A Romance of the Histories by Prithiva Sharma

The largest grossing movie of 2019, Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame concluded a decade long cinematic saga that had started in 2008. Surprisingly, it left fans unsatisfied, and led to the exponential rise of fan fiction within the genre of ‘fix-its’. In simple terms, a fix-it is supposed to “fix” what is seen to be erroneous in the movie; particularly any faults with the ending. As per the popular public review, the ending of Steve Rogers’ character arc wherein he time travels back to his ‘past love’ Agent Margaret “Peggy” Carter is ‘illogical’, and merely an attempt to establish and maintain heteronormativity; keeping in mind a certain sense of homo-romantic/homosexual relationship Steve was seen to have with his best friend, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes. This essay highlights the category of fan fiction involving this romantic relationship (called a “ship” within fan fiction culture) which historicizes this romance by drawing parallels to what is seen to be a similar homoerotic/homo-romantic pairing within Greek mythological tradition, Achilles and Patroclus[1].

To begin with, both the pairings (referred to as Stucky (Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes and Patrochilles Achilles/Patroclus henceforth) span a long period of time, with an established strong friendship and homosociality defined between them. The question regarding the dynamics of their relationship come to light for two reasons – in the case of Patrochilles, it is because of the clear contrast between this relationship and any other relationship in Homer’s Iliad, and the events that Achilles unfolds affected by the grief of Patroclus’ death. In Stucky’s case – the questions arise out of the notion that many of the tropes which their relationship carries, and many of the events that they have gone through together (both within the comic and the cinematic universe) would be considered romantic if either of the two would have been a woman. In this sense, the questions that demanded the exploration of this dynamic and consequently led to the writing of fan works were not distinct in nature. A major example of fictional work which can be considered within category of fan work loosely is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller[2], wherein she explores the dynamics of Patrochilles.

The argument made by those who support a homo-romantic bond between both the pairings can be partially defined in this statement made by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who were the co-authors on one of the Captain America issues[3], Captain America: White:

“Platonic though the relationship may be, from the meet cute to the tragic separation, their bond has all the elements of a classic romance. These two men love each other – just as any pair of friends who have faced exclusion, combat, inhumanity and death would. Their bond stretches across half of the twentieth century. Steve and Bucky are each other’s soulmate, if you will, because no one on Earth understands what either of them has been through as well as the other does.”

This statement has been taken to highlight not only what the relationship encompasses but also what part of the problem is–establishing a norm of heterosexuality where there are clear evidences that say otherwise. 

To trace parallels between Stucky and Patrochilles, one can begin by comparing the reaction of Achilles to Patroclus’ death in Homer’s Iliad and that of Steve’s to Bucky across the comics and movies. In Iliad, when Patroclus dies, Achilles is distraught. He is seen to throw ash on his head as a sign of grief[4], and there are several scenes after that which describe him sitting beside Patroclus’ body, embracing him. Prior to this moment, there was no excessive physical contact shown between the two men; and it was this scene which first sparked the debates surrounding the nature of their relationship[5]. The three biggest instances, however, are: the time when, during Patroclus’ funeral games, Achilles declares that the loss of Patroclus is bigger than any other loss to him–even more-so than that of a father or a brother[6]. The second event is Achilles’ re-entry into the war, his refusal to burn Patroclus yet, and his promise that he will burn him only when he kills Hector and brings his body to Patroclus’ pyre. This reaction even shocks the Gods due to the sheer brutality of the nature of Achilles’ warfare in his quest to avenge Patroclus; and they have to intervene for him to return Hector’s body to Priam. The third instance is Patroclus’ soul appearing in Achilles’ dream, which he wishes to “come near and embrace,” telling him “do not bury me away from you, but next to you”[7]. Achilles, with the knowledge of his death, promises to always remember Patroclus–even though there is no remembrance of the dead in Hades’ domain[8].

To draw direct parallels: Steve and Bucky were shown to be physically affectionate since the beginning; but it was also made clear that Bucky was constantly in and out of heterosexual relationships. The biggest parallel, which is Steve’s reaction to Bucky’s death is not so different from that of Achilles’. In the beginning of Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve expresses a desire to not kill anyone, assumedly owing to his catholic upbringing. In the middle of the movie, however, when his best friend Bucky dies, Steve’s thoughts change – “I will not stop until all of Hydra is dead or captured.” This can be seen as a modern day parallel to Achilles going on a revenge spree. Not only this–in one of the earlier comic issues when Steve loses Bucky during the plot of the comic, he says – “I have fought and battled across this cursed land for Bucky, and I will not stop until I find him!”; which can also be used to highlight how his character’s alter-ego, Captain America, came into being because of his mission to save his friend. 

Certain other moments throughout the movies: when Bucky breaks out of seven decades of brainwashing on recognizing Steve saying their vow to each other[9] – I’m with you till the end of the line; Steve’s famously quoted words – “Even when I had nothing I had Bucky”; Steve going against American government and the UN to save Bucky, and Bucky sacrificing himself to save Steve[10]. These are a few of the famous moments put forward when the topic of a homo-romantic Stucky dynamic comes up. 

Another Patrochilles and Stucky parallel is when, in certain versions of their narrative, Patroclus’ last words are Achilles’ name; similarly, when Bucky “dies” in the penultimate movie in the franchise[11], his last word is Steve’s name as well. 

All these are tropes that are common to heterosexual romances–tragic separations, reunions, epic love and its ‘power’; and Chariton of Aphrodisias highlights it by using the Patrochilles homo-romantic tropes from Iliad for his heterosexual work Chaereas and Callirhoe. 

Thus, a major amount of fan fiction created after the release of Avengers: Endgame deals with the politics of heteronormativity and how Steve “abandoning” Bucky was inconsistent with his character development; and the fix-it works created explore the possible homoerotic, homo-romantic and homosexual relationships which were traced. 

Foucault, when faced with the question were Greek men bisexual, theorized that Greeks did not recognize “two kinds of desire” between men and women. They just recognized “beautiful human beings,” irrespective of their sex. This is a driving theory for most modern fan work exploring alternate sexualities within the canon that refuses to acknowledge such possibilities. It cannot be denied, to a viewer of these movies or a reader of these comics, that, had either Bucky or Steve been female, it would have been termed as an epic romance; and it appears to have been the same for Patrochilles.


Footnotes:

[1]  In popular culture, the ships are called Stucky and Patrochilles, respectively.

[2] 2011.

[3] McFeely was also involved in writing the script of Avengers: Endgame

[4] Iliad, 18.22-24

[5] Clarke, W.M. 1978

[6] Iliad, 23.

[7] Ibid, 23.66

[8] Morales and Mariscal. 2003

[9] Captain America: The Winter Soldier

[10] Captain America: Civil War

[11] Avengers: Infinity War

Bibliography:

Adkins, A.W.H. “Values, Goals and Emotions in The Iliad.” Classical Philology 77 (1982): 292-326.

Avengers: Infinity War. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo. Performed by Sebastian Stan Chris Evans. 2018.

Captain America: Civil War. Directed by Joe Russo. Performed by Sebastian Stan, Robert Downey Jr. Chris Evans. 2016.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo. Performed by Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson Chris Evans. 2014.

Clarke, W.M. “Achilles and Patroclus in Love.” Hermes 3 (1978): 381-396.

Earle, William James. “Foucault’s “The Use of Pleasure” as Philosophy.” Metaphilosophy 20 (1989): 169-177.

Klara Bartova. Jaroslava Valentova. “Evolutionary Perspective of Same-Sex Sexuality: Homosexuality and Homosociality Revisited.” Anthropolgie 50 (1962): 61-70.

Manuel Sanz Morale. Gabriel Laguna Mariscal. “The Relationship Between Achilles and Patroclus according to Chariton of Aphrodisias.” The Classical Quarterly 53 (2003): 292-295.

Miller, Madelline. The Song of Achilles. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

Pence, Mike J. Sean, Griffrin, Ed., Hetero: Queering Representations of Straightness. Book Review, New York: State University of New York, 2009.

Schuckmann, Patrick. “Masculinity, the Male Spectator and Homoerotic Gaze.” American Studies/Amerikastudien 43 (1998): 671-680.

Avengers: Endgame. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo. Performed by Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. 2019.

Captain America: The First Avenger. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo. Performed by Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. 2011.

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