Looking forward to the premiere of Marvel’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” on Disney+ on Friday?
Well, you have the anemic sales of Captain America’s comic book series nearly two decades ago to thank.
Without that slump, the Winter Soldier — now a mainstay of Marvel’s multi-billion dollar cinematic universe — might never have existed.
It all goes back to the well-worn trope in superhero fiction that the dead never stay dead for long. They always get resurrected by a magical regeneration matrix or some parallel universe mumbo jumbo.
Except, that is, for Bucky Barnes — Captain America’s young partner who was introduced in 1941. In the 1960s, it was revealed that he’d gone missing after attempting to diffuse a bomb aboard a plane. It exploded, sending him hurtling into the freezing water below.
He was presumed dead.
And Bucky stayed dead until 2004 when writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting resurrected him as a brain-washed assassin going by the name of the Winter Soldier.
Bucky’s return was especially shocking because he was rumored to be one of just two characters in the Marvel universe — the other being Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben — whose revival was off-limits. The brass worried that bringing back Bucky would remove essential tragedy from Captain America’s backstory.
Still, others had tried to resuscitate Bucky. In 1980, writer Roger Stern and artist John Byrne scrapped a story in which Cap would discover Bucky, legless, armless and comatose, in a veteran’s hospital.
“It was best to leave Bucky dead,” Byrne wrote enigmatically on his message board in 1998.
In a 1970 story arc, Bucky seemingly returned — only to later be revealed as an android. As the story was being created, artist Gene Colan suggested to Marvel head Stan Lee that the robotic imposter should actually be the real Bucky.
Lee’s reply: “Sales aren’t low enough yet,” meaning that he was keeping Bucky in his back pocket to generate buzz at a time when the numbers were truly abysmal.
By 2004, the moment had come.
“Everyone who’s ever written ‘Captain America’ has wanted to bring Bucky back,” Brubaker said at an LA bookstore in 2014. “I was the first person who arrived at a time where [Marvel was] willing to.”
Brubaker’s pitch — which landed when the “Captain America” editors were already debating resurrecting Bucky due to low sales — was that Bucky had not died in the explosion, as had long been believed. Instead, he’d been badly injured, and his body had been picked up by the Russians. Suffering from amnesia, he was taken to Moscow, where he was given a robotic arm and programmed to be an assassin.
Despite breaking an unwritten law, the character proved to be popular with fans, and the story was well-received. Brubaker would win multiple awards for his work, and the Winter Soldier would go on to appear in six Marvel films, beginning with 2014’s “Captain America: Winter Soldier.”
“I talked to Stan Lee a little bit about this when I met him because he was the guy who suggested killing Bucky off in the first place,” Brubaker told Marvel.com in 2009. “He didn’t like Bucky because Bucky was a kid sidekick, and he said to me that he thought the reason Bucky worked as the Winter Soldier was because he’s an adult now … He’s been put through the wringer in this way so he’s not just a kid sidekick.”
Now in the new series, the Winter Soldier will attempt to reconcile with his villainous past — as well as team with Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to battle Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl).
Millions will likely watch — and all because there was a time when almost no one was reading.