When Marvel Studios announced the lineup for 2024’s Thunderbolts at 2022’s D23 Expo, the most surprising name on the antihero team’s roster was Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes. Both Ghost and Taskmaster were previously portrayed as antagonists; John Walker was a bloodthirsty, nationalistic iteration of Captain America, Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine has been presented as a shady anti-Nick Fury, and even Yelena and Red Guardian, who got to be heroes in Black Widow, have appeared antagonistic But Bucky has been an Avenger and appears to have completed his journey toward redemption for his past sins.
Many fans have anticipated the Thunderbolts becoming the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s answer to DC’s Suicide Squad — a team of villains turned heroes. The comparison may not hold up, as the MCU’s Thunderbolts appear to be antiheroes, but the members are still characters audiences would be unsurprised to see portrayed as villains. But Bucky has surely proven himself a hero by now, having atoned for the time he spent as a brainwashed Hydra assassin and fought Thanos alongside the Avengers. However, his unexpected inclusion on the roster could give him a chance to shine like never before.
Bucky Barnes’ MCU History
Bucky has been an MCU fixture since Phase One, when he was introduced as a comrade of Captain America, but he’s always been relegated to a relatively minor role. He seemingly died partway through Captain America: The First Avenger, and when he returned in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he was a mysterious and mostly silent villain. In Captain America: Civil War, he left Hydra behind but spent the movie as little more than a plot device, a MacGuffin for the main characters to pursue and fight over.
While he appeared in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, his role was again relatively small and got a little lost among the films’ gargantuan rosters of heroes. Bucky was more fleshed out in the Disney+ series The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, but there can be no denying the series’ focus lay mainly on Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson. Even the series’ portrayal of Bucky finding closure for his past crimes was there to help show Sam earning the mantle of Captain America, as he offered Bucky the guidance he needed to heal.
Thunderbolts Presents an Opportunity for Bucky Barnes
Although Bucky may not lead the Thunderbolts, he is sure to have a central role in the team and a crucial role in the film. As the only member of the Thunderbolts to have been an Avenger and the only member who has committed to turning his back on his deadly past, Bucky is the obvious candidate for the team’s moral compass. Details of the film’s plot are not yet known, but the Thunderbolts will likely need to take on a heroic role — something that does not come naturally to most of the members on the roster. That gives Bucky the opportunity to stand up as a guiding force for the team.
This dynamic would also give Bucky a chance to take on a more prominent role in Thunderbolts. While he has previously been seen in smaller supporting roles in the MCU, often with little dialogue and little focus placed on him, in Thunderbolts, Bucky could well become a central hero contending with a team of villains. And given that he has also been a larger part of the MCU than any of the other Thunderbolts, meaning audiences are likely to be more familiar with him than the team’s other members, it seems likely he will be taking on a leading role.
Allowing Bucky to take on a more prominent role in Thunderbolts will offer him the opportunity to finally become a more fully developed character. He has historically played second fiddle to Captain America, but now, Bucky can stand alone and distinguish himself as his own superhero. The film’s focus on antiheroes opens up the chance to tell a story that explores Bucky’s complex moral character and forces him into a more proactive, heroic role than he has ever adopted before.