The most recent developments in Bucky’s efforts to hide the sentient, personified cosmic cube, Kobik, from the rest of the world with the help of a newly formed team of Thunderbolts have been, well, “disastrous” might be putting it lightly. An attack by a vengeful Zemo and team of familiar faces left Bucky near dead and Kobik panicked -- all the ingredients for some ill advised cosmic adolescent involvement.
Of course, Kobik’s intervention left Bucky alive but teleported back in time to World War 2, an already terrible situation made worse by the fact that it’s not just WWII, but Kobik’s rather ill informed interpretation of WWII, complete with her modified version of Captain America, setting the stage for some uncomfortable truths to (finally) come to light between Steve and his former sidekick and pave the way for "Secret Empire."
One of the underlying elements in Bucky and Kobik’s relationship throughout “Thunderbolts” has been Kobik’s ability to modify reality without limit, and as such, potentially absolve Bucky of every awful thing he’s been forced to go through. Kobik may not have much perspective on the bredth of the trauma Bucky’s endured, but she certainly knows that he’s got some ghosts following him around, and she wants to help.
Largely, Bucky’s resisted Kobik’s offers -- not because he didn’t want a second chance, but because he felt a huge weight of responsibility to not use Kobik as a tool for personal gain. He’s pretty familiar with having agency stripped away like that and he’s not eager to inflict it on someone else, sentient cosmic cube or not.
However, now that the deed is all but done? Bucky’s resolve crumbles pretty quickly. He orients himself with his new (old) body, finds Steve, and decides that if this is his situation, then he may as well make the best of it. After all, there’s no sense crying over spilled cosmic milk.
That is, until he realizes that there is something most definitely, well, wrong. Even more wrong than the obvious time travel and cosmic weirdness. Apparently, in this version of the past, Bucky has just successfully killed Baron Zemo, the man responsible for the booby trap that killed him back in the original, untampered with version of the 40s. With Zemo already dead, Bucky theoretically doesn’t have to worry about circumventing his own death, and the future’s already changed. No more torture, no more Winter Soldier. By all accounts, it should be a pretty positive thing, except, of course, it can never be that simple.
A mission to follow up Zemo’s execution leaves Bucky in hot water after he’s captured by a fleet of androids and when he wakes up, he’s face to face with a whole new set of problems.
THE ZEMO LEGACY
Bucky wakes after the android attack to himself chained to a rocket powered death trap, an obvious nod to the booby trapped plan that originally “killed” Bucky way back when. It turns out his captor is none other than Helmut Zemo, the son of the man Bucky just killed.
Bucky tries his best to reason with Helmut before he’s blasted to bits, but help ends up coming from an unexpected quarter. Or, rather, from a totally expected quarter, but in a completely unexpected way.
Captain America shows up.
...But he doesn’t seem all that interested in stopping the second Zemo, instead insisting that attacking Bucky “wasn’t part of the plan.”
Now, if you’ve been keeping up with Captain America’s Kobik-modified history in “Captain America: Steve Rogers,” this probably doesn’t surprise you. In Steve’s new past, he and Helmut were raised together by Hydra and became friends -- but it is most definitely news to Bucky.
Zemo and Steve have a quick back and forth as they debate Bucky’s uses for Hydra’s cause -- Steve in the camp that Bucky is to useful to kill, Zemo arguing that he’s too much of a liability to keep alive -- while Bucky quietly panics. At first, he refuses to accept that this Steve isn’t some sort of doppelganger or imposter, but Steve is quick to lay it out on the line.
“Hydra is the future I’m fighting for,” Steve explains in no uncertain terms, “It always has been.”
Steve offers Bucky a chance to save his own life by saying “Hail Hydra,” but Bucky refuses. For his part, Steve is disappointed, but not totally unsurprised. He “had to try” to convince Bucky to join them, now that the cards are all on the table, but doesn’t lift a finger to stop Zemo from activating his death trap and launching Bucky to his death.
Kobik, however, is a little more upset by this turn of events.
HOUSE OF CARDS
Moments before (if not during) the explosion that is set to end Bucky’s life, Kobik pops in and intervenes by stopping time and pulling Bucky out of the flames.
She’s not, however, all that mad that Zemo was about to kill Bucky, she’s more concerned that Bucky wasn’t willing to play the game correctly. She assures Bucky that all he had to do was say “Hail Hydra” and everything would have been fine; she’ll even let him have another chance so he can get it right.
Bucky is appropriately horrified as all the pieces begin to slot into place. He realizes that Kobik has tampered with Steve’s past and, worse yet, that Kobik genuinely and earnestly believes that Hydra is a “secret club” for herself, the Red Skull, and all their friends.
When he tries to tell her that Hydra is evil, Kobik begins to throw a tantrum, insisting that she could put Bucky right back into the explosion where he’d die for real, even though she clearly would rather not. When Bucky continues to press, Kobik melts down.
As she screams, Bucky’s body is shocked by her power and set against a backdrop of shattered fragments -- each showing a part of Bucky’s history, from his time in WW2, to his tenure as Captain America, to more recent events like his brief stint in space during “Original Sin” and during “Bucky Barnes: Winter Soldier” as The Man On The Wall.
What these shattered pieces actually mean for the future of Bucky Barnes remains to be seen, but it’s worth noting that he is now one of, if not the only person in the world who knows that Steve’s history has been changed (who hasn't also been modified by Kobik in kind...) It’s also worth noting that while Bucky has yet to be shown or solicited in any of the promotional material for “Secret Empire,” we know "Thunderbolts" will be on hiatus for the duration of the event. It's difficult to imagine that Bucky will be completely off the board during a major storyline involving his best friend, leaving us to wonder what his role will be, and which side he'll be on.
Typically, the motif of “shattered reality” heralds things like major retcons (Superboy Prime’s multiversal punch, anyone?) It’s very likely then that regardless of what the immediate future or the events of “Secret Empire” have in store for him, Bucky’s not going to come through it unchanged. The real question is whether those changes will be positive or negative.
...That is, assuming he survives at all.