TV + Movies

Marvel’s Captain America: A True Masterclass In Queerbaiting

Disclaimer: This essay is highly opinionated, if you’re easily offended by people shipping two fictional characters of the same gender, then skip this one buddy, this isn’t for you.

Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes do not need any introduction. Even for people with no knowledge of Marvel movies, Captain America and the Winter Soldier are names that we have seen floating around on every fandom website ever; in fact, these two figures are almost always in the top 10 list of most shipped pairs on Tumblr and several fanfiction sites. Portrayed by the hunkiest of hunks, Chris Evans, and the ever so sultry Sebastian Stan, Steve and Bucky’s relationship has been a point of major controversial discourse in the Marvel fandom ever since the first Captain America film dropped in 2011. It’s only increased tenfold after Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released back in 2014.

The quarrel is about whether the super-soldiers are just two lads being dudebro pals together or if there is definite homoerotic tension brewing between the two. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the Captain America fandom is straight men who are seemingly incapable of understanding queercodes, and most likely err on the side of being very homophobic. The other side consists of queer folk and some straight women, who possess the power to understand complex emotions. It goes without saying that I clearly belong to the latter side. And before anyone says, “Oh this is just another one of those UwU girls who loves to ship two guys who are friendly with each other,” or that I “want to do away with toxic masculinity but won’t let male friends be close with each other,” I’m here to confirm that this is not one of those situations. I am viewing this relationship solely under the light of tragic romance tropes as a queer, aspiring writer. Let’s begin.

A very noticeable aspect of every Captain America movie is Steve going out of his way to choose Bucky: be it disobeying direct orders from his Colonel and marching straight to the enemy’s base to rescue Bucky back in WWII, or throwing away his shield – the symbol of his power and everything he stands for – and backing away from a combat for the first time in his life because Bucky was the one he had to fight, or becoming a fugitive and enemy of over 117 countries for Bucky, all the while fighting his Avengers team to protect him. Sure, there were other motives at play, but it’d be remiss to say Bucky wasn’t at the centre of it all. And as for Mr. Brainwashed-Soldier-Turned-Assassin, it took Steve calling out his real name once for him to break away from 70 years’ worth of brainwashing, manipulation and torture. Just a mere, “I’m with you till the end of the line” for the Winter Soldier to remember everything he’d once known. (Needless to say, it is only because of Sebastian Stan’s acting prowess that a neglected and underutilised character came to life the way it did.)

Steve & Bucky’s relationship is reminiscent of Achilles and Patroclus, and even Alexander the Great and Hephaestion – a tale of two tragic lovers separated by the violence of wars and the eventual pain of death. Another commonality between these pairs is the erasure of their queerness by straight, male historians who omitted every bit of intentional homoeroticism from their stories, only to name them ‘best pals <3’. So, straight men now doing the same for Bucky and Steve is par for the course, really. Keep in mind that none of these discussions undermine the pre-existing friendship between them AND the relationship Steve had with Peggy Carter (possible bi icon, anyone?). But saying that it is just that, a friendship, is a very limiting way of perceiving fictional stories.

However, these quarrels did not deter the Steve-Bucky fandom from biting down on their opinions and holding themselves back from expressing their feelings towards the two characters. Actors Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan have only added more fuel to the fire by constantly calling the other’s character their character’s soulmate, implying a few times that it’s a love story wrought with pain (in reference to their arcs in Captain America: Civil War), and that Steve would choose Bucky over everything he’s built over and over again without question. It is evident that even the actors do not shy away from discussing the status of their characters’ relationship. That further indicates that there is a level of queercoding that they perhaps have added themselves, allowing for more nuance in their portrayal and strengthening our belief that Steve and Bucky are definitely more than friends. It’s a relationship so nuanced, it doesn’t require an ‘I love you’ to seal the deal; one may even argue that the dialogue, “I’m with you till the end of the line” is a declaration of love and a vow wrapped together in one heart-wrenching gut punch.

Unfortunately, the conclusion to Marvel’s Infinity Saga, Avengers: Endgame, left Steve-Bucky fans with a sour taste in the mouth. By having Captain America go back in time to live out his life with the woman he knew for a little while (a woman who had already lived her life happily without him and wished for him to move on and be happy as well), the Steve-Bucky endgame came to, at least, a cinematic close. That particular move feels not only like a supremely out of character thing for Steve Rogers to do, but also like a last-minute, scrambling attempt at a ‘no-homo’ cop out to ensure the sanctity of their beloved Captain’s straightness. Many fans of the movie have tried to justify this move by explaining (rather ‘straightsplaining’, if I may say so myself) that Steve’s decision is rooted in self-motivation, and that it is a very nicely tied bow at the end of his arc. It’s him allowing himself the chance to live out his life like he wanted.

My counter argument to this is simple: Steve, a self-sacrificial, moralistic character, continuously made that same decision every time he chose Bucky. His entire arc revolved around either helping, saving or protecting Bucky, and this isn’t even me reading too much into this stuff. That’s literally the whole plot of the Captain America trilogy! Not to mention that Avengers: Endgame was a massive disappointment when it came to actual scriptwriting and execution – finishing off arcs for shock value and hype and completely disregarding the pre-existing storylines. But, that’s a whole different conversation. There is just something extremely insidious about going back in time to marry a woman who lived out her whole life happily, complete with a loving husband and children, AND whose niece you kissed the same year she died a fulfilled, old woman.

But, I guess that’s how straight sells, because why else would they be willing to support this nonsensical way to end one of the most beloved superhero’s story, right?

My point is, that the Steve I’d come to love would never abandon his soulmate when his soulmate had finally and fully come back into his life. Even if you think they’re friends, no friend would work so hard for decades to protect his truest friend – only to skedaddle back to the 40s and leave that friend hopeless and lost. “I’m with you till the end of line, pal. Unless I can go back in time. Then I will leave. And dance with a happily married woman. Haha no homo. Lol okay bye <3”

The question has to be asked, what was the point then? What was the whole point of all the homoerotic subtext if they knew they were going to end Steve and Bucky’s arc in the most ‘no-homo’ bro-i-est way possible?

My guess is, pressure from the higher ups. Disney bought Marvel Studios back in 2009. So, this cop out comes as no shock to us devoted fans, because we’re aware of Disney’s tendency to be “lowkey” homophobic and highkey problematic. We’re fully aware that when it comes to queercoding characters, there’s tonnes of material. But, when it comes to providing enough evidence or dialogue to confirm their sexualities, zilch. Be it the animated movies or be it Marvel, Disney has always had a peculiar way of queerbaiting its audience. A not-so-fun-fact: Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler, who are amongst Marvel’s first few directors of colour, were made to cut out scenes where they had implied romantic relationships between women in their respective movies. Truly, it does not seem very out of character for Disney executives to make sure that the star of their franchise, Captain freaking America, does not come off as queer. Because God forbid the poster boy for American ideals be anything but straight. They’re okay with borderline incest, but two men in love is where they draw the line. As American as it gets, baby!

People like me never expected anything more than a simple acknowledgment of their love, we never expected Chris and Sebastian to have a full make-out session in their tight, superhero costumes. Even we were painfully aware that they would never allow their Captain and the fierce assassin to be queer. But my question is exactly that; why is it that young queer folk have to settle for mere crumbs in the name of representation? Why are we not allowed to envision a queer Captain America? He’s not even a real person, so why do we expect him and other superheroes to be inherently straight? People who question this binary are mocked and ridiculed with “nOt EvErY pErsOn iN a MoVie Is gOiNg tO bE gaY!!” Yes, but then why are they all straight? Every single time. In every movie or show. “wHaT aBoUt EuPhOrIa AnD MoOnLIgHt?” Beautifully crafted, but that does not mean homophobia in Hollywood is over.

Regardless of how anti-racist these studios seem and claim to be, it took Marvel several years to start producing shows and films that centre around superheroes of different races: Black Panther, Shang-Chi, Ms Marvel, Moon-Knight. Tessa Thompson’s character, Brunhilde (Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok) is now canonically bisexual, becoming the first LGBTQ+ character in the MCU, but only after repeated allusions to such by Tessa Thompson. Imagine… this happened only in 2019. It took a film studio as far-reaching and impactful as Marvel Studios 10 years to start caring about race and sexuality. It’s a start, but it is surely not enough. This endeavour does not rectify their past mistakes, but rather only displays their negligence when it comes to dealing with queercoded characters. Marvel needs to buck up and enrich their stories with openly queer characters of diverse backgrounds.

I don’t care what people say, Steve and Bucky are together and in love. This sentiment is Sebastian-Stan-approved.

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Srishti is a brown, bisexual mess of anxiety and nerves. Her train of thoughts travel at crazy speeds, cross crossing each other, never staying put. She believes in the power of self expression and introspection, which are her two main motives to write. Srishti is currently an undergraduate English literature student at SGTB Khalsa College, Delhi University. She aims to write for big production houses and impact millions of lives just like her idols and inspirations do, but impacting even a handful of lives would be a good start.
Srishti Berry

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