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Captain America has been throwing his mighty shield for 70 years and his sidekick, James “Bucky” Barnes, was right there at his side in that first comic book adventure in March 1941. The star-spangled hero’s junior partner is also making the leap to the silver screen this summer in “Captain America: The First Avenger” but don’t expect the grinning teenager from the vintage wartime comics — this won’t be your grandfather’s idea of a superhero sidekick, according to director Joe Johnston.
On Sunday, viewers of the Super Bowl will get their first real look at actor Chris Evans in action as Captain America with the airing of the initial television commercial for the July 22 film — and the ad also offers a glimpse of actor Sebastian Stan (“Gossip Girl,” “Kings”) as Bucky, but this version is more “Band of Brothers” than he is boy wonder.
“Sebastian brought something really interesting and slightly on the dark side and really compelling to watch — when he’s on camera, you’re fascinated by watching him,” Johnston said. “In a great cast, I thought he really stood out and brought some unexpected things to the role. Everyone brought something to the movie and a lot of them brought something great but I was most pleasantly surprised by what Chris brought and what Sebasatian brought in a much smaller role as Bucky.”
I stopped Johnston and asked him to back up a bit — a dark side to Bucky? That’s not what most fans think of when they reflect on the traditional portrayal of the character during his wartime-era adventures. “Yeah, that’s true, but Sebastian has a dark, slightly quirky side to him — and that’s the case when he’s in character or not — and he brought that to this movie. ”
“You know, he was originally up for the lead, for the Steve Rogers role, but he didn’t have quite the same earnest, I-want-to-fight-for-my-country aura that Chris has for this role. Sebastian has a little bit of the bad boy, he’s a little bit of the James Dean type and that goes somewhat counter to the general perception of Steve Rogers. He wasn’t quite right for Captain America, but I think he’s perfect for Bucky because, really, he can have a little bit of that dark side.”
Viewing Bucky as a blank slate gave the writing team — Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Joss Whedon – and Johnston a chance to tilt the tone and texture of the partnership between Captain America and Bucky. In the the late 1930s and early 1940s, comic book sidekicks such as Robin the Boy Wonder, Captain Marvel Jr., Toro, Speedy and Wing were a familiar gimmick of the publishing sector and viewed as a way for young readers to imagine themselves fighting alongside their favorite masked men. In the comics, Bucky’s biography has changed through the years but the familiar back story presented him as the 15-year-old orphaned son of a soldier who is the unofficial mascot of U.S. Army Camp Lehigh. When the boy accidentally discovers that a clumsy private named Steve Rogers is secretly Captain America, he dons his own costume to join the hero in battle against Nazis and other enemies of America.
None of that would fly well with 2011 audiences, Johnston says, so the character has been retro-fitted by the Hollywood factory.
“We took some liberties with the relationship between the two guys,” Johnston said. “In our story, Bucky is already in the service, he’s already joined up and is being sent overseas while Steve is still struggling to get in the army. That’s different than what you may have read in the comics. It adds a nuance to the relationship that pays off later. They’re closer in age, too — they’re virtually the same age. That’s not the case at all if you go back to the old comics.”
In the film, both Rogers and Barnes are orphans and grow up almost as brothers. Rogers is too sickly to enlist in the service and instead he volunteers for a dangerous and secret experiment that might make him the first of an army of super-soldiers. That fact changes the physics of his friendship with Bucky, and the movie jettisons the hero’s almost paternal treatment of Bucky. This version of Bucky Barnes is less wise-cracking and more of a crack shot with his service rifle.
“In the comics, he’s like Robin is to Batman,” Johnston said, “but this is not that at all.”
In the pages of Marvel Comics, the adult-age Bucky has been a far more complicated figure, especially over the last decade and in the hands of writer Ed Brubaker. A new chapter was added to his history — he survived World War II but after a major memory loss was programmed to become a brutal Soviet operative called the Winter Soldier — and then he dons Captain America’s costume when Rogers is assassinated. Will any of those elements play out in the future films being guided by Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige? Time will tell.
This much is clear: Bucky won’t be in mascot mode when he gets his first Hollywood close-up. “Our Bucky isn’t a sidekick and there’s a darker edge. This is a much more interesting relationship.”
— Geoff Boucher
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