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The Subtle Message about Mental Health in Captain America: Civil War **Spoiler Alert**

By in Crazy Grace Blog | 5 comments

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I just saw Captain America: Civil War at the theater. I’m a fan of Marvel’s superhero movies, but I feel a little conflicted about this one. For one thing, everyone was out for revenge against everyone else, it seemed, although that turned out to be the point of the movie: revenge doesn’t make you feel better.

The story was intricately woven, even more so than usual, with individual agendas and subplots tightening like a noose around a team already choking on the magnitude and burden of their own responsibility. But I’m not here to analyze the movie plot and characters. I want to fast forward to the end of the movie dealing with Steve Rogers’ friend, Bucky Barnes.

Steve Roger’s friend, Bucky Barnes

Setting the Story

First, let me recap a bit. In Captain America: The First Avenger, we see a young Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes as inseparable best friends. When Bucky was captured in WWII, a German scientist experimented on him trying to develop a super-soldier like Captain America. After Steve (Captain America) rescued Bucky, they fought together until Bucky fell to his (presumed) death from a train on a mountain cliff.

If you watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you know that the experimentation on Bucky allowed him to survive the fall. The Hydra scientists put him back together, giving him a metal arm and brainwashing him to do their bidding as the Winter Soldier. Bucky spent the better part of 70 years in cryo-freeze, being brought out when his handlers needed an assassin and put back under when he wasn’t needed. At the end of Winter Soldier, Bucky begins to remember the past and he goes into hiding. Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson spent two years trying to find Bucky.

Bucky Barnes, the Winter SoldierIn Captain America: Civil War, someone out for revenge against the Avengers tracks down an old paper trail to find the keywords that reactivate Bucky’s brainwashing. Bucky finds himself acting on the impulses of his mental programming once again. It’s a complex and intriguing scenario within the movie, but the writers resolved it in a somewhat disturbing manner.

At the end, Bucky returns to his right mind, but he prepares to re-enter a cryo chamber. Steve is there with his friend:

Steve: “Sure about this?”

Bucky: “I can’t trust my own mind, so until they figure out how to get this stuff out of my head, I think going back under is the best thing for everybody.”

On one hand, I know this is the stuff of fiction. I know that. On the other hand, I know Hollywood is the most prominent shaper of public opinion today. Hollywood pushes the envelope to evoke more thrills from people. When that becomes mundane and culturally accepted, they push farther and farther. Things society once considered inappropriate are now accepted as normal . . . thanks to Hollywood.

At the end, Bucky returns to his right mind, but he prepares to re-enter a cryo chamber.

The Subtle Message about Mental Health

By framing Bucky’s problem as a mental issue, “I can’t trust my own mind,” the writers made a subtle statement that people who don’t have full control of their minds need to be put away. There’s a subtle inference that for the good of themselves and others, mentally unstable people like Bucky should be put down, put out, locked up, or something. They can’t just run around among us.

I’d much rather have seen a more compassionate end for Bucky. So he is susceptible to the brainwashing he endured at the hands of his captors. Big deal. Very few people would know how to trigger his programming and the villain in Civil War had to work hard to come up with the codebook. Rather than eliminating Bucky, why not accommodate him?

Surround Bucky with safe people like Steve Rogers and the Avengers. In a safe, supportive environment, he is not likely to have his brainwashing triggered (and if it was, the Avengers could handle him).

The same is true of people with mental illness. With proper treatment and a safe, supportive environment, people with mental illness are not a threat to themselves or others.

The notion that if we can’t have a perfect mind, we need to be fixed—even if that means going into cryo-freeze until there is a cure—is disturbing. I want to point this out because I don’t want to see Hollywood push a new normal on how to deal with mental illness or defect in our society.


Captain America keeps a lookout

Images from


  1. Rodney Olsen

    May 25, 2016

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    While I didn’t immediately see the link to mental health I did find it a rather empty way to end the movie. Maybe we’re being set up for a sequel where they do find a way to destroy the triggers but to lock him away again indefinitely felt uncaring and wrong.

    • Christy

      May 25, 2016

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      I agree, Rodney. It felt uncaring and wrong. I, too, had thought maybe a sequel would restore Bucky. I hope so.

  2. Casper

    September 15, 2016

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    It would all be quite sound and accurate as well as very deep – had you also factored in that at the end of the day, being put into stasis was ultimately Barnes’ own choice which – in turn – was motivated by multiple various reasons (THOSE could be the plot for a whole thesis).

    And the fact that Steve – the very same Steve who spent two years in relentless search for his long-lost best friend, his only surviving link to the past and to who he was – just up and went ‘yeah, Buck, okay, let’s put you under AGAIN, ’cause it’s totally humane, and super comfy in there. Chill, man!’ Not only had they both come to terms with their current situation, but they must have also talked it over (however they were able to), and to chose such a painful option must not have come lightly for both of them – for one to make and for the other to accept.

    Like, for example, if you KNOW you will hurt and even kill people if you’re not in control, you KNOW how this works and there’s NOTHING you can DO to stop it from happening at this stage, would you rather on purpose surrond yourself with the very people you don’t want to hurt and put them in danger for your own sake? Oh, and let’s not forget that Bucky is not only a confused killing machine in the wrong hands, but also an unstable young man with PTSD who hadn’t even begun to cope with what’s happened to him. Just not having to deal with your own mind might be a bit tempting in his position.

    So no, it’s most probably not healthy, but it’s rational from his own point of view. The choice is HIS (because nobody took his freedom of choice this time), and that’s the whole difference you need when talking about modern society.

    • Dawn

      September 18, 2016

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      Bucky’s choice to put himself under cryogenic sleep (this time in the caring, compassionate, attentive and empathetic hands of the Wakandans who will actually look out for him and endeavour to best help him, and do right *by* him) – is the very purest definition of a *healthy* choice, because as was pointed out by someone else above, and an aspect which you clearly missed – deliberately overlooked in the attempt to paint with overly broad strokes and to misapprehend the whole fundamental *reason* for why things happened as they did, as they must – Bucky did so of his *own* free mind and will….this was his own choice, his own expression of bodily autonomy which, please remember, *he has not had for some SEVENTY years* – so if this is what it takes, then this is what he will do, to keep safe everyone around him, those he cares about.

      Bucky’s act of asking to be put back under until it can all be set right, this is the very purest definition of an heroic act, and it’s a pity you can’t see it as such. Your narrow definitions and misguided attempts to classify are blinding you to the truth of his heroic, noble, and profoundly, inspiringly human character arc….this journey which for him yet continues.

      If you knew that there were triggers inside you which could cause you to revert and do terrible things, to fall under the fell control of others, and force you to do that which you *never* otherwise wanted – and if you knew there was a way to ensure that *didn’t* happen, until a cure could be found – then, like Bucky, you’d do the EXACT same. Because it’s a matter of choice, and of bodily autonomy, and of simple, common, basic and profound human right, which now Bucky Barnes finally has, again, after literally lifetimes….and if this is obviously how he chooses to exercise that right, who are you to decry him or dismiss it? Who are you to look at an act of incredible self-sacrifice, acceptance, and profound bravery and heroism – and to see it somehow (incredibly confoundingly!) as something *negative*? For goodness’ *sake*….!

      • Casper

        September 21, 2016

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        I have to add that it may as well be viewed as the first actual conscious step towards recovery. Since we’re operating general terms here, that step is usually considered to be admitting you’re not alright (yes, ‘you have a problem’, but I personally reject the word ‘problem’). But I believe Barnes had already done that at some point.

        Here, we see the greatest show of trust there could possibly exist from his position: he’s a mess mentally and physically, and earlier such a state would have probably triggered his flight instinct (since fight is not an option at the moment). But instead, we see him giving himself over to the safe-keeping and care of the people close to him. I see that as a sign of recognition that he is truly no longer alone and doesn’t need to act like he is anymore. He acknowledges that he’s vulnerable, and dangerous, but also that there are people who care and are worthy of his trust.

        I see that he actually looks at peace with his choice, and that’s what matters.

        By the way, back to the article. It’s common to see social subtext in various media (music, games and movies included), but while doing that we shouldn’t forget that there’s the system and there’s the individual, that each case is unique (however similar they seem on the surface).

        All I’m saying is let’s not generalize.

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