With four words (“but he’s my friend”), the “Captain America: Civil War” trailer set itself apart from previous Marvel movies. This isn’t a trailer built on major explosions and even more major stunts; it’s built on relationships. There’s Falcon’s devotion to Captain America’s cause, the new strain on the bond between Black Widow and Cap, Iron Man’s hurt feelings (dude, how do you define friendship?) and — of course — the friendship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, a friendship that spans decades and a Dairy Queen’s worth of deep-freezes.
And that’s what it is — a friendship.
I don’t mean to sink ships here, because it should come as no surprise that plenty of people have boarded the good ship #Stucky with plenty of romantic baggage in tow. A lot of people watched that trailer and came away with plenty of material for fanfic romance GIF sets; it is all right there. But, and this is where I put on my Captain Opinion cap, the friendship between Steve Rogers and James “Bucky” Barnes is vastly more interesting — and possibly more important — than a romance between them. Yeah, I said it!
But to get my many biases out of the way up front, I don’t get shipping. I mean, I get it (I am on Tumblr) but it’s just not the way I interact with media. Romance and the possibility of boning rarely — more like never — factor into my decision to watch a thing. I came away from the “Civil War” trailer way more stoked about seeing Black Panther in action (and concerned for Black Widow, because if anyone would not trust a government with super-people, it’s her) than anything coming close to feels for a gay subtext-that-will-never-become-text. I don’t get it!
But it’s not like I’m immune to the thrall of romance and/or hot men. I love weddings, I love wedding-themed sitcom episodes and comics, and I have a few relationships that I’ve become invested in (look up “Han/Leia,” “Coach/Tami” and “Peggy/Stan”). And geez, I don’t shut up about hot men — a fact that’s apparent if you look at my social media imprint during the week Nick Offerman played a gay doctor on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” So if I’m down for romance and I’m, as a gay man, also underserved when it comes to same-sex hook-ups in fiction, why am I so opposed to reading between the lines with Steve and Bucky?
It’s not canonical.
Yep, as progressive as I am and strive to be, I can sometimes find it really hard to ignore or edit or alter established canon — and I think that right there is a major road block to me ever caring about ships. That’s because most ships I see aren’t canon, and Steve/Bucky is one such non-canonical ship. In the comics, Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are straight. I mean, also in the original comics, any shipping between the two of them takes on the added age factor ickiness. The movie versions of both characters are either demonstrably or assumed straight, too, and man oh man have there been no signs of Marvel Studios being okay with altering sexual orientations for their feature film characters. There have been a grand total of zero queer characters in Marvel’s movies, so assuming that they would make that leap with Captain America and Winter Soldier is hilarious. With Marvel Studios’ track record, we’re not going to get a queer superhero until they adapt a canonically queer superhero from the comics; Cap and Bucky ain’t them — at least not until Marvel Comics publishes a massive retcon or two.
This may just be missing something fundamental to the shipping experience, but what’s the point of it if that ship will never be explored canonically? Where’s the pleasure in consuming media through numerous layers of purposeful self-deception? I mean, yes, we are living in a post-Korra/Asami world, where “Legend of Korra” made a queer ship canon in its finale episode, but I still see Steve and Bucky as being fundamentally different because they are adaptations of straight characters with 75 years of canon being produced by a studio that’s shown zero interest in queer representation in film.
It reads like I’m playing Battleship with ships right now, I know, so I want to stress that everyone is free to interact with all media in any way they choose. Just because I don’t get it or that particular type of interaction leaves me doing a shoulder shrug doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. I don’t tend to break established canon and romance-in-fiction is way low on my list of interests. So here’s why I think Steve and Bucky’s relationship matters, and here’s what I get out of it.
Nuanced, emotionally open and intimate yet platonic friendships between men are rarely depicted in fiction. Steve and Bucky’s friendship, one that forms a through line through three movies and gets way more screentime than romantic relationships is rare. Two straight males, two straight super males, being depicted as emotionally aware individuals grappling with actual feelings instead of grunting and avoiding them is wildly more important to me than kissing. And yeah, kissing’s great. And yeah, I know, it would be ridiculously important to see two male superheroes in romantic love too — but, unless Kevin Feige and company have a humdinger of a progressive curveball to throw, that’s not Steve and Bucky’s story. What Steve and Bucky’s story is is of two men that love each other — in a way that doesn’t involve sexy times.
The idea that all fictional relationships have to end in candlelit dinners, Boyz II Men jams and rose petals is preposterous. The fact that “ship” is strictly reserved for romantic/sexual pairings and pretty much excludes “friendship” is also a bummer. Over and over again, fiction tells us that romantic love is all that matters and that all relationships between lead characters have to end with a grand declaration, possibly involving a ring. And when it comes to male friends, well, they bond over brewskis but cut the chatter short if anyone starts getting too weepy. If men show their emotions, it’s comical because that’s counter to how men are perceived. Males have been trapped in emotionless, no homo man-caves forever. I want to see men have rich and resonant friendships.
I have to give it up to Marvel’s Netflix shows, both of which have centered around ridiculously deep same-sex, platonic friendships. “Daredevil” brought Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson (Marvel’s best BFF’s as far as I’m concerned) to life, making it the most important relationship in the first season. “Jessica Jones” did the same for Jones and Trish Walker, whose story arc I want to talk about in-depth but, you know, we’re still in spoiler territory with that recently released show.
Same-sex friendships should exist separately from same-sex romantic relationships. But, since we get oh so very little gay anything, audiences load these committed friendships with sexy sexy subtext. Imagine if the Marvel movies had swapped out “Ant-Man” in Phase Two for a movie starring Hercules — to clarify, bisexual Hercules. And imagine if he (“he” being the hunky Hemsworth-y actor playing the demigod) had a dude in distress in that movie. Imagine if Marvel Studios released a movie that actually had for real same sex smooches in it. Would there be a need for reimagined GIF sets? I mean, sure there would be, because again, that’s a valid way for interacting with film. But I bet at least some #Stucky energy would be diverted to pairing Hercules up with the live-action Alan Scott, the gay Green Lantern that also exists in these fake movie slates I’m dreaming up.
There is such a desire to see non-heterosexual pairings in fiction. And despite any shade I’ve thrown at shippers, I feel that need too. I am, after all, a gay man that’s still never seen himself in any superhero movie ever. While my brain focuses on other fandom things (who am I to judge any fan when I just bought my second Black Widow Hot Toy?), other minds go to shipping. And, canon and precedent be damned, they ship hard. You can’t stop shipping, especially when trailers are just a few “our mouths are really close right now oops” shots away from full on queerbaiting.
I’m ready to see both substantial platonic friendships (like Steve and Bucky’s) and romantic and/or sexual relationships between dudes in media, and until there’s plenty of both out there, the line’s going to continue to be blurred in the eyes of viewers.