The Internet’s obsession with the Winter Soldier’s robot arm

Ten movies into the Avengers franchise, it still looks like Marvel Studios can do no wrong at the box office. Fan reactions, on the other hand, are a little harder to predict.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom grows bigger every day, but there are three specific movies that seemed to inspire a boost in fannish creativity. Those movies were Thor (partly thanks to Tom Hiddleston’s breakout role as Loki), The Avengers, and rather unexpectedly, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Winter Soldier had all the hallmarks of a rapidly growing online fandom: Vast quantities of fanfic and other fanworks, tons of near-incomprehensible memes, and endless discussions about characterization and subtext and comic book references. And among all this, some fans became transfixed by one rather specific detail in the film: the Winter Soldier’s robotic arm.

GIF via theheirsofdurin/Tumblr

The arm was created through a combination of CGI and prosthetics for the movie. This means Winter Soldier cosplayers essentially have to replicate something that doesn’t exist, and they’re doing a pretty good job so far.

DIY cosplay duo the A-Twins are just two of the many fans who have designed a variation on the Winter Soldier’s costume, but we picked them for their helpful tutorial on how to make your own Winter Soldier arm. (Some prefer to go for more flexible options like duct tape and silver foam panels, but the A-Twins’ snowy photoshoot was too good to pass up.)

Purely on an aesthetic level, it’s easy to understand why people are so fascinated by the Winter Soldier’s arm. But if you look into the character’s backstory, it’s clear that there’s a strong emotional component to this fandom as well. The arm is a constant visual reminder of one of the most compelling character arcs in the MCU.

The Captain America franchise is surely the most serious (and often downright depressing) of the main storylines in the MCU. Growing up in Depression-era New York, Steve Rogers is poor, physically frail, and his only friend is Bucky Barnes. “Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky,” he says at one point.

During World War II, Rogers is transformed into Captain America, fighting Nazis with Bucky at his side—until Bucky falls to his death in the Alps, that is. In a mirror image of his friend’s demise, Rogers then crashes a plane into the Arctic ice and remains frozen until 2011, waking up alone in the alien landscape of the 21st century. Neither of the Captain America movies have what you’d call an upbeat ending.

Bucky Barnes was one of the few iconic characters in superhero comics who died and stayed dead, never being brought back for a cheap continuity reboot. Alongside Jason Todd (the second Robin, another dead sidekick) and Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, there was an unwritten rule that he couldn’t be resurrected. But if you’ve seen Winter Soldier, you’ll know that rule didn’t last forever. Loosely based on Ed Brubaker’s 2005 Winter Soldier storyline in the Captain America comics, the movie reintroduces Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier, a remorseless assassin who is controlled by the terrorist organization HYDRA.

Brainwashed, drugged, and with his memories completely wiped, the Winter Soldier is both a terrifying and tragic presence throughout the film. He alternates between ruthless violence when following direct orders, and childlike confusion during the brief moments when Bucky’s original personality resurfaces. He is almost unrecognizable compared to the cocky 1940s sharp-shooter we know from the first film, including the very obvious addition of a robotic metal arm.

GIF via jennifermorisons/Tumblr

Fans got their first glimpse of the Winter Soldier’s arm during the trailer for the film, and from then on it was true love—or at least true fascination. How did the arm work? Was it able to stand up to Captain America’s shield, and if so did that mean it was made from vibranium too? Was it based on alien technology, or did HYDRA’s Cold War-era scientists somehow invent a prosthetic that measures up to Tony Stark’s 21st century Iron Man suits? And how, exactly, was it attached to the rest of his body?

In one of several posts analysing how the human body might deal with “real” damage of this type, Winter Soldier fan therealdeepsix writes, “That is some HARDCORE MUSCLE DAMAGE. Such damage to a major muscle group would seriously weaken Bucky’s upper body strength, which would have to be compensated for in some way. This was probably done, at least partly, by replacing the damaged muscles with synthetic copies.”

She goes on to detail a theory wherein much of Barnes’ skeleton was either replaced by or coated with metal in order to balance the weight of the arm. This is a popular idea among those who are interested in the practicalities of the situation, because even someone with supersoldier powers would not be able to withstand the weight of a solid metal limb tugging at their shoulder and spine.

On the topic of “software,” Deepsix adds, “I assume that the arm is integrated into the rest of his body through neural implants that reproduce or mimic the human nervous system, allowing for motor control and sensation. Thus, removing the arm would be analogous to removing an organic limb; it is his arm, not just some metal stapled to his body.”

At this point we get onto shakier ground. Some people think of the arm as a detachable prosthetic, while others see it as a permanent piece of his body. Psychologically speaking, it is yet another horror to add to the mounting number of reasons why the Winter Soldier should be in therapy for the rest of his life.

Even before Winter Soldier came out, the death and resurrection of Bucky Barnes was a popular topic among fanfic writers. Whether you write Cap and Bucky as lovers or brothers in arms, the rehabilitation of the Winter Soldier is on a par with Sherlock Holmes’ return from the Reichenbach Falls.

Unsurprisingly the robot arm looms large in many of those stories, both from a logistical perspective and as an unavoidable symbol of his time being experimented on by HYDRA. Depending on the fanfic, it can be a sex toy, a source of chronic pain, a superheroic weapon, a kicking-off point for a discussion about disability, or somewhere for the Avengers to stick fridge magnets while he’s taking a nap.

It’s symbolic, emotionally rich details like this that led to Winter Soldier gaining such a devoted fandom compared to other Marvel films like Guardians of the Galaxy, which technically did better at the box office. The quantity of fanworks inspired by the Winter Soldier is bordering on astonishing.

Fanartist Sam, known by the handle superhumandisasters, was inspired by “exploded view” diagrams to create this piece of art for Captain America fanzine BROOKLYN. In the notes attached to the fanart (which you should click through to see in full), Sam wrote that it was meant to “capture abstract components of his identity as well as his physical armaments.”

The Russian text is a 1916 poem titled “Like A White Stone,” harking back to the Winter Soldier’s comic book heritage as a creation of Soviet scientists. “Like a white stone in a deep well,” it begins, “one memory lies inside me.” That memory is Steve Rogers, the ghostly boy hanging around the Soldier’s neck.

This obsessive attention to narrative detail is just a microcosm of the enthusiasm seen across MCU fandom, particularly the massive quantity of fanfic and art attached to Winter Soldier, The Avengers, and Thor. It’s understandable, then, that some fans are less than enthused by recent news of what may happen in Captain America 3: Civil War.

The upcoming Civil War adaptation has been heralded as as a significant moment for the franchise, but it has its downsides. By making Captain America 3 all about the growing rift between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, Marvel Studios made the editorial decision to cut short the Winter Soldier’s redemption arc. He will still be in the movie, but he’s likely to be relegated to a B-plot rather than getting the central role most fans were expecting.

After months of pouring their energy into analysing and celebrating every infinitesimal detail of the Winter Soldier, his current storyline could be put on the backburner. And with Chris Evans likely to quit the franchise after his sixth movie, the Winter Soldier may have to find redemption—or closure—without backup from Steve Rogers.

On the whole, it’s just as well that Winter Soldier fans seem to enjoy misery, because this could shape up to be a frustrating example of life imitating art.

Photo via Marvel.com

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor