There are few things more fun than a (well done) villain to hero story, whether it’s a redemptive arc like Zuko’s or a heartfelt rebellion like Finn at the start of The Force Awakens. A surefire way to switch up alliances is to throw brainwashing into the mix, a la Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes or Princess Twilight from the current wholesome and unstressful light of my life Go! Princess Precure. Just un-brainwash ‘em and you have a perfect new member of your main cast of good guys, right? Unfortunately, this is not always the case, as a villain-to-hero story is often more complex, especially when it deals with the kind of trauma and guilt that comes from being the enemy’s human weapon… which, interestingly enough, I’d argue that the kids’ anime about magic princesses does much, much better than the blockbuster superhero series.
The main antagonist for a significant arc of Princess Precure is the mysterious Princess Twilight, almost an anti-Precure who uses dark and scary-looking versions of their transformation keys, vouches for the power of despair rather than hope, and wears black and red instead of wholesome pastels. She’s generally a scary badass and much more intelligent and calculating than the villainous assistants who’ve been bumbling around trying to capture despair, and seems to be a minor Big Bad… and matters only get complicated further when we find out she’s our helpful fairy prince’s little sister, Towa, who disappeared without a trace as a little girl. Turns out she was enveloped into a forest of darkness and adopted/kidnapped by the Queen of Despair, who erased all her memories and turned her into her own personal princessy human weapon.
The Precures and Twilight have a climactic “I Know You’re In There Somewhere!” Fight and the prince plays the violin song that he and his sister always practiced together, and the music is enough to wake up Towa’s trapped memories and pop her out of her Twilight persona. She is rescued by the Precure and ends up joining their team, transforming her evil weapons into good ones with… literally the power of her own rage against her kidnapper, basically. She becomes Cure Scarlet, a fully-fledged good guy and member of the squad. And they all lived happily ever after!
Except, of course, that it isn’t that simple—Towa was kidnapped, brainwashed, and made to do terrible things for many years, all of which is weighing heavy on her shoulders. It brings up the same issue that Civil War did, i.e. is Bucky Barnes accountable for the crimes he committed as The Winter Soldier? Is Towa accountable for what she did as Princess Twilight? Cure Flora/Steve Rogers say no, of course not, your agency was stripped away and you didn’t know any better. Both brainwashed badasses still feel resonating guilt, though, to the point where Towa projects as many symptoms of depression as a kids’ series can show. She’s messed up by what’s happened, and rightly so. How do you start to recover from something like that?
Interestingly enough… Princess Precure shows us how she begins to recover from that. Towa isn’t suddenly fine the instant she’s rescued, in fact for the first couple of episodes she’s utterly miserable and sick to the stomach about the sins she’s committed as Princess Twilight. Flora just saying “Aw, you were brainwashed, it’s not your fault!” doesn’t break through because that’s often just not how crushing despair works—which is even addressed in an episode where the moral is “hey, maybe rushing around having a really good time with new friends isn’t what this traumatised kid needs right now… maybe we should ask her what she feels like and back off/quiet down accordingly”. There’s a long arc of episodes where Towa slowly bonds with each main character and she gradually comes out of her shell with their support, whether that’s being comforted through her fear of the dark (y’know, because she lived in a kingdom of darkness for years) or encouraged to be honest and confident with these new friends who love her.
And like… it just keeps coming back. Even if it’s momentary, the show continues to remind you that Towa was brainwashed and used and feels really guilty and traumatised by it. Which was incredible to me, since (despite being spoiled by gems like Steven Universe) I know how common it is for kids’ shows to stick to the status quo and move on with little to no sense of consequence between episodes. Especially amazing that it openly explored the business of supporting a friend through PTSD, and showed that friend’s slow and steady recovery through that emotional support network. You can see Towa become braver and more open in personality as she gains confidence, both in social situations and in beating up monsters.
There is… no such sense of progression for Bucky Barnes. There’s a two year-ish timeskip between the end of The Winter Soldier and Civil War, as there often is to keep the movies “set in the modern day”, and so when we meet Bucky again he’s… just kind of doing his thing and seems different and fine. Not fine as in recovered, obviously, but there’s certainly a degree of humanness and capability he didn’t have as The Winter Soldier—which is pretty astounding, because what that tells us is that in two years living on his own, after initially being left homeless and with no contacts or assets, he’s not only mellowed from super soldier into regular (if scruffy) citizen but has recovered enough from having his brain played with and his body dehumanised to be living on his own in a strange foreign city (how did he get there without a passport? Wouldn’t an international assassin be on someone’s watch list even if TWS is “a ghost”??) going about his daily business eating plums.
Does he have his memories back? How did that happen—a slow process encouraged by research, or in frightening fits and starts? How did he get that apartment? Is he earning money somehow? If so, who hired him? Does he have friends or a support network somewhere or has he been (as the implication seems) completely alone for two years? How the hell has he adjusted to suddenly being an ordinary guy in a modern, unfamiliar world… while simultaneously trying to reconcile his jumbled, erased memories of his personhood and deal with the crushing guilt upon realising he’s been doing terrible things and may have beaten up his only living friend?
None of this is addressed. I don’t want to be so flippant as to say the movie goes “oh, Bucky’s fine now, move on” but it sure as hell doesn’t give me any of the emotional and psychological resolution I wanted from the end of The Winter Soldier. The most baffling thing, both in terms of in-story logic and wasted potential, is that Bucky apparently turned out okay-ish without Steve. Without a support network, without someone to ground him, without the only person who he could personally relate to and who would have been willing to drop everything and help him out. Without the most important and potentially fun and interesting character dynamic throughout the trio of movies. Waste.
Generally speaking, you don’t just “get okay” after unspeakable abuse and trauma on your own. I’m perfectly willing to believe that, say, Bucky got adopted by a Romanian grandma who thought he looked hungry and needed a strong man to help around the house, and became his anchor to normal life and a weird sort of found family. In fact, I would love a short film of that right now, Marvel, please and thank you. But it can only ever be speculation because we have no idea how Bucky’s recovered, so much so that it almost seems handwaved—time passed, guys. He’s fine now. Time to move the plot forward.
And I get that this is a movie rather than a series and Civil War didn’t have the time to draw out an exploratory arc like Princess Precure, because there was Plot to do. But the thing is, given how important Bucky was in the previous Captain America film—because, as it’s easy to forget, Civil War was actually a Captain America film (may contain traces of Iron Man)—he should, by all means, have had a lot more screentime and resonance in the plot of Captain America 3. Bucky should have been the plot, as opposed to a central sort of device and story-starter within greater machinations. It was what was set up in The Winter Soldier, and set up masterfully so, so much that the lack of emotional payoff feels like an incredibly lazy punch in the face. I blame this, I must disclaim, on Meddling Executives and not necessarily on the Russo brothers. The point remains though—Bucky is presented as a fascinating character with a potentially fascinating arc about re-finding yourself after your sense of self was stripped away by years of torture and dehumanisation… and it never gets resolved or addressed. Which is both annoying storytelling and an insult to trauma victims who might have identified with him. Eh, give it time, eat some plums, or something—you’ll be fine.
Long story short, if you want a genuinely satisfying villain-to-hero transition that addresses all the awfulness that would likely hang over your head and heart post-brainwashing, watch Go! Princess Precure and leave the MCU to the wayside. How is Towa coping now that she’s realised she did terrible things? Not well; it’s addressed. How is Towa getting by in everyday life in a world she knows nothing about? Addressed; she is confused by many elements of modern Japan, such as the fact she no longer has maids or regal power and doesn’t know what doughnuts are, but is eased in and helped out by her friends (who she’s staying in the school dorms with—living quarters, addressed!). Is there hope for her after her dark past? Addressed; yes, there is, but only with a lot of hard work and caring support that you actually see on screen. And it’s also worth mentioning that at no point does Towa get put back in a fridge.
Until I get that short about Bucky being adopted by the tiny Eastern-European grandma, I will not be satisfied.