One thing I haven’t really seen discussed much yet about CATWS is the role of the Smithsonian exhibit and how it informs the theme of identity in the movie. As lots of you probably know by now, I find the presence of history (as a discipline) really cool when it appears in pop culture, so I kinda want to talk about what putting this exhibit in the movie does on a narrative level. Because museums tell stories through cultural artifacts, right? Only, cultural artifacts don’t always tell the whole story, or at least don’t tell a single story. The story they tell very much depends on how they’re curated: how they’re displayed, what they’re displayed with, how they are contextualized and commented on by the curator(s).
So while the exhibit is about Captain America, at least one of the stories that it’s telling is actually about Bucky.
Because Bucky is Steve’s story, and always has been Steve’s story. Moreso than anyone else, he’s the one who made Steve who he is; he’s the mirror that first showed Steve his own reflection. He reflected back Steve’s goodness, his bravery, his strength, and allowed Steve to see himself as he was, gave him the courage to push back against an unjust world. He’s not the only one who did this (don’t forget Erskine and Peggy, obviously), but he was probably the first. Bucky didn’t create those things in Steve, of course, but he revealed them when they’d been buried in doubt. In this way, it’s almost because of Bucky that Steve becomes Captain America; without Bucky, Steve might have never known his own potential.
And Steve knows that, of course. He knows that without Bucky, he could not have become the man that he is. In that sense, his relationship with Bucky is the story you need to know to understand why Steve is the way that he is. That’s why Bucky’s absence looms so large in the first half of CATWS (and, arguably, the Avengers): Steve doesn’t know who he is without Bucky, because he’s never had to. If ever he felt lost, he’d always had Bucky to remind him of who he was, because, as he says, even when he had nothing, he still had Bucky.
This is, I think, the entire point of the Smithsonian exhibit and its emphasis on Bucky’s influence on Steve (and Steve’s influence, in turn, on Peggy). Don’t forget this story, the exhibit tells us, because Bucky’s life and death were absolutely critical in shaping who Steve Rogers was and how America remembers him. Don’t forget this story, because Steve never has. Bucky might be dead, but without him we wouldn’t have Captain America.
Arguably, then, the first half of the film is about Steve trying to find out who he is in the 21st century, wholly alone for the first time since he was a kid, and it’s that attempt at self-discovery that shapes his relationships with Sam and Natasha and Fury. But he still can’t let go of Bucky, because he hasn’t had time to. There was probably no more than a few days between Bucky falling and Steve going into the ice, and there’s probably been a year or even less since he woke up. (I’m not clear on the timeline here.) It’s clear that he knows, he knows that he has to move on with his life. There’s no starker reminder that Bucky is gone, that that chapter of his life is over, than waking up in the wrong century. And he’s trying so hard. When Sam asks him what makes him happy, you can see that he wants to know, that he’s not willing to give up just because everything he knew and everything he defined himself against is gone. He’s maybe not done telling the story that he and Bucky started, but he’s accepted that it’s time to start telling a new one instead.
Which is why discovering that Bucky isn’t dead is so painful for him. Steve had finally reached a point where he was ready to let Bucky go, and it turns out that he can’t. And he can’t for the most excruciatingly awful reasons ever, because Bucky isn’t dead, but he also doesn’t know who he is, and doesn’t know who Steve is, and if Bucky doesn’t know who Steve is, then how can Steve know? How can Steve know himself if the one person who’d always known him — even when he himself didn’t — no longer does? How can he stop telling that story if the ending as he once told it to himself is no longer true? How can Steve ever know for sure who he is, so long as the man who used to be Bucky Barnes does not?
And that’s why it fucking kills me when Bucky says but I knew him. Even tortured and scrubbed and suffering, ignorant of his own name, his own past, his own identity, Bucky knew one thing: Steve Rogers. And until Steve knows that, he’s never going to get any closure. He’s only ever going to be able to tell the same heartbreaking story, because he loved Bucky, and then he lost him, and then he lost him. Until he knows that Bucky remembers, Steve can only doubt the truth that he’s allowed to define his life.