How the Steve Rogers & Bucky Barnes Bromance Defined the MCU

How the Steve Rogers & Bucky Barnes Bromance Defined the MCU

16 min read

You should know up front that I am a huge Bucky Barnes apologist.

I can't really explain why. I did grow up during the height of grunge, and thus recognize the wounded psyche masked by a 'don't cross me' outer shell. I was afraid of those kids, who we dubbed the trench coat mafia.1 Or maybe I just have an affection for broken things clumsily stitched back together. It takes one to know one.

This whole piece might just be some thinly-veiled Bucky propaganda. Even I can't say for sure. That's how deep these waters run. If you start reading code words from a Soviet-era manual, I might lose control and do something really crazy, like rewatch The Rise of Skywalker. My hand is twitching just from the thought.

The least I could do is give you a heads-up. "Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?"

In a very real sense, the Captain America trilogy is Bucky's trilogy, too.

Their relationship is the central through-line. Think about that for a second. It's totally true.

We're going to put aside The First Avenger because it's an origin story with very specific objectives (introduce Steve, embiggen Steve, freeze Steve, thaw Steve). The second and third films are where the overarching theme emerges—both The Winter Soldier and Civil War are about Steve saving Bucky. (Those are also two of the best MCU films, by the way. I'm not saying there's a correlation, but there might be.)

There have been love stories with less single-minded pursuit. I honestly wouldn't have been shocked if Civil War had ended with Steve telling Bucky, "It still isn't over," while they got drenched by a monsoon. In a strictly platonic sense, of course.

Bucky is the closest thing Steve has to family even before he falls out of the 1940s and ends up in modern day America. He's far more than just a surrogate brother—he's Steve's last piece of home. In a very real sense, Bucky is home.

Little wonder Steve is so desperate not to let him go. And the lengths he's willing to go to keep Bucky safe, a list that includes breaking the law, beating up some poor German SWAT officers, fighting the Avengers, and making out with Peggy's niece.2 I would like to remind you that Steve Rogers is supposed to be the epitome of truth and justice. You can argue about the purity of standing by a troubled friend, but there's clearly some vigilantism going on here. Americans don't like being told what to do, so maybe the guy wearing the Stars and Stripes is just being the embodiment of that ideal.

Point being: Steve does some pretty shady stuff for Bucky. Which is why their bromance reigns over every other MCU relationship—as anyone who has ever been in a committed relationship knows, actions speak louder than words. Steve even lies for Bucky by hiding the truth about who killed Tony's parents. It's a lie of omission, but still. The bloom is way off the rose. Steve Rogers isn't the perfect dude we'd always taken him for. He's just the perfect specimen.

This bromance is at the heart of the Infinity Saga. We're going to delve into that, but first I want to spend a few minutes looking at the other MCU relationships.

By the way, there are gonna be a ton of spoilers up in this piece. Hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husbands because we're spoiling everybody out here.

What about my favorite MCU pairing?

I'm sure there are objections bubbling up even as we speak. That's the nature of this sort of thing. One person's favorite 100-year-old brained-washed reluctant Soviet assassin who might still break bad because the PTSD is hella bad is another person's borderline villain.

If there's one thing the MCU has consistently excelled at, it's making us care about the characters and their relationships. That's part of Marvel's core DNA going back to the comics. Stan Lee's "make mine Marvel" catchphrase was more than just a clever tagline—it was a declaration that Marvel comics were somehow different from the norm. That difference was in how their stories humanized super-humans.

Like a lawyer on a melodramatic TV show, I shall now make an elaborate argument with a lot of gestures and the sudden raising of my voice to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Steve Rogers and James "Bucky" Buchanan Barnes have the best relationship and the one that most impacts the MCU. Picture me as a youngish Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. I guess that makes you Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, or Kevin Pollak? Heck, you can be a salty Jack Nicholson brimming with 'don't you dare question my authority' energy, if you want.


Let's briefly run down the list of the other notable relationships.

Exhibit A: Tony and Rhodey

rhodey don cheadle iron man robert downey jr.
Marvel Studios

Starting with the obvious comparison.

Tony and Rhodey are the other MCU BFFs of note. (Somewhere, Peter Parker and Ned stans are losing their minds.) And on a surface level, Tony and Rhodey seem to be mirror versions of Steve and Bucky: a charming, alpha male superhero and his sidekick. Batmans and Robins. But Rhodey just isn't that important to Tony or the MCU.

Rhodey is Tony's lesser half. He can do everything Tony can, just less impressively. Bucky also operates as a shadow facsimile of Steve, but the two are on-par, power-wise. Meanwhile, Rhodey is flying around in a dated Mark II suit pimped out with Hammer Tech. (For comparison, Tony rocks a Mark XLVI in Civil War.)

We're told Tony and Rhodey are good friends, but never really shown why they're friends, and thus, why we should care. Tony Stank is probably their best moment?

OPPOSING LAWYER (WHO LOOKS LIKE AGENT COULSON): "Objection, your honor! He's leading the witness."

JUDGE (WHO LOOKS LIKE STAN LEE): "Sustained. Strike that last statement from the record, the one about Tony Stank."

Apologies, Your Honor. I would submit that the Tony Stank moment is one of the most memorable scenes with Tony and Rhodey, and that it comes at the end of a film about Steve and Bucky.

JUDGE LEE (nodding): "I'll allow it."

Exhibit B: Tony and Pepper

pepper potts gwyneth paltrow tony stark ring happy
Marvel Studios

I'd put Tony and Pepper up against any other romantic couple in the MCU. Their relationship has an 'against all odds' underdog quality that is endlessly appealing. It also gets the most screen time. Audiences are invested. We want them to end up together.

However. It's interesting that the most important parts of their relationship occur entirely off-screen. We find out at the beginning of Civil War that Tony and Pepper are on the outs. Tony takes the blame—and, to be fair, I'm sure he deserved it—but we only see the fallout secondhand. Their reconciliation happens between films. Their wedding occurs sometime during Endgame's ominous 5 YEARS LATER.

All of this is objectively fine. These are comic book movies, not romcoms or dramas. But how can you truly measure the depth of a relationship if you aren't privy to its most meaningful moments?

Meanwhile, we see the entire arc of Bucky and Steve's relationship. Just saying.

Exhibit C: Tony and Peter

tony stark robert downey jr. peter parker tom holland
Marvel Studios

Perhaps it's my inherent daddy issues, but this is probably my favorite MCU relationship.

With Peter, we get a side of Tony we don't see anywhere else. At his core, Tony remains a charming douche, but Peter unlocks this paternal instinct we don't see any other time. And it's super endearing? I wouldn't want Tony as my mentor, but I really enjoy watching him mentor somebody else.

Apart from sheer entertainment value, their relationship offers Tony a redemptive path. Tony's whole deal is that he somehow makes everything worse. Peter gives him a second chance at being a better man.

And, much like Steve and Bucky, this relationship springboards developments that resonate through the entire MCU. Tony's shadow looms over all the Spider-Man movies. And it's his guilt over Peter's death that convinces Tony to invent time travel. (If you ever doubted the ridiculousness of superhero films, re-read that last sentence.)

I'd argue theirs is the second-most impactful relationship in the MCU.

Exhibit D: Thor and Jane

Jane natalie portman thor chris hemsworth smiling
Marvel Studios

If this was a beauty contest, Thor and Jane sweep the field. But as a relationship, they're a hot mess.

LAWYER COULSON: "Objection!"

JUDGE LEE: "On what grounds?"

LAWYER COULSON: "Relevance. What relationship isn't a little messy? I think he's just jealous because Thor and Jane are both smoking hot."

JUDGE LEE (fanning himself): "Overruled."

I just don't buy Thor and Jane as a couple. Somehow, Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman have zero chemistry. Thor is more attracted to Mjolnir.4

They break up off-camera between Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok, and then kind of get back together during Thor: Love and Thunder? That's a legitimate question. I could only stomach sitting through Love and Thunder the one time and don't remember how their relationship shakes out. My only clear memories are screaming goats, fat Russell Crowe, an absolutely yolked Jane Foster, and Thor's naked butt.

I wish I could explain why that last one stuck in my brain.

Let's move on.