If WandaVision was an experiment within an experiment, Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a much more conventional limited TV series. It’s still very much a MCU work, with the higher budgets that come with a show like this. However, if you were expecting some more standard superheroic action, this is certainly the show for that. That said, this is, when all is said and done, a show in the vein of the Captain America movies, and like Cap’s comics counterpart, while all comics are political to some degree, Captain America comes to the table planning to be overtly political, with things to say, so to really discuss this show, I’m going to have to say upfront, I’m going to have to get into spoilers – starting below the cut.
From the moment Old Man Steve handed the shield to Falcon at the end of Avengers: Endgame, the next Marvel movie with Cap was going to have the up-front question to answer of “What does it mean for a Black Man to be Captain America?”
The comics had grappled with this for a bit before this, first with the problematic Captain America run by Nick Spencer, which (along with the introduction of Hydra Cap), also had Falcon clashing with anti-fascists and the Black Lives Matter movement. Then after that we had the much better received run by Ta-Nehisi Coates, but that had Steve Rogers more at the forefront than Falcon.
With Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we have the racial issues very much at the fore, with the series starting with Sam electing to not take up the mantle of Captain America, and to instead retire the title entirely, with The Shield being donated to the Smithsonian institution – only for the US government to basically immediately repossess the shield, in defiance of Sam’s wishes, and to give it, and the title of Cap, to Frank Walker, played with aplomb by Wyatt Russell.
Walker, who current comics fans know as the US Agent, basically encapsulates everything everyone who isn’t familiar with Marvel thought about before the first Captain America movie, when they heard the name “Captain America”. It’s a hero, or rather anti-hero, who represents not everything America aspires to be, but everything about the way America is perceived on the global stage. Loud, obnoxious, swaggering, throwing their weight around without consideration as to the larger picture.
On the other side, we have Sam, who is always willing to talk and to listen, even to his opponents, which matters, because the antagonists of this series are The Flag Smashers. The group (moving from one character in the comics to an organization) – is based around the second of the big chunks of political discussion in the show, this time related to worldbuilding. The idea is that The Snap caused an incredibly dramatic political shakeup in the world, with the disruptions to workforces and to business ownership forcing a break in social stratification unseen since the Black Death.
And then The Blip happened, and people wanted their homes back. They wanted their jobs back. Except the people who were living in those homes now, who had those jobs now didn’t want to be homeless or unemployed. In the MCU, the Global Resettlement Council was founded to resolve this problem, but their solution thus far was basically to try to press the reset button, and in the process displacing a bunch of other people, who don’t like that returning to the old status quo after 5 years would be doing them very dirty.
To the credit of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, they recognize that this is a very complex and thorny problem, and that they can’t solve it just in these 6 episodes – and they also present a really great job of actually giving this a “both sides” tack – with on the one hand even Sam, with all the clout of being an Avenger who helped save the world, faces the same prejudices he did as a Black man before, with the added complications on top of that of this happening in a world that is in the process of being flipped upside down twice. On the other, the Flag Smashers are shown as having a legitimate grievance, feeling like everything had been taken away, and with them having been given nothing in return.
On top of all of this is Bucky – who is coping with his memories, and the people he wronged as The Winter Soldier – and related to this the knowledge he had that the US government had attempted to recreate the Super Soldier serum, and experimented on black GI’s – leading to the inclusion of Isaiah Bradley from the Truth graphic novel. This really helps give voice as to the source of why Sam is conflicted. As Isaiah said at one point, when Sam talks about being given The Shield, in his view he’s confident that the government would never give a Black man the job of being Captain America, and if offered no self respecting Black man would accept it.
Which I think makes how everything comes to a head later in the series work very well. After Walker’s partner is killed by the leader of the Flag Smashers, Karli Morgenthau (who has been dosed with a replicated Super Soldier serum, along with several other members of the group), and after Walker had dosed himself with a dose of the serum that he’d stolen earlier from the Smashers, Frank beats an unarmed and surrendering Flag Smasher to death with The Shield. He does it in uniform. He does it in front of witnesses, who video record it. It doesn’t take 10 minutes, but the allusion is there. And, in a truth is stranger than fiction kind of way – what happens to Walker is what everyone feared would happen to George Floyd’s murderer, he’d just lose his job and pension, and then get “rehired” somewhere else (in this case as the US Agent) – as opposed to George Floyd’s murderer getting convicted on all counts.
So, when Sam takes down Walker and takes the flag back, he’s also, in the process, taking the mantle of Captain America back. He’s not accepting it as a bestowed honor from the government, he’s retaking something that arguably the government had taken away from them, and it gives the speech he gives at the end of the season finale some really serious weight.
In conclusion, I think Falcon and the Winter Soldier was very well done. I think having the extra time that they wouldn’t have in a movie let this show have a conversation about race that would have been more difficult to fit in with a movie (at least without upfront having somebody like The Hate Monger as the villain).
Falcon and the Winter Soldier is currently available for streaming on Disney Plus – sadly there isn’t a Blu-Ray or DVD available for pre-order as yet.
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