Captain America: Civil War, when it’s released in May, will continue to explore the intense and 100% non-sexual relationship between time-traveling soulmates Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Their bond began in the 1940s, during the first half of Captain America: The First Avenger, and it was reinforced in the present day during the tumultuous events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Though Steve and Bucky are certainly not a novel imagined couple, they are among the first to receive a full trilogy treatment for the development of their relationship. In a confusingly written interview with Empire, Joe Russo confirmed that he considers Steve and Bucky’s bond “a love story.” Though Empire’s Phil De Semlyen assumes fans will “snigger” to hear this, Russo goes on to qualify his statement with familial terms. “These are two guys who grew up together,” Russo says, “and so they have that same emotional connection to each other as brothers would, and even more so because Bucky was all Steve had growing up.”
So, is it homophobic to “snigger” at the concept of two male superheroes being attracted to each other? Well, yeah. Is it sexist to jump to conclusions when watching two adult men demonstrate a deep need for each other, assuming that they must be romantically in love because of their shared vulnerability? The answer is also yes. Though it’s certainly fun to imagine Steve and Bucky exploring their relationship through sex, it’s also enjoyable to watch them orbit each other without physical attraction.
As Sebastian Stan puts it, “I think it’s easy and generalizing it to say that [Steve and Bucky are] lovers, when you’re forgetting that one has a lot of guilt because he swore to be the protector of the other, the father figure or older brother so to speak, and then left him behind.” That statement is a little complicated; after all, a relationship between lovers could easily involve feelings of protection and mentorship. But Stan’s framing of Steve and Bucky’s bond is still legitimate. “I have no qualms with it,” Stan adds, “but I think people like to see it much more as a love story than it actually is. It’s brotherhood to me.”
What fans are left with is a director who defines the Captain America saga’s third film as a definitive “love story”, and a lead actor who says he’s not playing it that way. Perhaps what’s at stake here is the term “love story,” which, by Russo’s definition, would suit films like Bridesmaids, Bad Boys 2 and When Harry Met Sally, all at once. That definition is apt, when one considers that romantic love is not the only a deep, emotional human experience, but it’s also an interesting strategic move for Russo to adopt the phrase when describing Civil War. He didn’t tell Empire he was trying to reinvent the “love story” by telling one through the eyes of two straight men; he just said the film fits.
Come May, Civil War will likely fill theaters with Marvel fans, hungry either to watch Steve and Bucky beat up Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and bro out, or to dance around the concept that they’d like to kiss each other. According to Russo, both are understandable. Two things remain true: first, any story about love is a “love story,” and second, “Stucky” (Steve + Bucky) fans will hungrily make gifs of any screen time the characters share.
It should be noted that though Steve and Bucky ignited the sexual imaginations of many Avengers fans, their intense bond is certainly not the first to inspire erotic fan fiction and suggestive gif sets. Slash fiction, as gay romantic fan fiction is called, began in the modern era with the cathartic and imagined pairing of Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Kirk (William Shatner) from Star Trek: The Original Series. Many gay OTPs (one true pairings) have followed in contemporary pop culture, including Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, House (Hugh Laurie) and Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) on House, and Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John Watson (Martin Freeman) on BBC’s Sherlock.