The Winter Soldier faces off against Spider-Man in Thunderbolts #5, and frankly, it’s all very, very upsetting.
Marvel’s All New, All Different reboot included the return of Thunderbolts, the World’s Most Questionable Heroes. Originating as an undercover team of criminals just posing as superheroes, the Thunderbolts discovered that doing good actually felt pretty good, and made the transition to actual hero status — mostly. This new iteration of Thunderbolts, penned by Jim Zub, features core players from that original lineup, on the run from a rather corrupt S.H.I.E.L.D. and led by Bucky Barnes, who kind of — let’s not sugar-coat it — got stuck with them on his mission to protect a Kobik, sentient cosmic cube living as a little girl.
Previously, in ‘Thunderbolts’…
In case you missed our prior recaps — Bucky got saddled with the Thunderbolts, who escaped from the Pleasant Hill prison, when he went on the run with Kobik at the end of Avengers: Standoff. The Thunderbolts have been monitoring S.H.I.E.L.D. and secretly undertaking missions left to Bucky by Nick Fury as “the man on the wall” – protecting Earth from intergalactic threats – but one such mission, where they’re forced to fight some of the the Inhuman royal family, puts them — and Kobik — back on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar.
Things Bucky knows: Kobik, a child whose power has been used for corrupt practices beyond her understanding, is an innocent to be protected at all costs. Steve Rogers also must be trusted and protected at all costs. Things Bucky doesn’t know: that Kobik was raised and conditioned by the Red Skull, that Kobik re-wrote Steve’s reality to make him a lifelong Hydra loyalist, and that Kobik’s been blocking his and Steve’s phone calls. Another thing Bucky knows: Mach-X was not a prisoner at Pleasant Hill, he was a guard, but all of other T-bolts assume he’s “one of them” . Another thing Bucky doesn’t know: Fixer and Moonstone are plotting against him and plan to either kill or control Kobik themselves.
After the Thunderbolts are attacked at their base by the Squadron Supreme, Kobik saves her friends and shows off her unfathomable power by transporting their entire base away – to the North Pole! So far, their off-the-grid lifestyle has meant that this team hasn’t felt the ripples caused by the events of Civil War II – until now.
A simple mission. A single target.
As he tidies up after his ridiculous foster-daughter and revels in the peace and quiet of the Arctic circle, Bucky reflects on his attempts to cat-herd his haphazard team on their thankless tasks and keep all the plates spinning in his life. Just as he’s making a plan to pat some heads and raise some spirits by he’s distracted by a S.H.I.E.L.D. call that the Thunderbolts base taps into. By listening in on this call, Bucky hears about the events we just read about in Civil War II, in which the Inhuman Ulysses projects a vision of Steve Rogers, apparently killed by the young Spider-Man Miles Morales.
We also learn what transpired directly after the end of Civil War II #5 – despite Carol immediately trying to place Miles under arrest, the Avengers argued over the point and eventually – Steve included – agreed to let him go free, due to lack of legislation on this whole “predictive justice” thing. Bucky is furious, horrified, and pretty much having a panic attack – you can practically see the mental gears screaming NOBADWRONGBADNONONO, and he immediately decides to take it upon himself and stop Miles.
One may pause at this point and wonder: has Bucky put any thought, at all, into what side he’d be on in this whole determinism vs. free will debate, or what he might believe about the accuracy of Ulysses’ power? Nahhhh son. All he sees is a potential threat to Steve, and the idea of Steve’s untimely murder occurring — just like in the first Civil War – due to his “do the right thing” ideals. So, without applying any research, preparation, self-preservation or logic outside of “PROTECT STEVE ROGERS AT ALL COSTS” – that’s our Bucky, alright – he commandeers the Thunderbolts jet and sets out alone to take down Miles Morales.
Settling into this role — tracking a target, Bucky the lone assassin, Bucky the sniper — causes a lot of uncomfortable feelings to resurface. Memories of Natasha (who currently has no memory of their former relationship) loving him when he’s like this, and conflict over how right this kind of work feels to him. Zub’s Bucky — as all Buckys should be, frankly – is still stuck in a place where operating as the Winter Soldier both feels intrinsically true to himself and simultaneously horrifies him, that this is what’s most real. He shakes himself out of any moral conundrums by reminding himself that he’s doing all this for Steve, and for Steve, anything’s worth it.
As he sets his rifle scope on Miles, it’s revealed that Bucky is merely planning to tranq Miles and lock him up, as opposed to straight-up kill him. I’m a little surprised — in a good way, because I never want bae’s morals questioned and this Civil War II conflict has already spilled enough innocent Avenger blood. Yeah, Bucky’s been trying to teach the Thunderbolts the importance of non-lethal combat and all, but this is a Steve issue, and this is a kid who spent WWII — as a teenager — doing wetwork to protect Captain America’s image, so taking out one little Spider-Man to protect Captain America’s actual life doesn’t seem to be something that he’d blink at. And yet. Personal growth, y’all.
Before Bucky fires, Miles clocks him, and a fight between them on the rooftops of New York City ensues, during which Bucky reflects — better late than never, buddy — that he might have been a little bit unprepared. Over the course of the fight, Miles learns that this unexpected ambush is due to Bucky attempting to protect Steve, and Bucky learns that his Winter Soldier muscle memory and killer instincts will never truly dissipate — when his training takes over, he has to actively restrain himself from killing Miles.
Of course, right as we get a cherished WWII flashback panel, the fight is interrupted by the higher authorities — a S.H.I.E.L.D. jet ordering Bucky to stand down. As his inner Soldat and his desperation to preserve Steve’s safety wars with his fight or flight mechanism, he’s violently overpowered and blacks out. Fade back in on a brutal sight — Bucky in custody, forced into submission on his knees and held captive by an iron collar.
Despite having very little Bucky and Kobik — an adorable dynamic which I live for — this is probably the best issue of Thunderbolts to date, at least if you’re Bucky Barnes trash, which, hi. Zub writes Bucky’s inner thoughts with a care and sensitivity that exhibits true understanding of why people are drawn to this character. This is a Bucky that feels connected to his past, where his self-hatred and his dark history — always a factor, but not deeply touched upon in this series before now — informs his personality and actions.
Bucky Barnes, despite looking like a sad, grumpy trash hobo, is a control freak with very high standards – one of those people who really, really wants things to be a certain way at all times, and doesn’t really trust anyone except himself to make it so. He’s not really a natural leader, but he falls into the category of people who’ll take the wheel with a heavy sigh when it looks like no one else is gonna drive the damn car — even if he doesn’t feel all that qualified. He’s the living embodiment of “if you want a job done right, do it yourself” but he’s still learning to play well with others.
He’s trying so hard, in all areas, and juggling so much – in this issue he refers to his life with the Thunderbolts as “a messy room I can’t keep organized,” a sentiment I just love — but when faced with news like this, everything falls to the wayside and he reverts to factory settings: ride-or-die for Steve Rogers above all else, including rational decision-making. Steve is the only person in the world he truly trusts, the only unconditional love he’s ever known — so what the hell is going to happen if he finds out that Steve isn’t what he seems?
Again, Thunderbolts’ stand-out letters page showcases a creative team who truly gets their readers, and shows off the wide range of demographics picking up this book. Cover art for future issues promises that Steve will face Bucky in captivity once more — and Zub’s jokey responses to fans promise “gut-wrenching” scenes between the super-soldier soulmates. Steve and Bucky’s bond has withstood a LOT, but what’s got me most worried is how Steve feels about him now — is every relationship an act? His love for Sharon doesn’t seem to be — so are Steve and Bucky still Steve and Bucky despite the giant octopus in the room? Or will Hydra!Steve be ruthless with Bucky in a way we might not like very much? And by “might not like very much” I of course mean “might require therapy to deal with.”
Alanna Smith, I’m sending you the bill. I know this is your fault.
Next month, in Thunderbolts #6, we get a slight reprieve from the constant trauma of Bucky’s life — back in the base, our favorite bromantical duo Atlas and Mach-X risk life and limb for what really, truly matters: beer.
With security agencies and super-hero teams around the world the world gunning for the Thunderbolts, MACH-X and ATLAS will risk it all for what they believe in. You won’t soon forget this story of friendship and foolishness we call…“The Beer Run.”
Presumably this goes down in the interim, rather than the guys prioritizing their rescue of beer over their rescue of Bucky. But hey, it’s Thunderbolts – you never know.
Thunderbolts #6 will be released on Wednesday, October 12.