I've never seen this discussed, but I was thinking about how the Winter Soldier is a legend and a ghost, always concealed. Yet they sent him after the Starks unmasked. I guess they knew Howard would recognize him and they wanted that, but it still seems a weird thing to do. With Steve it's obvious, they knew it gave WS the advantage because Cap didn't want to kill him, but the Starks hardly seemed a threat. Sure it was psychological, but what was the point if they die fast? Got meta?
Okay, so, I really need to organize my meta. Because I swear I’ve read at least one meta post that talks about the mask and the inconsistency of its use throughout the movies. But I have almost forty pages of meta on my blog and I can’t seem to find it. I may not have reblogged it, in which case I fear it’s lost to the depths of Tumblr. (Can anyone help with this?)
For lack of resources to point you to, anon, let me ramble a bit and see if anything comes out of it.
From a storytelling standpoint, the mask is primarily for us, the viewers, so that we can have a dramatic identity reveal in Winter Soldier.
Or, really, I should say the mask is primarily for Steve because I think pretty much everyone in the audience knew the Winter Soldier was Bucky all along. Losing the mask simply confirmed it. However, the audience wants to see Steve have the revelation for himself, the moment of recognition. (And to this day that moment remains one of my favorite scenes in the entirety of the MCU. It was beautifully staged, and perfectly acted. Chris Evans emoted so much fear/hope/disbelief in one whispered, “Bucky?” and then Sebastian Stan contrasted that painfully with his flat reply, “Who the hell is Bucky?” I could go on about that exchange for ages.)
After that, the mask isn’t really needed. It served its purpose for the dramatic reveal and the story kind of… forgets it.
Wouldn’t it have been great to have Steve in Civil War realize, “Oh! That guy who bombed the UN? He isn’t wearing a mask and Bucky definitely knew to wear a mask to hide his identity when he was dismantling governments and destroying world order, so that’s probably not him.”
Give your old pal some credit, Steve. Sheesh. He was a professional sniper and knew how to be sneaky even before Hydra caught him. There’s a reason you haven’t been able to find him for the last two years.
But I digress.
Ostensibly the reason Bucky doesn’t have the mask for Civil War is again for the sake of storytelling. We need Howard to recognize him and say his name and for the Winter Soldier to look straight into the security feed so there’s no doubt whatsoever that James Buchanan Barnes, Steve Rogers’ best friend, killed Tony’s parents. That makes it possible for Tony to react immediately, without having to pause to question whether or not it’s actually Bucky (it thus prevents Tony from thinking things through and reacting with a clearer head). It serves the heat of the storytelling more than it serves a common sense, fully developed backstory for the use of the mask.
I mean, we could say that Howard’s death is the inciting incident that makes the mask necessary. The Winter Soldier was both recognized and caught on camera on the night of December 16, 1991. It was apparently a big enough deal that detailed Hydra records led Zemo to seek out that specific tape, sight unseen, knowing without a doubt the rift it would cause between Steve and Tony.
I wonder how much trouble the Winter Soldier’s handlers had to go through to get that security tape into their hands? (Because please imagine them freaking out about Peggy Carter finding out Bucky was still alive and a brainwashed captive of Hydra. She may have been getting on in years, but I have no doubt Hydra operatives were still actively terrified of her. She was there when Steve vowed revenge for Bucky. Steve died to avenge Bucky. There’s no way she wouldn’t take it personally if she found out Bucky was still alive. Same goes for the rest of the Howling Commandos.)
That being said, it seems kind of silly for Hydra to make that realization so late into the game. Even petty thieves know well enough to obscure their identities.
So, we could say Howard’s death is the inciting incident, but it doesn’t make much sense if it was. Because that leaves about forty-odd years where the Winter Soldier was operating without a mask. And the chance he’d be recognized by former friends and family was a lot higher earlier on in his “career.”
At one point in the past—there’s no way to know if it was before or after Howard’s death—the Winter Soldier was photographed with his mask on. In Winter Solider, computer-incarnated Zola shuffles through a series of historical images, including this one.
It’s hard to tell for sure, but the Winter Soldier seems to be wearing the mask here. Of course, the irony is that the arm and the star make him 100% identifiable. The difference being the arm identifies him as a weapon and an agent of Hydra, not as a person with a name and a history of his own. It doesn’t particularly matter if anyone sees the arm and, in fact, adds to the chilling mythos of the ghost story. Regular men don’t have metal arms. Monsters without faces have metal arms.
The mask obscures Bucky’s identity and it dehumanizes him. (It’s also an inverse of Captain America’s helmet, which I think is simply brilliant costuming.) Not only does it serve a practical purpose in keeping anyone from knowing who he is, it furthers Hydra’s subtle fear tactics by making the arm the Winter Solider’s identifying mark. Hydra had every reason to want to use the mask from the very beginning.
If we try to make sense of the use of the mask in the context of the marvel universe, without breaking the fourth wall, and setting aside its presence (or lack thereof) as an obvious function of targeted storytelling goals, I think we’re only left with two options: Either Hydra deliberately sent the Winter Soldier after the Starks without a mask, or Bucky took the mask off himself.
Bucky’s not really giving us any clues here, so…
Reasons Hydra might want to unmask the Winter Soldier, knowing he’d be recognized: 1.) To throw Howard off, just in case he was armed. The man built weapons for a living. It’s not unreasonable to assume he might be armed with something that could kill a super soldier. But if that super soldier was a former friend and ally? He might be less likely to defend himself and less likely to attack, thus giving the Winter Soldier room to maneuver. 2.) Sheer pettiness. Wanting to gloat. Letting Howard know with his dying breath that Hydra was still alive and well and that his obsessive work on duplicating the super soldier serum wasn’t going to create another Captain America, but something much worse.
Reasons Bucky might have taken the mask off: Depending on how long he was out of cryo, his memories could have been coming back. Some part of him could have remembered the name of his target and he might have wanted to be identified—either to be saved or punished. But the programming was still enough in control that he couldn’t stop himself from completing the mission.
Those are my best guesses, at least. I doubt Marvel’s creative team has given it much thought (though I would be delighted to be proven wrong in subsequent films). Does anyone out there remember any other meta posts about Bucky’s mask? Or have anything more to contribute for this anon? Please reply or reblog with your own thoughts/theories/headcanons! :)