Author’s note: This article deals with the history and relationship between two characters from the upcoming Marvel film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and as a result, may contain spoilers. Read at your own risk.
Back in November, yours truly wrote an abbreviated summary and explanation of Bucky Barnes’s character through the lens of the orphan archetype, dealing primarily with his past as the brainwashed Soviet assassin known as the Winter Soldier and his friendship with Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America. It should come as no surprise that Bucky, as someone defined by his past, carries not only old friendships into the twenty-first century post-Soviet stint, but also old relationships – primarily with Natasha Romanoff, sometimes known as Black Widow.
For those not in the know, Natasha is a more mysterious figure than the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has let on. She has no known birth date, but she was born sometime before WWII began and was supposedly raised by a Russian soldier named Ivan Petrovitch after losing her family in Stalingrad, though even this piece of her background isn’t entirely clear. Regardless of detail accuracy, this puts her – believe it or not – along the same historical timeline as Steve and Bucky, who fought in WWII side-by-side against the Nazis.
Skip ahead to her early childhood, and you have Natasha and 26 other young girls taken in by an organization known as Department X, where they’re all trained in combat and espionage in an infamous place known as the Red Room. It was during these formative years in the Red Room that two important things happened: one, Natasha underwent some sort of chemical process that the Soviets were working on to enhance their female operatives that slowed her aging and made her infertile, and two, she met and was trained by the Winter Soldier himself.
Natasha, of course, didn’t know him as Bucky Barnes – she only knew him as James. After training together for some length of time the two of them fell in love, despite Natasha’s engagement to a pilot named Alexi Shostakov. Unfortunately their romance fell apart when Natasha found that the Winter Soldier was kept in cryostasis between missions to keep him from aging. Can’t date a guy kept in storage, after all.
Fast-forward after Bucky’s time as the Winter Soldier, after he regains his memories from the constant brainwashing, after Steve Rogers is, ahem, ‘temporarily incapacitated’ and Bucky becomes the new Captain America; he and Natasha finally resume their relationship.
Phew. So there you have it: decades of lost love, chemical processing, and Soviet brainwashing in under 500 words. It’s not exactly pretty to read and think about, but it’s necessary. But why? Why is the past so important in order to understand Bucky and Natasha’s romance?
Because – and here’s where the gushing starts – Bucky and Natasha are characters that have both been locked, as least mentally, to their pasts. During Bucky’s time as Captain America he came across obstacles that were essentially demons from his past come back to haunt him, such as Sin, the daughter of the Red Skull. He was also sent to a Russian gulag for a while to serve time for his international crimes as the Winter Soldier, despite that being a part of the past that he’d been trying to shed while acting as Captain America. Similarly with Natasha, in her current solo title (issue #3 just came out February 5th) her motivation stems from her desire to atone for things she’d done in her past, but it isn’t always as clean-cut and easy as it sounds; people from her past begin to nip at her ankles soon enough.
There’s a line from the poem “The Future is an Animal” by Tina Chang that goes, “I run from the story that is faster than me / The words shatter and pant to out chase me” that I believe really encapsulates Bucky and Natasha’s relationships with their pasts. The thing that makes these two characters unique and special for each other, however, is not just the fact that they deal with similar problems, but the fact that they were actually there for each other during those difficult times. Bucky knows what it was like for Natasha in the Red Room and vice-versa. Being a part of the Red Room training not only brought them together in the first place, but it allowed them opportunity to understand each other’s situations in the present as they both try to wrestle with their respective histories.
They also both know what it’s like to be people taken out of their time, who belong in the pages of a history book but through exploitation and circumstance ended up in the future and thus have to navigate this strange new world with their rose-colored glasses removed. That kind of understanding from firsthand experience is something intimate and can’t be duplicated with anyone else, no matter how much either of them confides in other people.
It’s also worth noting that theirs is a relationship born from a dark past riddled with brainwashing and manipulation. They were both treated as objects, albeit in different ways. The Winter Soldier was a one-of-a-kind weapon and handled as such, evidenced by the way his handlers kept him in cryostasis and locked him up in storage when they had no need of him until his next mission. For Natasha, it was different: the Red Room chemical treatment given to her was repeatable and therefore she was an object in a more marketable way. One of Natasha’s solo mini-series titled Homecoming makes reference to the fact that there are not one but at least twenty-seven Black Widow operatives, all women, with the opportunity to make even more. So while their superiors handled their treatment as valuable assets differently, the underlying theme of objectification was there in both cases. Both Bucky and Natasha carry that weight into their presents.
Essentially, Bucky and Natasha’s romance is one that bloomed from the shadows of the Soviet Union and their experimentations, and despite the difficulties they’ve encountered over the years, they keep finding their way back to each other. They’d both been unmade in the Red Room, both had their memories and minds corrupted in the name of their country, and both been trained to use their bodies and minds as weapons in a never-ending war. Bucky even once referenced their shared past together and opened up to Natasha that she was “the one good thing in all of it.”
But it’s also a romance that’s about the present and the future as much as it is about the past. They needed to deal with the ghosts from their pasts before even thinking about resuming a relationship, something which is evidenced by the fact that they got back together after Bucky took on the Captain America mantle, shedding his identity as the Winter Soldier and facing his future with a brighter gaze. Natasha, too, was finding her place in modernity as an agent and a person in control of her own destiny, Red Room chemical process be damned. Even though they’re not together in current canon (for reasons I will omit due to the spoiler-y nature), the uniqueness of their past romance is something that can’t be taken away.
Shaped by their pasts, regaining their footing in the present, and looking out to their futures, Bucky and Natasha’s on-and-off relationship is one that literally spans time and history, and that’s what makes it so special and worth following as it, hopefully, continues to develop.
Gabby Taub, the Fantasy Reviewer at Girls in Capes, is a senior at New York University studying creative writing. She enjoys reading, writing, watching TV, and spending time getting lost among the bookshelves at Strand Bookstore.