When The Falcon and The Winter Soldier began over six weeks ago, I was careful to keep my expectations in check. After the mostly wonderful WandaVision ended with what could only be described as a purple-red explosion of CGI witchy powers (the MCU at its most MCU, y’all), I began to question – perhaps unfairly – whether TFATWS could shoulder the heavy themes it intended to tackle. In particular, I hoped the show might follow in the footsteps of one of Marvel’s best cinematic entries, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, known for its contemporary themes, characterization, and action – so much for keeping my expectations in check. For example, could the show give Sam Wilson’s character the depth it needed to justify his ascendancy to the role of Captain America? And more importantly, would TFATWS explore the ramifications of a Black man taking up the mantle of America’s greatest hero? Concerning Bucky Barnes and his past as the Winter Soldier, would there be enough narrative room to properly delve into the formerly brainwashed assassin’s journey towards recovery? Finally, could these two characters, who had both played second fiddle to Steve Rogers’ Captain America over the lifetime of their existence in the MCU, carry an entire series? On top of all these questions, we haven’t even confronted the likes of John Walker, Karli Morgenthau and the Flag Smashers, Baron Zemo, and Sharon Carter. So, how did The Falcon and The Winter Soldier do?
Full spoilers for the show follow.
Let’s not dwell on the negative for too long, which unfortunately lies with the show’s main villains, the Flag Smashers. Even the name lends more gravitas to the group of freedom fighters (not terrorists, even though they blew up an entire building of people and tried to murder a group of politicians) than what they turned out to be. For example, every episode would dedicate a chunk of time to the Flag Smashers and their “plan” to restore the sense of togetherness and worldwide cooperation that had occurred during the five years after the Blip. I kept waiting for a click of understanding that would help me empathize with the Flag Smashers’ cause, or at the very least comprehend it. Instead, week after week, we were hit with the same exposition dumps and meaningless platitudes (One World, One People – I get it). We were never given a flashback of this “united world” that Karli often described; we never saw the desperation that led Karli and her followers to take the super soldier serum. I got the feeling the show was aiming to create a villain like Black Panther’s Killmonger, whose goal to empower the African American population using the technological prowess of Wakandan weapons was well-justified but misguided. The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, however, never took the time to understand Karli as a character (*). While I applaud the show for attempting to confront the topic of refugee politics, it fell enormously flat for me, culminating in the strange argument/cliché battle between Cap and the senator in the final episode. Maybe the scene worked better for everyone else, but to me, it simply felt overly theatrical and forced. Since I don’t have enough time to talk about the other characters in-depth, below are some summaries:
- Baron Zemo: I appreciate that the show stuck to the character’s core motivations and general attitude towards super soldiers from Civil War and love that they upped the smarminess and evil factor. Also, he likes Marvin Gaye and dances like the best of us, what’s not to love?
- John Walker: One of the things that TFATWS completely delivered on was John’s entitlement, his embodiment of outdated American values, and his misguided desperation to live up to Steve’s strength, rather than his empathy and leadership. US Agent – aka Fake Cap – was a memorable, complex villain that only became slightly confused after both Buck and Sam seemed to forgive him immediately after his extra-judicial killing just a week earlier.
- Sharon Carter: I’m glad Sharon’s role will be expanded past *generic MCU love interest number __*, but I would’ve liked to see more of her motivation for becoming a crime lord. Still, I’m glad she was revealed as the Power Broker and not some random villain (IT’S MEPHISTO, I SWEAR).
- Bucky Barnes: Two things happened in TFATWS that I’m so happy about: 1) Sam tells Bucky that it doesn’t matter what Steve thought – it’s only Bucky’s belief in himself that can help him regain confidence over his body and mind 2) Bucky acknowledges the fact that he and Steve didn’t consider the ramifications of giving the shield to Sam, a Black man (it’s ok, that’s what this show is for!). However, I’m slightly disappointed that the show implied Bucky was “totally cured” in Episode 6 – it undercuts the speech Sam gave in the previous episode about Bucky doing the work expressly to help those he’s hurt, rather than to make himself feel better (also, Bucky’s final talk with Yori was criminally rushed).
(*) Did anyone else get super confused when Karli’s last words were “I’m sorry”? I assume this was Marvel’s way of telling us she was remorseful for her actions, fulfilling the “sympathetic character” arc, but I’m pretty sure Karli showed absolutely zero hint of regret up until her death. Again, guys, she killed several innocent people and planned to kill more.
I think most of us can agree that Sam Wilson’s thematic journey is one of the best Marvel has ever put on screen. Not only did The Falcon and The Winter Soldier completely live up to my expectations in this regard, it exceeded them. Think back to one of the show’s defining questions: What does Captain America’s shield represent, and what should it represent? The answer, as expected, is different for every character. For Bucky, the shield represented his relationship with Steve, his only family. Moreover, it was a symbol of the hope Steve held in Bucky that he could escape his murderous past as the Winter Soldier. To Karli, the shield represented an outdated ideal of nationalism and everything the Flag Smashers aimed to abolish. To John Walker, the shield was a means to power. In several scenes, notice how Walker uses the shield as a weapon rather than a defensive tactic, or when Walker feels utterly helpless when the Dora Millaje stand over him with the shield in Episode 4. Zemo saw the shield as a corruptive force inherent in supremacy, akin to the super soldier serum itself. To Isaiah, it was the decades of oppression forced upon him by the government. But what does the shield mean to Sam?
Sam initially relinquishes the shield to the US government. Note his line in Episode 1: “Symbols are nothing without the men and women that give them meaning”. Believing that the shield singularly belonged to Steve, Sam felt he could never truly make the shield his own. Cleverly, the show evokes the feelings reflected by the audience: Captain America is a role that we’ve only seen inhabited by one man. So, we ask, why does Sam deserve the shield over anyone else? As Sam learns more about Captain America’s darker legacy during the course of the series, he begins to question what the mantle of Captain America itself might represent, as do the viewers. Crucially, rather than continuing to hold steadfast to Steve’s legacy – as Bucky, John, and even Karli have done thus far – Sam decides to let it go. There’s a greater opportunity within the role of Captain America, one not just limited to power or patriotism. Sam realizes that his purpose as Captain America is to uphold the voices that were previously silenced, and to make sure that the countless sacrifices of people like Isaiah will never be forgotten. Right before the climactic training montage in Episode 5, Sam espouses a commitment to the shield that I believe will be a cornerstone to his identity as Captain America: “What would be the point of all the pain and sacrifice if I wasn’t willing to stand up and keep fighting?” While rooted in a similar ideology to that of Steve’s, Sam’s Captain America acknowledges the myriad of perspectives and experiences that may be tied to the shield, such that the figure will be meaningful and accessible to considerably more people. That’s what makes moments like Sam’s nephew outlining the shield’s star in Episode 5 feel so powerful and well-earned.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s successful exposure of Captain America’s true legacy underlines an important facet in all Captain America stories – they work best when the ideals of America are questioned, not blindly upheld. The consistent nuance given to characters and realistic themes in the MCU’s version of Captain America makes me excited for what may be in store for the character next. Most of all, the show has successfully proven that Sam is the perfect man to take on the role. Now, as Bucky would say, let’s hear it for Captain America!