While adjusting to life in 2000s New York City, Steve Rogers receives an astonishing call from S.H.I.E.L.D.: the Red Skull has been assassinated and whoever killed him has stolen the Cosmic Cube. With the help of Sharon Carter, Steve follows the Skull's posthumous tracks for his mass bombings across the world, while Nick Fury investigates their prime suspect, Alexander Lukin, the CEO of Kronas Corporation. What clues they find seem to indicate that Lukin now has control of a Reality Warping artifact, and of a Cold War legend known as the Winter Soldier...
The events of this arc were loosely adapted in the 2014 movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As a tie-in to the film, the comic was reprinted in a deluxe hardcover edition. Additionally, Brubaker himself made a cameo in the film.
Captain America: Winter Soldier provides examples of:
- Artifact of Doom: The Cosmic Cube of course, as With Great Power Comes Great Insanity. Lukin eventually grows savvy enough about how dangerous it is that he orders it buried in a remote vault in West Virginia, and does not even mind when it ends up being destroyed in the process.
- Author Filibuster / Character Filibuster: While taking a stroll with Sharon through Paris, Steve talks at length about his time fighting with the French Resistance, and how he resents Americans calling the French cowards when Steve saw men, women, and children fighting with whatever scraps they could to get the Nazis off their land. It's actually not a bad speech, as Brubaker shows his work about the Western Front, and wrote it in response to Ultimate Captain America's infamous "You think this A on my head stands for France?" taunt.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: A skeptical businessman at Lukin's bidding of the Cosmic Cube demands he show proof that this is really is the actual Cube. Lukin responds by using its power to mind control all the execs there, who promptly sign documents that make all their companies subsidiaries of Kronas Corp.
- Big Bad: Aleksander Lukin, who ordered the Red Skull's death, commands the Winter Soldier, blows up a city to power the Cosmic Cube, and wants its power to expand his company and reinstate Soviet Russia.
- Cerebus Retcon: When Bucky was first introduced, he was a chipper early teens boy who accidentally discovered Captain America's Secret Identity, and so was made into his sidekick by the Army. Here Steve Rogers reveals that was just propaganda. Bucky was sixteen when he first became Steve's partner, and he wasn't some lucky fanboy but a Military Brat who was trained to be a deadly assassin. It was his job to do the black ops messy bits Captain America couldn't be seen doing. Far cry from the cheery Kid Sidekick introduced in the 1940s.
- Child Soldiers: The story pitched to the public was that Bucky was a counter-symbol to the Hitler Youth just as Captain America was a counter-symbol to the Red Skull. While this was mostly true, what wasn't said was that Bucky had basically been living on a military base most of his life, so he was no mere kid anymore. The general overseeing Project Rebirth considering deploying Bucky an acceptable rule-bending, as he figured there were plenty of 16 year-olds in the Army who had lied to enlist. Unlike most depictions of this trope, though, Bucky is relatively well-adjusted, lacking the sociopathic attitude of most child soldiers and willing to show mercy and spare prisoners.
- Comic-Book Time:
- Averted in the World War II flashbacks, where Bucky does grow up. When he first meets Steve Rogers he's 16. By the time of his death from Zemo's plane he's nearly 21.
- By the time he meets Steve as Winter Soldier, Bucky has reached 25 years of age. He's only gotten five years older in 60 years time, but it's justified by his handlers' use of cryogenic stasis.
- While visiting Arlington National Cemetery, Steve laments that he couldn't be around to see the Civil Rights movement or the Moon Landing during the 60s. In the real world, Cap's return to comics came in 1964, but the comics' timeline keeps moving back the date of when he returned.
- C-List Fodder:
- Disney Death:
- Winter Soldier turns out to be Bucky Barnes, thought dead since 1945. Zemo's experimental bomb plane didn't kill him, but it blew off his left arm and wiped out his memories. He's been in stasis between assassination missions, having aged only five years biologically since World War II.
- After Steve uses the Cube to restore Bucky's memories, Barnes smashes the cube in a fit of rage, and it seemingly disintegrates him. Steve, however, insists he's still alive and it turns out he's right, as Bucky was teleported by the Cube to the ruins of Camp Lehigh.
- The Red Skull is assassinated at the end of the first issue, and S.H.I.E.L.D. does extensive testing on his corpse to be sure it's really him. But Lukin finds out to his detriment that the Skull's consciousness was preserved in the Cosmic Cube, and Lukin's frequent exposure to it has caused the Skull to reawaken inside Lukin's own mind.
- A Friend in Need: The Falcon shows up because Nick Fury told him Steve was in desperate need of a friend right then— Fury himself has to be the "Top Cop" and Sharon has a personal vendetta against the Winter Soldier, but all Sam does is ask what Steve wants to do and, when the answer is save Bucky, jumps right onboard.
- It's Personal:
- Sharon Carter has a personal reason for wanting the Winter Soldier dead, even after she learns he's Bucky: Winter Soldier caused the bombing in Philadelphia that killed her boyfriend Neal Tapper.
- Part of what unnerves Steve about Lukin's plot is that the man keeps making his schemes personal to Cap, including ordering the murder of his former partner Jack Monroe, kidnapping Sharon Carter, defacing the graves of former Captain Americas William Naslund and Jeffrey Mace, sending him false memories through the Cosmic Cube of Bucky's death, and even using his former friend Bucky Barnes against him. He even goes so far as to give Steve the file on Bucky's brainwashing and missions as the Winter Soldier. Steve doesn't understand why Lukin is trying so hard to screw with him, when until the last few days he'd never even heard of Lukin. It turns out to not be Lukin, but the Red Skull in Lukin's mind who has the real vendetta.
- My God, What Have I Done?:
- Lukin has a crisis of consciousness when he loses his temper and nearly kills his friend Leo. He then orders the Cosmic Cube to be sent someplace obscure and impenetrable where nobody can get it.
- After the Winter Soldier gets his memory back, he smashes the Cosmic Cube in anger of how many deaths it's caused. It teleports him in the process, and at first Sharon thinks Bucky must have killed himself in guilt with it.
- Never My Fault: During the Battle of Kronas, General Karpov sends his men to claim Red Skull's abandoned superweapon, despite Cap's urging not to. The weapon promptly self-destructs, killing the soldiers. Humiliated, Karpov blames Captain America for trying to hold him back from taking it.
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business:
- The first sign that the Cube is pushing Lukin off the deep end is when he casually threatens to castrate his friend Leo when he first insinuates something wrong with that thing. Later on he seriously claims he'll kill Leo if he speaks up about it again, culminating in throwing a table at him. It turns out to be the effects of the Red Skull possessing his mind.
- The businessmen at Lukin's bidding meeting demand to know that the Cube he's showing them is the real deal. Lukin points out that the fact that they're all here in his secret meeting room without their security is proof, as it's something they'd never do on their own if not for the Cube influencing them.
- After Winter Soldier is revealed to be Bucky, Steve and Sharon argue about if it's right to kill him. Both agree that Bucky as they knew him would never murder civilians, but Sharon insists all that's left of Bucky's consciousness is gone, while Steve claims he's still buried there underneath his brainwashing.
- Winter Soldier's handlers know something is seriously wrong when the assassin starts questioning their orders, and even flat-out doesn't show up at the extraction point after a mission on US soil, decamping to NYC instead. After that they keep him in stasis longer, and try to avoid deploying him again in the US when possible.
- Pet the Dog: Despite being a cruel prisoner-torturing man, General Karpov shows a kinder side when he adopts an orphan from the ruins of the village Kronas, a boy named Aleksander Lukin.
- Posthumous Character:
- The Red Skull is dead from issue one, and the first half of the story regards Steve and S.H.I.E.L.D. investigating and stopping his plot set pre-assassination to blow up major world capitals in order to power the Cosmic Cube.
- Lukin's megalomania and the Winter Soldier assassin turn out to be distant revenge plots by the long-deceased General Karpov, a Soviet general who blamed Captain America for the death of his men during World War II.
- Jack Monroe is killed off on his second page in the comic. An interlude issue reveals what he was doing the year beforehand, namely, dying of illness.
- Renegade Russian: Aleksander Lukin and his mercenaries are these. Many of them were high-ranking Soviet military, but after the Cold War ended went off the map, resentful of their loss of power. Lukin, a former general now-turned-CEO, hopes that with the Cosmic Cube he can recreate the USSR. In his very first scene, Red Guardian attempts to arrest him under the orders of President Yeltsin for "crimes against the Motherland", but Lukin kills him, retorting that he is all that's left of the true Motherland.
- Renegade Splinter Faction: The Red Skull's AID mooks setting his bombs turn out to be split-offs of AIM, another Marvel terrorist group. Several times Cap runs into AIM troopers trying to recover their own stolen bombs, though also for nefarious purposes.
- Screw This, I'm Out of Here!: After word of the Red Skull's death gets out, some of the AID troopers choose to flee rather than to continue his bombing plan. One of them even tries to steal a prototype AID mecha.
- "Shaggy Dog" Story: The Lonesome Death of Jack Monroe. It starts depressing enough, as Jack Monroe is known to be dead in a previous issue. This issue however, drives the knife even further by revealing Jack was already doomed to die thanks to the deteriorating superserum in his body. He chooses to use his last year alive to apprehend a drug dealer named Gunnar believed to be poisoning his adopted daughter (now in the custody of another family). As the serum drives him insane he ends up killing dozens of civilians over the following months, believing them to be gang members. Then he's killed by Winter Soldier.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: What really twists the knife? Not only does he never reach Gunnar in time to kill him, but the following page reveals Gunnar is just an ice cream salesman, who Monroe misheard bragging about his business.
- Superman Stays Out of Gotham: Iron Man joins Captain America and Falcon in storming an AID secret base, but he asks to be left out of the assault on Kronas's vault. His reason is that he just fought off a takeover from Lukin's company last month, and fears participating in a raid on a Kronas facility would look like corporate sabotage by Stark Industries. The Falcon still lends a hand in the raid, though.
- War Is Hell: Steve's flashback to the Battle of Kronas during World War II cements this. The Russian front is depicted as a freezing wasteland while battles are fought over less than a mile of land, and where Russian Allies might find themselves fighting their own cousins on the Axis.
- Wham Line:
Winter Soldier: Got [the Red Skull] in the crosshairs and took the shot. [...] He's dead.
- Out of Time #1:
Steve Rogers: Did you just say the Kronas Corporation? Kronas was a small village in Russia, not too far from Stalingrad.Karpov: What's your name, boy?Young Lukin: Alek.Karpov: You come with me, Alek. I'll [...] show you what it truly means to be Russian.
- Out of Time #5:
Sharon Carter: The guy we've been hunting—the man who killed the Red Skull—I've seen him! I think- I think it's Bucky!
- Out of Time #6
Gunnar: Those kids are just monsters for this stuff.
- The Lonesome Death of Jack Monroe:
Steve: Bucky?Winter Soldier: Who the hell is Bucky?
- Winter Soldier #8: Imported to the film verbatim.
Lukin: That Cube is cursed... Look what it's done to me, after all, putting a creature like you in my mind.
- Winter Soldier #14:
- Wham Shot:
- The final issue's last page reveals the Red Skull looking back at Lukin in the window reflection.
- Steve is hit with a whole host of these in Winter Soldier #8, when Nick Fury shows him photos dating back to the 50s, 60s, and 70s of a man who looks like Bucky Barnes at airports, under 25 each time.