The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ( TF&TWS ) is rapidly approaching its premiere date, and Marvel is frequently releasing mini-trailers and clip compilations to drive up the hype for their second Disney+ original series. This footage has included many references to “that shield,” AKA the iconic shield of Captain America.
The original Captain America, Steve Rogers, retired from fighting and superhero life at the end of Avengers: Endgame , passing the shield on to Sam Wilson, AKA the Falcon. From the looks of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier trailers, Sam’s arc in the series will focus on his feelings on the shield’s “complicated history” and likely end with him officially accepting it, possibly taking on the Captain America mantle as well.
However, the series has another lead character: the titular Winter Soldier himself, Bucky Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan. The series is bound to explore his character more than any MCU project has before, but the trailers haven’t shown all that much of it.
STEVE’S SECOND FIDDLE
Let’s be real: the story of Sebastian Stan's Bucky in the MCU thus far has revolved entirely around Chris Evans' Steve Rogers (except for one post-credits scene for a movie neither of them were even in). This is true of both leads in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier , but Bucky has more of a history with Steve than Sam does. Most of the screen time shared between the two features Steve trying to save or protect Bucky, but this dynamic is said to be very much the opposite of the years they spent growing up together. Back then, Bucky seemed to be the one protective of Steve, with this being the case even at the beginning of Captain America: The First Avenger before Steve was given the super-soldier serum.
Beginning with the moment Steve rescues Bucky from HYDRA during the war, their relationship begins a role reversal. Steve is now Captain America, the one who leads the Howling Commandos and that everyone looks up to. Bucky is willing to follow his lead but also seems a bit thrown off by Steve being the more outgoing and popular one of the two.
He doesn’t really have much time to think about that, though, because he soon falls off a train, is presumed dead, and becomes trapped in the clutches of HYDRA once again, forced to be a brainwashed super-soldier for the next several decades. Once again, it’s Steve who ultimately saves him from HYDRA in Captain America: The Winter Soldier , and subsequently from the United Nations in Captain America: Civil War . Even after Bucky and the others get dusted in Avengers: Infinity War , Steve plays a large part in bringing them back in Avengers: Endgame .
In all these movies, viewers are watching Bucky’s story play out largely through Steve’s eyes. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is obviously going to be different, though, because of the situation Bucky and Sam are left in at the end of Endgame ...
LIFE AFTER STEVE ROGERS
Endgame concludes with Steve going to live out his life with Peggy Carter and handing his iconic shield off to Sam. Some fans were hoping Bucky would be the one to take up the Captain America mantle, but the movie (and the trailers for TF&TWS ) have made it pretty clear that will be Sam’s story, and Bucky seems to approve of him taking the shield.
What Bucky doesn’t seem happy about, however, is Steve leaving the timeline. The Endgame team has said the two characters spoke to each other offscreen before Steve returned the Infinity Stones, and it is evident in the final scene that Bucky is sad about his best friend living his life elsewhere.
Of course, Sam might be sad to see Steve go too, but it likely cuts deeper for Bucky. Steve wasn’t just a friend to him; he appeared to be the only other living super-soldier he knew of, not to mention his only connection to the time period in which he grew up in. Steve and Bucky shared some unique life experiences being World War II veterans, super-soldiers, and “men out of time,” and now Bucky is going to have to come to terms with all of this - in addition to having been a brainwashed assassin for a few decades - on his own.
THE AFTERMATH OF AN ASSASSIN
There’s also the matter of Bucky’s status with the government. He spent a few years secretly living in Wakanda until the Snap, and after the Blip, he was part of a huge battle of which the events seem to be public knowledge, at least if WandaVision is any indication. His standing with the authorities could go either way at this point, so the question is whether the fact he was brainwashed into committing the crimes he did and his efforts in fighting Thanos are enough to absolve him of the punishment the United Nations had deemed suitable for him prior to his escape in Civil War .
Speaking of Civil War , Zemo is coming back in this series, and trailers have shown Bucky facing him again after all that went down between the two in that movie. The brainwashing trigger words may not work on Bucky anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgiven Zemo, or that Zemo won’t try something else to make Bucky do his bidding.
It’s possible that with U.S. Agent likely playing a role in the story, that character could be Sam’s main “rival” in the series while Zemo could be Bucky’s (besides the complicated, banter-filled relationship between the two leads themselves, of course).
DOWN THE LINE
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will likely set up quite a few things that will shape the future of the MCU. The most obvious is setting Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson up to take over as Captain America (or at least carry the shield), which will likely result in him becoming part of the next Avengers team, whenever it is formed.
The future of Sebastian Stan's Bucky, however, is much murkier. It’s hard to tell what will happen to him in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier , let alone beyond that, but it’s likely he will return for another project in the future. Therefore, he probably won’t die in the series or return to the past as Steve did (even though he arguably had more reason to do so than Steve in the first place, it’s highly unlikely Marvel is going to do that with both of its decade-displaced super-soldiers).
Bucky also has ties to Wakanda and was even given the name of the White Wolf (a hero with his own iconic suit in the Black Panther comics), but he is seemingly no longer staying there as of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and it’d be weird for Marvel to move him elsewhere for the series only to send him right back immediately afterward.
With the way the MCU is set up right now, the most likely option for Bucky would be joining the next iteration of the Avengers. With Sam seemingly being set up for that path and the series appearing to set up a friendship between the two by the end of its six episodes, this would be an easy option for Marvel to go with if they wanted to keep the duo together in the future. They could also continue to operate as a duo either in a second season of the show or another Marvel project.
Something else that seems to be on the horizon is the Thunderbolts, a team of villains working to reform their sinister ways. Zemo has been a part of this team in the comics as has Yelena Belova, a character who will be prominent in Black Widow . While Bucky seems to be cured of his Winter Soldier brainwashing, and it’s unlikely that viewers would consider him a villain outside it. He’s also been part of the team in the comics. The Thunderbolts are about redemption, and Bucky might need some of that from the public, or even himself, in order to truly heal from his haunting experiences under HYDRA.
Viewers will see what happens to Bucky Barnes and the rest of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ’s characters when the show premieres on Disney+ March 19.