental reconditioning procedures over a relatively short—from the Winter Soldier's perspective—period of time. It is little wonder then that his emotional baseline is that of a small child.

The artificially-induced childlike quality of the Winter Soldier's personality gives a whole new meaning to the micro-expressions of actor Sebastian Stan—particularly during the bank vault scene with Alexander Pierce (portrayed by screen-legend Robert Redford). The way the Winter Soldier zeroes in on Pierce after Pierce sits down in front of him is reminiscent of the way a child will focus on a teacher or parent during story hour, and the manner in which he presses his lips together after his second assertion that he knew Steve Rogers ("But I knew him!") recalls a child fighting back tears because he knows that if he wants to cry, Pierce will give him something to really cry about. However, the emotional state that has been produced in the Winter Soldier by the repeated experience of mental and physical pain goes far beyond regression to childhood and into the realm of near-personlessness.

In her book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, literary theorist Elaine Scarry argues that pain—both physical and mental—has the power to destroy the human capacity for speech (2). Humans scream, shriek, or shout rather than speak when they suffer severe bodily or emotional pain because that experience of pain has eradicated their ability to respond verbally. This description perfectly summarizes the situation of the Winter Soldier, who through his repeated mental conditioning is in a constant state of pain, and this aspect of the Winter Soldier's character is expressed in three different ways in the film: through his silence, through his use of (to an English-speaking audience) a foreign language, and through the presence of a specific musical cue in the film's score.

The Winter Soldier is a person whose identity has been obliterated by pain—a pain that has destroyed almost every last vestige of his personhood. It is for this reason that he almost never speaks. His lack of speech is emblematic of his lack of personhood, and this is reiterated a) by the fact that no one in the film—other than Alexander Pierce and Steve Rogers—speaks to him, and b) by the fact that he does not speak in English (his body's native tongue) to anyone in the film—other than Alexander Pierce and Steve Rogers. Furthermore, the Winter Soldier's lack of personhood—grounded in an intense internalized emotional pain—is symbolically expressed through Henry Jackman's brilliant "Winter Soldier Theme," which is primarily characterized by the reoccurring presence of a piercing, metallic scream—a scream that is positively visceral, expressive of a tremendous amount of pain, panic, and fear. Brutal and brutalizing, the theme impacts the listener on a palpable, instinctive, organic level, giving sonic form to the blank, numbness inside the Winter Soldier's mind.

This wordless wail—sometimes shrieking, sometimes droning—plays every time that the Winter Soldier is present on screen (3) and functions as an articulation of the Winter Soldier's status as a person whose self has been so fundamentally damaged by pain that he cannot and does not speak, or cannot and does not speak in a language that is not inherently othering. Thus, the moments when the Winter Soldier speaks in Bucky Barnes' native tongue—even when he speaks in anger—are those when the personality of Bucky Barnes is most present.

All of the conversations that the Winter Soldier has in the film are about self. When the Winter Soldier tells Alexander Pierce that he knew the man on the bridge, he is not just seeking to have a suspicion confirmed—he is asking Pierce to affirm his personhood. He is asking to be acknowledged as an identity—as a self. He is begging Pierce for this, and Pierce will not give it to him. Pierce will not affirm his personhood, as allowing the Winter Soldier personhood would directly conflict with HYDRA’s project of using him as a weapon. By contrast, Steve Rogers consistently affirms his personhood, referring to the Winter Soldier by name—as opposed to referring to him as an object or a pronoun—and speaking to him of specific shared past experience. It is this treatment of the Winter Soldier as a person, as Bucky Barnes, that directly contributes to his recovery of a sense of identity—both during the fight in the street and during the fight on the helicarrier. Over and above what the Winter Soldier feels for Steve Rogers is what Steve makes him feel about himself—namely, that he has a self that must be found.

In a film that is all about choice (4), the characterization of the Winter Soldier as a person made devoid of self through the infliction of pain drives home the idea that choice is not possible without identity. As a person denied personhood, the Winter Soldier cannot choose anything, and the moments when he attempts to do so constitute the heart and soul of the film—functioning as an emblem of the stolen choice that HYDRA plans to foist upon the world in its entirety through the implementation of Project Insight.

Part Two: Mirroring and Inversion
The droning iteration of the "Winter Soldier Theme"'s wordless wail can be heard at several key points in the film: during the introduction of the character when he attacks Nick Fury on the streets of Washington, D.C.; during the rooftop confrontation between him and Steve Rogers after Fury's "assassination"; during the bank vault scene when he sits in a stupor while recalling fragments of his past life; and—significantly—during Steve Rogers' apprehension by Brock Rumlow and the HYDRA S.T.R.I.K.E. team after Steve has realized for the first time that the Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes. Here again, the music functions as a symbolic articulation of internalized pain that is now expanded to include the pain that Steve Rogers feels and which has become so extreme that he, too, is temporarily rendered speechless—an emotional state interpreted with beautiful subtlety by Chris Evans, who shines in this moment.

The parity between the internalized pain of the Winter Soldier and Steve Rogers is no accident. Indeed, it is one of the many examples of the ways in which their experiences mirror, or function as inversions of, one another. Obvious inverted parallels can be found in the manner in which both Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes have been transformed into super soldiers—one because of a willing sacrifice and the other because of a coerced participation—and in the way they each represent two sides of the same war-torn coin. While Steve Rogers stands as the shining ideal, Bucky Barnes skulks as the seedy, though pragmatic, reality—a reality taken to horrifyingly efficient extremes in the Winter Soldier—and this mirroring between the two characters was clear even in Captain America: The First Avenger.

The inverted parallels of Steve Rogers and the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes' experiences unfold across a vast expanse of time, serving as a frame for their interactions. Bucky’s exit from the narrative of The First Avenger begins during the mission to capture Zola, when he fails to deflect a power blast fired by a HYDRA operative with Steve's shield and is thrown from a compartment of the moving train where the mission is taking place. Not coincidentally, the Winter Soldier's entrance into the narrative of The Winter Soldier effectively begins when he, a HYDRA operative, fires a grenade whose impact Steve fails to deflect with his shield, thus resulting in his being thrown from the overpass where the assault is taking place (5). Though Steve cannot know it at the time, his mirrored reiteration of the fall of Bucky Barnes marks the starting point of a cyclical journey, in which Steve and the Winter Soldier will ultimately be forced to relive the circumstances of their past tragedy—the moment in time where one of them falls to their "death" while the other one watches, helplessly, until they cannot watch any longer.

The final confrontation of The Winter Soldier does not, however, merely culminate in an inverted parallel of Bucky and Steve's physical falls. It also culminates in an inverted reenactment of an even earlier, psychological fall—Steve’s descent into depression and loss over the death of his mother. It is highly significant that the memory that comes to Steve's mind in the moments before the assault on the helicarriers is the memory of Bucky's support of him through the death of his mother. It represents a time in his life when Steve was in a dark place—so dark and so alone that he did not want Bucky's help. But Bucky would not back down. Bucky was there for him even when he could not bring himself to reach out for the help that he desperately needed. This is what Steve meant when he remarked, in the S.T.R.I.K.E. team transport after confronting the Winter Soldier face to face for the first time, that even when he had nothing he had Bucky. He was thinking about that specific moment in time, and he was thinking about it because it was a defining moment in their friendship. Now the situation is reversed, and it is Bucky in the dark place—so dark and so alone that he does not want (or cannot accept) Steve's help, though he desperately needs it. And Steve cannot back down because this is another defining moment in their friendship.

Though the roles of Steve Rogers and the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes have been reversed—with Steve now reaching out to pull his friend up from the darkness of emotional isolation—in their final moments, as the remnants of the Insight helicarriers crash down around them, it is both men who act to save one another. The Winter Soldier does not understand it, but Bucky Barnes has always been the person who waded into the water to pull Steve Rogers out when he got in too deep, and he cannot do anything less in this moment. Recalled to his sense of self through Steve's consistent linguistic affirmation of his identity and faced with a set of circumstances that he has lived through before more than once, the Winter Soldier can at last choose to act upon the information he has been given—not because he has been ordered to, but because he himself wants to. It is his complementary act to save Steve—reflective of the same bravery that Steve has shown to him—that marks the first step on the path to the reclamation of his personhood and agency. Reunited with a sense of self, the Winter Soldier is at last free to act selflessly.

Much has been made of the fact that Bucky Barnes is one of the few people to recognize the greatness in Steve Rogers before his transformation into Captain America. Much has also been made of the fact that, in The First Avenger, Bucky demonstrably feels conflicted about that transformation. Less noted, however, is how Bucky's sense of conflict and resentment—and the way he dealt with those feelings—reveals the kind of person he truly is. The narrative motif of the man who can recognize greatness in another but not attain it himself, and who is therefore corrupted by his resentment, is a classic trope. It appears in such literary masterpieces as Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, Melville's Billy Budd, and Schaefer's Amadeus. However, the story of Bucky Barnes is one of a man who recognizes a greatness he cannot himself achieve and is not corrupted by that recognition. Unlike the villains of the above-mentioned tales, Bucky Barnes comes to terms with the situation, choosing friendship over envy—and heroism over villainy—something that suggests a greatness within Bucky Barnes that Bucky himself is not aware of. But Steve Rogers, of course, is. Just as Bucky is one of the few people to recognize Steve's greatness; Steve is one of the few people to recognize Bucky's. Both of them know each other better than they know themselves, and it is that parallel knowledge that ultimately saves them both.

In our last glimpse of the Winter Soldier, in the final post-credits scene, he both does and does not look different. He wears civilian clothing, having no doubt dropped his old uniform somewhere, but he remains cloaked in a mantle of silence. He is still caught in the throes of his experience of pain as he stares—dumbfounded—at an museum exhibit about the life of Bucky Barnes. As he stares, the musical motif of the mechanical scream builds once more into a high-pitched frenzy, shrieking out in a final burst of dissonant noise that signals to the audience that—in spite of the fact that the Winter Soldier ultimately decided to save Steve Rogers' life—Bucky Barnes has not yet recovered from his mental conditioning, and the Winter Soldier is at a loss as to what to do as a result. The Winter Soldier has dropped everything on the ground and walked away, and it is up to Bucky Barnes—and those who love him—to pick up the pieces.

1) For the purposes of this essay, I will distinguish sharply between the Winter Soldier and Bucky Barnes—for while it is true that the Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes, Bucky Barnes is not the Winter Soldier, and this dichotomy lies at the heart of the characters’ emotional struggle.
2) Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).
3) It does not, however, play when Bucky Barnes is present and attempting to manifest.
4) The theme of choice is so central to the storyline that composer Henry Jackman created a motif to symbolize the moments when a character faces a choice and orchestrated the motif differently depending on the emotional tenor of the situation surrounding the choice. It can be heard during "Fallen," "Taking a Stand," "Natasha," "Time to Suit Up," and—most strikingly—"The End of the Line," when the Winter Soldier makes the choice to pull Steve Rogers out of the Potomac River and thus save his life.
5) I consider the overpass battle sequence to be the effective entrance of the Winter Soldier into the narrative of the film. Though he appears briefly in scenes prior to this one, and though he has previously been discussed in the abstract by other characters, he does not—in my opinion—have a concrete, effective role until this point.

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  1. How is it there are no comments on this? I saw a link on Tumblr, which I will have to find and reblog now that I have read this.

    First off - well done. This bit of analysis captures so many different aspects of the movie and the character and the development. I had not appreciated the role the music plays at all.

    I have only seen the movie once - although once I get the DVD I will remedy that. The bit you open with, where he just drops things, I had noticed that but I had not connected that with what that might mean about the character. Amazing, since it is something I have seen my own kids do numerous times.

    The scene with Pierce in the bank - since I have only seen it once I had not picked up on this quite so well, but man, this makes that scene so much more painful. He asks Pierce for some sort of affirmation, and when he does not get it, the (well, docile is not the right word) compliance as he is pushed back in the chair and opens his mouth for the bite guard.

    As a parent, I have had that moment. That moment where I respond badly to something one of my kids says, where they are looking to me for affirmation and I am distracted, or angry or something and after they are just so defeated. Being the parent, I am in tears afterwards, because no matter what I say afterwards, I have broken something.

    Pierce, however, plays that card with intention.

    I could ramble on, but I won't. Thank you for this essay. I will reading it again!

  2. This is wonderful. However I do want to cautious against, in a general context, equating a lack of speech as a lack of personhood. While it fits wonderfully here, it's an assumption out in the real world that results in people treating non-verbal people as lacking personhood- with unfortunately devastating results.

    One could say that that is reflected in how HYDRA treats him. That there's a level of self perpetuation in how the silence and perception of personhood is approached. This allows/has allowed younger or newer HYDRA agents to disregard any lingering concerns they may have had, as society at large has taught them that the personhood of the non-speaking is negligible. (This can also echo beyond disability into looking at the perspectives of people who are just not heard during the course of events- often, like Bucky here, because their attempts at voice are brutally suppressed or disregarded.)

    1. Thank you so much for bringing up that very important point about the ways silence can be used to deny the existence of personhood.

      I did hope that I made it clear that I feel it is a lack of personhood results in a lack of speech, rather than that lack of speech inherently equals lack of personhood - however I clearly was not as precise with my language as I should have been. That being the case, I do apologize and appreciate, once again, your taking the time to highlight that extremely important aspect of the issue.

      And thank you for reading!

  3. Literary scholar Doris Sommer has argued that silence can be an expression of autonomy. I really like her book Proceed With Caution, which talks about this. Just wanted to share.

    1. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention! I'll look forward to reading some more on the topic.

  4. A fantastic analysis. That level of nuance in the score wasn't something I'd picked up on, not having a great ear for music, but it really shows how much subtlety and collaboration has gone into making what many may have dismissed as just another superhero film.

    The Winter Soldier story, both in comics an film, is I think a sign of superhero storytelling developing the maturity to explore the consequences, both personal and societal, of traumatic events in a setting where some characters' very existence could be considered a traumatic event.

  5. An excellent post. I love your analysis on his lack of personhood. I also wanted to point out that up until Steve speaks to him, The Winter Soldier wears a muzzle. I think partially to hide his identity from Steve but also because he's not allowed to speak and, after all, what does a gun or hammer have to say to it's owner. By making it impossible for him to speak with expression, the muzzle/face mask, is another way of objectifying him.

    I don't even think it's so much about lack of personhood but a fallback to pre-personhood in that Pierce, in all his interactions with The Winter Soldier, is demeaningly patronizing to him. In their first interaction he offers him milk and in the vault he treats him the way an abusive parent treats a smart-alecky kid. Considering that he's speaking to a grown man, these scenes are especially disturbing to watch.

    I would love it if you did an analysis of Steve Roger's isolation/depression. As a man out of time, everyone and everything he knew, is dead and gone. I had the feeling that Steve doesn't really live. Yes, he's coping well, and trying to catch up to the modern age, but he's still very much in mourning,having lost everything. For him Bucky's loss was only a year or so, given his sense of time.
    I think he tries so hard to save Bucky, as much to save himself. Bucky is the only, and most important, person left over from his past.

    Anyway, sorry about the long post, but this was an excellent meta.

    1. Not at all. And thank you so much for your comments - all of which were really lovely and thought-provoking. I apologize for not getting back to you more quickly, but you caught me over the New Year holiday.

      I absolutely agree with you about the muzzle, the objectification, and Pierce's infantilization of a grown man being extremely disturbing. There's an uncanny valley element to it all, I think, which is part of what makes it so impactful. We're seeing someone in a state that is so abnormal, and yet at the same time there's a base functionality to the operating mode. The simultaneous presence and absence of Bucky, presence and absence of an adult, presence and absence of a threatening force, is highly disconcerting.

      As for a Steve post... a friend of mine was planning to write a guest-post meta about Steve Rogers, bipolar disorder, and metaphorical hesitation marks... I should remind her about doing that.