“Steve in CA:CW only thinks about Bucky!” / “Steve broke up the Avengers for Bucky!”
I can’t count the number of times I have seen these phrases or variants thereof uttered in fandom, and it’s starting to make me a little bit bananas. So I’m gonna break down the issues with this line of thinking.
First off, it isn’t true at all. Yes, Steve has a strong emotional response to issues involving Bucky, and yes, Bucky is a key piece on the chessboard in CA:CW. Decisions are made regarding him that impact the eventual split of the Avengers. But ultimately, Steve’s choices in the movie are rational and based on Steve’s ethics, Steve’s unwillingness to allow pointless death, and Steve’s mistrust of institutions after having been burned twice. All else being equal, and Bucky not being a factor, it is hard to imagine Steve making wholly different choices.
Steve goes after Bucky when he’s accused of bombing the UN, but does so to bring him in, and because there is a kill order on Bucky. Bucky is a goddamn living weapon, and will not go quietly into that good night; Steve has no way of knowing at that point if Bucky will use lethal force or not against those trying to apprehend him, and so goes after him because Steve has a better chance than anyone else of bringing him in without loss of life. Steve going after Bucky alone is a course of action he feels compelled to take not only to save Bucky’s life, but the lives of everyone else involved, at risk to his own. Steve is very explicit about this in his conversation with Natasha ( “If he’s this far gone, then… I should be the one to bring him in.” “Why?” “Because I’m the one least likely to die trying”). At this point, no other Avengers are involved; this is Steve’s choice and Steve’s action, and not a determining factor on the fate of the team.
While Bucky’s lack of due process is pretty clearly upsetting to Steve, he is still willing to consider the Accords even after that whole incident, and even with his skepticism about the Accords’ definition of accountability. He doesn’t wholly back out until he finds out Wanda is being kept under house arrest without her knowledge and without any justification beyond her perceived ‘dangerousness’ (keep in mind, the incident in Lagos is because Crossbones set off a bomb; more people would have died without Wanda’s intervention. The hate toward her in-universe is a result of media spin and fear of powered people, because her powers weren’t enough to save everyone. It’s worth wondering: had it been one of Tony’s automated suits that didn’t get the bomb clear in time, would we be seeing the same furor?). This is understandably upsetting to a guy who lived through a period of seeing people interned and worse based on public fear of certain minorities, and has seen how it can escalate into absolute horror; while Wanda’s imprisonment is cushy, as Tony points out, it sets a profoundly disturbing precedent.
When Steve and Team Cap face off against Team Iron Man at the airport, it’s because they need to get to Siberia – not because Steve just wants to run off with Bucky. Steve attempts to explain the situation (“…And there are 5 more super soldiers just like him. I can’t let the doctor find them first, Tony. I can't”), and Tony makes it clear he has no intention of listening at that point (“All right, I’ve run out of patience. Underoos!”). Steve is left with no choice but to fight his way out to stop what Zemo’s trail has led them to believe is an incredibly serious and imminent threat to global safety, which Tony is unwilling to listen to, and which Ross is later unwilling to take seriously.
The film’s initial marketing (and hyper-focus on the eyeroll-worthy “he’s my friend”/”so was I” exchange) plus the lens of Stucky shipping have actually done us a disservice, I think, by characterizing Steve as someone who makes all his choices around Bucky. But even with Bucky not being a factor, I honestly don’t think we’d see Steve make different choices when forced into this same situation and provided with the same intel. With the threat of brainwashed super soldiers being unleashed and no time to wait for the UN to get its ass in gear – and that only happening IF Ross could be convinced to listen – he would probably still head to Siberia to try to stop it himself should no one else listen and be willing to act. If Wanda was being imprisoned and a precedent set for interning enhanced people who didn’t sign the Accords, I think he’d still be opposed to signing. Even before Bucky is ever a factor, Steve has legitimate concerns about the Accords – Accountable to whom? What’s the process? What happens to people who don’t sign? What guarantee do they have that the Avengers won’t be used for national agendas?
Maybe Tony would have been more willing to listen to Steve if Bucky weren’t involved. But Steve is actually responding pretty rationally throughout, and being honest with himself about what he thinks he can and can’t promise in good faith.
Tony, on the other hand, is painted by many fans as someone who is making choices from a rational, reasonable place, but if we look at what is said and done canonically… the opposite appears to be true?
While unquestionably an intellectually brilliant man, Tony is pretty consistently characterized as someone who reacts from a place of emotion and impulse rather than from a place of detached intellectual analysis. It’s part of what makes him an interesting character, and makes him diverge from the ‘aloof genius’ archetype we see with Reed Richards and a number of other super-geniuses of the Marvel universe. He makes a lot of choices – good and bad – based on strong feelings and gut reactions rather than thinking things through. Sometimes this means throwing caution to the winds and setting a whole new ethical course for his company. And sometimes this means accidentally inventing a murderbot.
Tony straight up tells Steve that he wants to sign the Accords to get Pepper back while still doing his Iron Man shtick ( “I never stopped. Cause the truth is I don’t wanna stop. I don’t want to lose her. I thought maybe the Accords can split the difference.”) And he only gets involved with the Accords after being made to feel guilty when ambushed by Miriam. Tony’s support of the Accords stems from his personal guilt, and personal motivations to get Pepper back more than any consideration of longterm, far-reaching effects. We can see the lack of thought he’s put into this when Tony himself later goes completely rogue and ignores Ross (to whom he’s supposed to answer under the Accords), defying the very policies he’s been pushing because they become inconvenient in a way he didn’t anticipate. We also see it when he admits he didn’t know the rogue Avengers would be thrown into the RAFT, implying he didn’t investigate the ramifications of the Accords fully. The timeframe of the Accords is rushed, with the Avengers given an ultimatum on an absurd deadline, and Tony’s eagerness to soothe his guilt and repair his relationship drives him to help force them into that scenario – where a schism is more or less an inevitability.
And contrary to the narrative that the marketing team seemed to push and that a lot of fans on both sides cling to, it isn’t Steve’s reaction in this conflict that comes from a place of emotional impulsivity due to Bucky.
In fact, the most visceral, emotional, irrational decision made in regards to Bucky in the course of the movie? Is made by Tony.
Now, I can’t honestly blame him for wanting to kill Bucky after seeing the footage of Howard and Maria’s deaths – I would straight up murder anyone who laid a finger on my mom, no matter the situation, so I have a LOT of sympathy. But while it’s understandable, it is not excusable. Bucky did not have any agency as the Winter Soldier. He was a brainwashed torture victim with no free will; the culpability for Howard and Maria’s deaths lies on the HYDRA handler who sent the Winter Soldier after them. And Tony knows this. But he responds from a place of pain and emotion and tries to kill Bucky anyway – because he’s hurting and wants to make someone else hurt too, and also, according to the Russoes’ commentary, to hurt Steve.
And it’s that final violence, with Bucky and Steve forced to fight Tony for Bucky’s life, that drives the ultimate wedge in the Avengers. Tony had seen the flaws in the Accords and been willing to defy Ross; Steve finally had the opportunity to explain the threats he was dealing with and have Tony listen; they were ready to confront Zemo together. Up to that point, reconciliation and reunification of the Avengers had been a very tangible, present possibility. But once again, Tony backs Steve into a corner with an ultimatum: before, it was his ethics or his legal standing. Now, it’s Tony’s friendship, or Bucky’s life. And because Steve is obviously not willing to let Tony straight-up murder Bucky to satisfy his vengeance, that reconciliation is taken off the table.
So yes, the Avengers are ultimately still broken up at the end of CA:CW because of an irrational decision made about Bucky.
But it’s not made by Steve.