I’m going to start this article out the way all my English teachers have told me to never start a paper: with a dictionary definition. Gasp.
According to dictionary.com, a villain is “a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime.”
It was easy for many, at first glance, to compare Bucky Barnes (a.k.a. the Winter Soldier) and Loki (a.k.a. son of the deceased ruler of Jotunheim, realm of the Frost Giants) to one another after the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier in April. On the surface they’ve got similar backgrounds: they’re both fighting the people in the world that they arguably love the most.
But that’s where the similarities end, and that’s where the comparisons should stop, because other than that, Bucky and Loki are not even remotely alike.
Let me be clear right out the gate: Loki is a villain. Bucky Barnes is a victim.
Some Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) fans like to give Loki a lot of breathing room when it comes to his actions, and so a lot of his bad choices end up being excusable by reasoning of “he had a tough past” or “he had a lot of broken family relationships” or simply “he just wants to be loved/noticed.” This is problematic for a lot of reasons (in fact, why didn’t I think of covering Loki for the Problematic Favorites Issue? Drat), the most obvious of which being that it exonerates Loki of any and all responsibility for his actions, and makes his choices almost justified.
But that’s the thing: they’re his choices. Loki had the free will and the state of mind to make his own decisions, to think things through and come up with his plans in such a way as to wind up on top – or, more accurately, on the throne of Asgard.
Sure, his decisions came from a place of rage and betrayal, but again, he had the autonomy to make them in the first place. Nobody threatened him to goad Thor into instigating a war in the first movie; nobody held a gun to his head to convince him to invade Earth with the Chitauri army (remember: Thanos offered him a deal, which Loki accepted willingly and without fear of failure); nobody brainwashed him into taking control of the Asgardian throne.
The antithesis of all this is Bucky Barnes’ arc. From the moment he fell (literally) into the hands of HYDRA, his free will was gone. He was fashioned into a weapon, brainwashed, and cryogenically frozen for decades to preserve his mind and body for future use. Everything that made him Bucky Barnes was stripped from him and without an identity he became the Winter Soldier, the coldblooded assassin responsible for more than his fair share of murders over the past few decades.
Bucky did not choose to become the Winter Soldier.
He didn’t choose to work for HYDRA, and he certainly didn’t choose to become their personal weapon. These choices were made for him by a third party, which places him on the total opposite end of the character spectrum from Loki, who made his own (however misinformed) decisions. Bucky can’t even remember his own name, let alone have the proper mental capacity to choose right from wrong. Loki, on the other hand, does.
The real villain in the arc of the Winter Soldier is HYDRA, or more specifically Alexander Pierce and Arnim Zola: Zola for creating the Soldier in the first place, and Pierce for utilizing him in the second Cap movie and perpetuating the cycle of torture and brainwashing. With this chain of command in mind, one of the more popular pieces of online meta regarding the Winter Soldier has been likening him to a gun. This makes sense: a gun is a weapon, and the Soldier is as well. When a crime is committed, do you blame the gun? Usually not – you’d blame the person who fired the gun, who in Bucky’s case is Pierce. But in the case of the MCU you can even go one step further and blame the person who made the gun: Zola.
Whichever way you spin it, whoever the blame falls on, one thing is certain: Bucky should not be held responsible for his actions as the Winter Soldier, because Bucky and the Winter Soldier are, for all intents and purposes, separate entities. What the Winter Soldier does under the influence and control of HYDRA is not Bucky’s fault because Bucky doesn’t have the free will to make his own decisions and rebel against what’s being done to him. Essentially, he’s been conditioned to follow even the most heinous of orders – and brainwashed again if he goes even slightly off-track, as evidenced by the now-infamous bank vault scene in The Winter Soldier when Pierce orders his agents to wipe his mind clean and start over.
Another point of contention for a lot of fans is the potential for a redemption arc: do Loki and Bucky need a redemption arc? If you continue to compare them on a very, very basic and surface level, they both did bad things and should therefore have to make up for them.
Except Bucky doesn’t and shouldn’t have to ‘redeem’ himself.
Everything he did as the Winter Soldier was without his consent, and nobody should have to redeem himself from something done beyond his control. There’s a difference between ‘redeeming’ oneself and ‘reclaiming’ oneself, and what Bucky has to do is the latter: reclaim his identity and his sense of self. This will, without a doubt, probably be the hardest part of Steve’s great attempt to bring Bucky back ‘to himself,’ as seen at the end of the second Captain America film. In the comics, Bucky’s internal struggle is the beginning of a long road to reclaiming the identity of James Barnes that he’d lost – and at first, Bucky finds himself unworthy of the help and aid offered to him. He tells Steve that Steve should’ve just killed him instead of helped him regain his memories with the help of the cosmic cube.
Will the films go the same route, with Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes finding himself unworthy of Steve’s aid and needing a guiding hand to help him reclaim his lost sense of self? Who knows. Everything’s speculation right now, but that’s the fun part about being a fan.
As for Loki taking responsibility?
…Yeah, he’s got a bit of a mess to clean up.
Gabby Taub, the Fantasy Reviewer at Girls in Capes, is a recent graduate of New York University and GiC’s resident Captain America expert. She enjoys reading, writing, watching TV, and spending time getting lost among the bookshelves at Strand Bookstore.
Can’t get enough of Bucky Barnes? Neither can we (although that’s mostly just Gabby.) Check out more on Bucky Barnes’ orphan storyline or his relationship with Natasha Romanoff. You can also find him on a list of recommended Captain America comics to check out.
More of a Loki fan? He was a prominent character in our Villains Issue — check out what we had to say on the popularity of villainous characters and the representation of LGBTQ characters in pop culture.