I feel like one of the reasons why Sam and Bucky work with each other so well as a duo in is the fact that they are at the same (or almost the same) level of importance when it comes to the MCU. They are in a similar position as characters.
Let me explain...
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Before tfatws Sam Wilson was a character from the background. He is important for the overall storyline, but he’s not at the front of any movie. Even in ca:tws he was less relevant to the plot than e.g. Natasha. He’s necessary and there is a significant reason he’s there at all, but at the end of the day it’s a Steve Rogers’ movie. Not Sam’s. And even if calling Sam a sidekick is most of the time insulting - at least within the MCU - he kind of is a sidekick. That’s the role he has in the narrative. There’s a main hero (Steve) and a guy who follows his lead to help (Sam). Of course Sam has his own life and issues that have nothing to do with Steve, but we don’t even know them at this point. And here we’re looking at Sam through the lense of the Captain America movies.
Almost every scene with Sam before tfatws was connected to Steve. Sam joined the fight in ca:tws to help Steve. He was in AoU, because Steve invited him to Stark’s party. He was in Civil War, because Steve asked him to join the Avengers and he wanted to help Steve with finding Bucky... Similarly, Sam had his own opinions in Civil War, but we only hear them when it’s relevant to Steve’s story. (When Sam and Rhodey argue about the Accords they stand behind Steve, because the scene is about him making the decision.) Even in Ant-Man, where there is no Steve at all, Sam mentions him after Scott left. Etc, etc. You get the picture.
And the same goes for Bucky.
We only see him in ca:tfa where his story is intertwined with Steve’s. When Steve gets his ass kicked before he got the serum. Or when they go to the Expo. Or when they fight during the war. Even when Bucky is saved by Steve it’s less about him being finally free and more about Steve finding his friend again. In ca:tws their meeting is told mostly from Steve’s perspective. It’s a film about Steve facing the Winter Soldier not the other way round. And later viewers don’t see Bucky’s life as a fugative untill the moment he becomes important to Steve’s storyline again in Civil War. And so on and so forth. It goes like that basically from Bucky’s first appearance in the MCU to the last scenes of Endgame.
When Steve and Bucky are fighting on the same side Bucky’s role could also be described as: “a sidekick”. Just like Sam’s.
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And I honestly believe that this is the reason why pairing Sam and Bucky together makes so much sense. Even if you put aside the obvious chemistry between the characters and their actors it just works for them to join forces in multiple scenes.
Both of them walked in Steve’s shadow before they got their own show. Not because they’re less interesting as characters or because Steve’s storyline is better, but because Steve is one of the main heroes in the entire MCU while Sam and Bucky were always orbiting around him in a way. And we, as the viewers, learnt very little about them outside of the stuff that was important for their relationships with Cap.
Why do we know about Sam losing Riley? Because Steve also lost someone who fell to their death. Why do we see Bucky killing Stark’s parents? Because it’s a movie about Steve’s conflict with Tony (mostly) and it’s just one of many things that makes the conflict worse. I’m not implying it’s unfair to the characters or something (even though I’d love to see them having more sceentime in general)... It’s just the role they serve in a story, because someone has to be in that position for the narrative to flow. You cannot make every character “the main one”. That wouldn’t really work.
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But then... When Sam and Bucky are together we suddenly see much more about both of them outside of their connection with Steve. It’s almost like destiny how they always end up in close proximity. They seem to naturally gravitate towards each other ever since they’ve met. And it looks like taking them away from a big, important character (Steve) makes them shine brighter. Most of the little moments they shared became iconic at some point when they were just allowed to exist together.
And again... I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy seeing their interactions with Steve, because I do. Especially Sam’s. But it very often feels like they interact with each other because it’s important for the progression of the plot. When Steve talks with Sam it’s often about their next mission, or how Sam helps him with something, or to show that Steve has difficulties with adjusting to the modern world. And when Steve talks with Bucky (at least after ca:tfa) I always feel like there should be a narrator’s voice talking over a scene, telling me: “see? they were friends in the past, before the war... this is important! pay attention”.
Meanwhile, when Sam and Bucky interact, some scenes just... happen for no purpose. Like they interact, because they want to, not because the script told them to. There’s absolutely no plot-related reason for showing Sam and Bucky sitting in that tiny car in Germany. Or to show them standing together in Infinity War when Thanos attacks.
What the two of them have is completely different from what they had with Steve in the past.
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To be honest, it always bothered me a little how Steve never really did anything for Sam (freeing him from prison where Sam landed for helping Steve doesn’t count). It’s always Sam making Steve feel better and standing by his side. So it’s a very glaring contrast, when we got to see a whole separate montage where Bucky visits Sam and helps him fix the boat that was important to his family. Or when he casually throws a shield with him for practice, asks Sam if he’s okay, and brings him a new super-hero suit even though Sam never even asked for these favours or suggested that he needs Bucky’s help.
And I know that some people won’t like what I’m about to say, but Steve and Bucky really don’t act like they are particularly close to each other most of the time (especially after their first movie). I believe that they were friends before everything went to shit, but after ca:tws? Not really. They cling to that label, because of their shared story and because Steve cannot let go of the past, but they just... don’t act like they are friends anymore. It’s like they both changed too much and don’t know how to deal with that. So they don’t. It’s like Steve is only attached to some past version of Bucky that no longer exists and the new Bucky doesn’t fully match his expectations. Sam on the other hand has no expectations at all. He builds his relationship with Bucky from the fresh foundations. The creators don’t need to bring back some shared memories from 70 years ago to prove that these two have a strong connection. They just show them doing stuff together. The argument about The Big Three? Petty revange over a car seat? Discussing music tastes? Having “sleepovers” and giving each other slightly mean, but harmless nicknames? Discussing mental health? Having staring contests? Watching goddamn sunsets? That’s what people who are close to each other do.
And that’s why these two simply... work.
It’s not just implied or explained in a flashback. “Look, viewer. They are friends. I know they don’t act like they are, but trust me. They went for a dinner a decade ago... offscreen.” Sam and Bucky even refused to call themselves friends! They’re a couple of guys (allegedly). And yet I still know they like each other very much from the way they interact, speak about each other, or look at each other.
And I really think that one of the main reason’s why it works like that is because they’re both equally crucial (or irrelevant at times) for the story. Both are just as (un)necessary for the plot to move on. Sometimes they are very important and sometimes the plot would easily work without them. ca:tws could’ve happen without Sam. Civil War could’ve technically happen without Bucky if they put more emphasis on the Accords. There were both certainly unnecessary in Infinity War or Endgame. But there’s no way the events in tfatws would’ve happen without both of them being there together. Sam might’ve never taken the shield and become Captain America if it wasn’t for Bucky. Bucky would’ve spent countless years trying and failing to make amends and never finding peace if it wasn’t for Sam. The fandom likes to focus on only Bucky, but you wouldn’t get this much content about him if there was no Sam to share the story with him.
Because they just fit together perfectly.
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Last disclaimer (because I really don’t want people to get the wrong impression): I actually like Steve. And I like Samsteve (romantically or platonically). Platonic Stevebucky is alright too. But it just kind of... pales in comparison when you see what Sam and Bucky have. Most MCU relationships pale in comparison if I’m being honest.
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