Good news for all you Captain America fans, I have a new book out! It’s called Fight The Good Fight: Queer Subtext in the Captain America Films, and it’s about just that! For your consideration, please accept the first 3,000 words of the book.
Section One: The First Avenger And The Fallen Soldier
Content warnings: discussions of torture, experimentation, death, suicide, violence
“I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion—I have shuddered at it. I shudder no more—I could be martyr’d for my Religion—Love is my religion—I could die for that. I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet.”
— John Keats, from a letter to Fanny Brawne wr. c. October, 1819
Who Is Steve Rogers?
Let us go back to the beginning. Something that a lot of casual fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) get wrong about Steve Rogers is that they think he is a cop who loves to follow the rules. These people forget that he breaks the law within the first five minutes of his first film. Steve’s driving force is not the desire to bark orders, command people, or abuse his power; his driving force is the desire to do good in the world, which often means going against orders, as we will see in the next three sections.
Steve Rogers is continually characterised as someone who will not follow orders if they go against his better judgement. In fact, he rarely follows orders at all. In The First Avenger, he follows orders enough to get by in basic military training, but as soon as the orders from Colonel Phillips contradict what his heart is telling him—and his heart, as we see throughout the Captain America trilogy, is with Bucky Barnes—he disobeys. In The Winter Soldier, he lies to Alexander Pierce, the secretary of S.H.I.E.L.D., and is forced to go on the run after fighting an elevator full of armed men. In Civil War, he defies the government, King T’Challa of Wakanda, and Iron Man after he deems the Accords too tight a leash for the Avengers.
This is not a man who loves to follow orders. This is not a cop. This is a man whose continual defiance of the status quo is intrinsic to his character. This is a man who was born poor and disabled, who grew up in a rough neighbourhood, and who lost his mother, his mentor, and his best friend in the span of a few short years. This is a man who has built everything he has with pure tenacity and strength of character. This is a man who rallies against police injustice, and who knows that sometimes following orders means not being where you’re needed, as he says in Civil War. As Dr Erskine himself says in this film, Steve is “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
This is important to understand, because it is at the heart of who Steve is. The entire Captain America cinematic trilogy is built around the idea of Steve Rogers refusing to follow orders when he knows that the person giving them has an agenda that conflicts with his own moral compass. It is this moral compass that dictates everything he does—from fighting someone twice his size for being rude, to taking down an entire government organisation with only four other people, one of whom he had only met two days previously, to dropping his shield and the Captain America mantle. Everything that he does demonstrates that his moral compass is resolute and always points him in the right direction.
If you understand this, you should have a sense of who Steve Rogers really is, but the other thing that you need to understand about Steve is that he would do anything for his best friend, Bucky. What I will discuss in this book, and what I hope to give readers a better understanding of, is that Steve is positioned, at times more overtly than others, as being in love with Bucky. Steve is given two textual love interests, both of them women, but the subtextual reading I will present in this book is that he is also positioned as having male love interests. The main ones I will discuss are Sam Wilson, the Falcon, and Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. I will also discuss other queer subtext in the films, although not in as much detail.
It should be common knowledge by now that Steve Rogers lived in a neighbourhood populated by poor, queer people (thingswithwings). If you are going by either The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe or MCU canon, as thingswithwings explains, Steve grew up in a neighbourhood where he would have been exposed to queer culture from a young age, if not participated in it. There is no world in which Steve Rogers does not know about queer men, drag queens, transgender people, gay bars, drag balls, or cruising. According to George Chauncey’s Gay New York, effeminate gay men (the subset of queer male culture which he refers to as “fairies”) were “highly visible on the streets of New York” (99) in the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s, so Steve would know about these things. Although we never see where Bucky lives, in The Winter Soldier, it is implied that Bucky frequented Steve’s house enough to know where he kept his spare key. Bucky, by extension, would also have been exposed to queer culture. At one point in The First Avenger, Bucky calls Steve “punk”, which used to refer to another subset of queer male society, the “younger male in [queer] sexual relationships on the road” (Boag, 26). The difference between “fairies” and “punks” is that punks did not act effeminately. The word “fairy” as it was understood in the ‘40s signified someone who acted with feminine mannerisms, which does not fit Steve’s character.
The first time we see Steve, he is in a recruitment office, where he pleads to join the Army, despite his many health problems. He is desperate for a chance to prove himself, like his father before him, even while everyone, including Bucky, tells him that he cannot or should not fight. In the words of Peggy Carter, the whole world was telling Steve to move, but he planted himself like a tree and said, “No. You move.”
It does not take long after the recruitment office scene to get into the meat of the story. Steve wants to join the Army, but he is denied the chance. Then he joins under the mentorship of Dr. Erskine, who gives him an opportunity to prove himself. He fights, he wins, he dies. But along the way, some important things happen.
In the first scene Steve and Bucky have together, Steve is being beaten up by a bully, and Bucky comes to his rescue. This is the first time we see Bucky, and he is very different from how the comics first portray him. While Steve’s origin story is the same in both the comics and the films—grew up in a poor, gay neighbourhood in Brooklyn, joined the Army, underwent Project Rebirth, and started fighting in World War II—Bucky’s story is entirely different. Instead of being a plucky kid who meets Steve in the war, the film Bucky is based off of another character in the comics: Arnie Roth, Steve’s gay Jewish best friend, who defended him from neighbourhood bullies (Bookriot). The obvious answer as to why the writers of the films chose Bucky to be Steve’s best friend and not Arnie is so that they could bring Bucky back as the Winter Soldier. The erasure of Arnie from the The First Avenger symbolises the erasure of queer and Jewish people from a place (New York) and a time period (the early- to mid-20th century) where they were highly visible, and as a result, the film suffers.
When Bucky rescues Steve from being beaten up in the alley, he is presented as a stark contrast to Steve himself. Bucky is tall, handsome, able to finish a fight, and he is wearing his dress uniform. Steve is small, unable to beat anyone in a fight, and has a list of chronic health problems (historicallyaccuratesteve) that preclude him from being able to enlist in the Army as he so desperately wants. Bucky has been assigned to the 107th Infantry, the very same regiment that Steve wanted to be assigned to because it was the one that his father had served in.
Bucky is everything that Steve wants to be. He turns up as if out of nowhere to rescue Steve, looking dashing, calm, and collected. We do not see his face at first, perhaps foreshadowing his introduction in The Winter Soldier, or as an attempt to position him as a something of a vigilante whose identity is later unmasked, as it were. It is also interesting that in the first shot in which we see Steve, his face is covered, this time by a newspaper, not unlike the newspapers we see him in throughout the rest of the film.
Bucky also brings a levity to the first fifteen minutes of The First Avenger that Steve sorely needs. Steve is consumed by his desire to join the war, but when he expresses this to Bucky, Bucky just laughs and says, “Come on […] gotta get you cleaned up.” He takes Steve to a science fair and attempts to set him up with a date. We see Steve strike out with his date, which sets up the later line, “Women aren’t exactly lining up to dance with a guy they might step on,” and establishes Steve’s poor luck with women.
Bucky pushes back against Steve’s willingness to sign up for the war. Like Peggy and Dr. Erskine after him, Bucky is an emotional support for Steve who also serves to push against his self-sacrificing nature, and he is the first person we see doing so. He wants to spend his last night with Steve and their dates, but Steve is too caught up in his determination to join the Army to enjoy Bucky’s company.
It has been pointed out that Bucky is relegated to the typically feminine role of the caretaker (scriggle-scraggle) in this film, a role which encompasses securing Steve a date, rescuing him from the bully, and protecting him in battle. Fearlesssinger points out that what makes Bucky special, what makes him the “perfect soldier” that Dr Erskine warns Steve about, what makes him necessary to both the Winter Soldier program and to Steve as his right-hand man, is his instinct to protect. The emotional labour, or caretaking, that he performs for Steve is necessary for Steve to function in this film and in order for him to become Captain America. Since Steve’s father died early in his life, it is most likely that he learned to be the self-assured and daring man he is from both his mother, Sarah, and from Bucky.
There is constant speculation in the Captain America fandom about whether Bucky was drafted or not. Bucky’s serial number starts with a 3 (Comicbook), and according to the historical information website HardScrabble Farm, serial numbers that began with a 3 indicated that the individual had been drafted. While Bucky’s plaque at the Smithsonian exhibit in Captain America: The Winter Soldier reads that he enlisted, there is a contradiction—two conflicting birth dates, one right after the other, which indicates carelessness on behalf of the creators. If we are to believe that the writers knew the significance of serial numbers at the time they penned The First Avenger, then Bucky was drafted. He would not have willingly signed up for the Army knowing how desperately Steve wanted to fight. He would not risk dying in the mud and blood of a European battlefield. He would not leave Steve alone in New York, getting beaten up in back alleys and potentially dying of any one of his various illnesses.
This is significant because of the potential for conflict between Steve and Bucky that never actually appears. The writers could easily have used the fact that Bucky was drafted to establish a rivalry between the two friends that would have had far reaching effects in the future films, but they did not. Instead, what they built between Steve and Bucky is a tenable friendship that hits harder in the second movie because it is so pure and unmarred by jealousy. The only time their friendship is tested is in the first pub scene (yes, the infamous pub scene), which I will discuss later.
While the viewer’s first look at Bucky establishes him as Steve’s opposite, as the next few scenes elapse, we realise that he is someone that Steve needs, not just to keep him grounded, but as a friend. One of Bucky’s most famous lines, a line that is repeated by Steve in Avengers: Endgame, is, “Don’t do anything stupid ‘til I get back.” Bucky is always looking out for Steve, and we know from the first moment he appears on screen that this has always been the dynamic between them. This same dynamic continues to be played out throughout the rest of the movie in scenes where Bucky fights alongside Steve in the war, at one point picking up Captain America’s shield to fight armoured soldiers on the train that he falls from.
Bucky’s dialogue throughout much of the film is laden with meaning that can easily be interpreted as queer. He comments on Steve’s appearance, tells him that he’s “about to be the last eligible man in New York,” is ecstatic to introduce Steve to his date, and replies to Steve’s questions about what Bucky told Steve’s date with “only the good stuff.” Bucky could write a book about the good stuff that makes up Steve Rogers. Bucky could write this book. Bucky wears his dress uniform, despite how Steve reacts badly to it, because, as shown in every Captain America film, Bucky’s mental health is represented by his physical appearance, and as also shown in Avengers: Infinity War, Bucky wants to impress Steve by taking care of his physical appearance.
Steve shrugs him off and they argue about Steve trying to join the Army. The differences between them are already stark: first with their appearances, then with their demeanour, and now with this. Steve wants to fight and Bucky wants Steve to be safe. Steve gets what he wants, but Bucky, in what will become a longstanding tradition, does not. When he realises that he cannot win Steve over, Bucky’s storyline is paused, he exits from the scene, and he does not appear again until well into the film. His eventual capture leads Steve to become the Captain America we know and love. Here, the aim of the scene itself is to establish Bucky as someone who is always on Steve’s side, despite their disagreements.
Their argument does not last long, but Bucky says something that gets to the heart of who Steve is at this moment. Steve says, “This is not about me,”—“this” being enlisting in the Army to fight overseas—to which Bucky responds, “Right. ‘Cause you got nothing to prove.” Bucky knows Steve better than anyone else in his life. Bucky knows Steve better than anyone else in the universe. Even when Bucky’s seventy years of brainwashing at the hands of Hydra makes him forget who Steve is, he still knows him. That’s why he’s the best asset to take Steve down—which I will expand on in the next chapter. In this scene, Bucky proves that, as he says in the comics, “Sometimes I think if you did not have me, there wouldn’t be a single person in the world who really understood you” (Marvel Database). Dr Erskine understands Steve, as do Peggy Carter and Howard Stark, but no one knows him like Bucky does. “Best friends on schoolyard and battlefield,” as the voiceover in The Winter Soldier Smithsonian scene proclaims.
Because of Bucky’s entrance into the second film as the titular Winter Soldier, and his subsequent storylines—or lack thereof—in the rest of the MCU, it is easy to forget that he was once a nerd who enjoyed science fairs and dancing, and who wanted to spend his last night on American soil with his best friend. It is also easy to forget, after Steve dive-bombs into the ice, that he was happy, once. Steve may not have been happy with his lot in life before he underwent Project Rebirth, but once he joins the war, once he rescues Bucky, once he starts killing Nazis and captains his own team, you can see on his face that he is genuinely happy.
Their stories run parallel but are reversed, in that Bucky loses all sense of himself and his place in the world once he and Steve are reunited, a theme that is extended into The Winter Soldier. After he shouts, “Let’s hear it for Captain America!” we can see how distraught he is; emotionally, psychologically, and physically weakened, Bucky is unsure of his place in the world now that Steve does not need him to fight his battles. When Bucky says, “That little guy from Brooklyn […] I’m following him,” it does not just remind Steve of who he is and where he came from, it also reminds Bucky of who he is in relation to Steve: a friend, a confidant, one of the most important people in Steve’s life. It is clear in the scene before Steve enlists in the Army that Bucky cares for him a great deal, as he would not fight with Steve otherwise.