Over the spring, fans everywhere got to watch the development of one of the most unconventional heroic bonds in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier gave us six episodes of evolution for Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. Now that bond is stronger than ever, but if you ask star Anthony Mackie, trying to label their relationship feels a little reductive.
Each character was introduced to the MCU as a close friend to Steve Rogers, united by their connection to Captain America but divided by different eras, different backgrounds, and different struggles. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier showed us how the two men began to bridge those divides in the wake of Steve's absence from their narrative, as Bucky worked to make amends for past wrongs and Sam worked to get out from under the shadow of his own idea of what Captain America should be.
Naturally, watching Sam and Bucky get closer over the course of six episodes on Disney+ fostered plenty of fan response, as viewers responded to the characters both individually and as a unit. And as with so many things, the connection between Sam and Bucky forged a 'shipping fandom, as viewers everywhere drew romantic links between the men in their own minds, no matter how indirectly the show may have suggested such things.
Speaking with Variety's Awards Circuit podcast, Mackie -- who, by the end of the show, had fulfilled a dream by stepping into his own version of the Captain America costume -- explained his take on the fans who've drawn homoerotic ties between the characters. While he seems to understand the connection, Mackie noted that he's also wary about labeling it a romantic one, as he explained:
“So many things are twisted and convoluted. There’s so many things that people latch on to with their own devices to make themselves relevant and rational,” Mackie said. “The idea of two guys being friends and loving each other in 2021 is a problem because of the exploitation of homosexuality. It used to be guys can be friends, we can hang out, and it was cool. You would always meet your friends at the bar, you know. You can’t do that anymore, because something as pure and beautiful as homosexuality has been exploited by people who are trying to rationalize themselves. So something that’s always been very important to me is showing a sensitive masculine figure. There’s nothing more masculine than being a superhero and flying around and beating people up. But there’s nothing more sensitive than having emotional conversations and a kindred spirit friendship with someone that you care about and love.”
Mackie's response to the pairing of Sam and Bucky in the minds of fans seems to be less about the 'shipping aspect and more about rebuking homophobic responses that might write off the broader spectrum of connection between two men, and of course nothing is stopping fans from developing their own headcanon between the characters. For Mackie, though, it's another version of the dynamic between Sam and Steve back in the days of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, albeit with a longer journey to acceptance.
“Sam and Steve had a relationship where they admired, appreciated and loved each other,” Mackie said. “Bucky and Sam have a relationship where they learn how to accept, appreciate and love each other. You’d call it a bromance, but it’s literally just two guys who have each other’s backs.”
As with so many other major franchises in modern pop culture, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken flack for "queerbaiting" with various characters, suggesting LGBTQ+ characters without ever actually depicting them, or depicting them in passing without allowing them to be the stars of their own stories. While it's not happening in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, though, the MCU is finally set to introduce an LGBTQ+ superhero in Eternals later this year. As for Sam and Bucky and their sensitive male bond, they'll hopefully pick up where they left off in the developing fourth Captain America film from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier writer Malcolm Spellman.