by Eric Deggans
Warning: There are spoilers aplenty here regarding the final episode in the first season of Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
It’s tough to imagine a better week for TV fans to meet a Black Captain America.
Days after the world exhaled in relief as Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, Marvel unveiled Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson as the new Captain America — in the process, making a poignant argument for why a Black hero would stand up to a defend a country that often mistreats people who look just like him.
The reveal came during the final episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a Disney+ series that mixed splashy fight scenes and awesome cameos from underused Marvel movie characters with weighty talk about the nature of heroism.
The consequence of the reveal was underscored by a new series title flashed at the end of the season finale: Captain America and the Winter Soldier. As any real superhero fan knows, the original Captain America — Chris Evans’ blue-eyed dreamboat Steve Rogers — decided to return to the 1940s and live out his life as a normal man at the end of Avengers: Endgame. Rogers’ last act in that movie was to hand his legendary shield over to Sam Wilson as an old man, encouraging his former sidekick to continue its heroic legacy.
But having a Black man step up to be a symbol of America at a time when police brutality and systemic racism are front-page issues couldn’t be a simple matter.
Even though the first season of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier focused on a complicated plot about super-powered freedom fighters becoming terrorists, the real purpose was to spend six episodes transforming the Falcon. We watched him become a Black hero who could shoulder Captain America’s red-white-and-blue Vibranium shield, fully aware of all the issues he was taking on.
“Every time I pick this thing up, I know there are millions of people out there who are going to hate me for it,” Wilson says in one poignant speech in the season finale. “Yet I’m still here. No super serum. No blond hair or blue eyes. The only power I have, is to believe we can do better.” At a time when average people are risking their safety to protest police brutality, putting so much on the line for the belief that America can be made better by the hard work of earnest people, that kind of speech feels like a rallying cry.
In the comic books, Marvel’s storytellers realized a long time ago that Captain America had the most impact when he challenged and resisted the nation’s exceptionalist propaganda, rather than reflecting it. So it was particularly satisfying to see this series create a Captain America for a new age – when so much of the nation’s systemic racism is directly challenged.
This also explains why so much in this series outside of Sam Wilson’s storylines felt so underdeveloped, especially the supposed bad guys, terrorist/freedom fighters, the Flag Smashers. These were average people who had taken a substance similar to the “super soldier serum” which gave the original Captain America his increased speed, stamina and strength. If you need to dig into the complicated backstory of the Flag Smashers, you can read it here.
Suffice it to say, these villains were so average, they added little beyond motivation for Wilson’s Falcon and Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier to bond. The Flag Smashers also gave a reason for the heroes to tap the expertise of a villain dedicated to killing anyone who takes a super soldier serum, Daniel Bruhl’s Baron Zemo.
I wish the show had also spent a little more time with John Walker, the PTSD-suffering ex-soldier initially selected by clueless American officials to be the new Captain America — only to lose the title when he murdered one of the Flag Smashers. Walker, played by blue-eyed celebrity son Wyatt Russell, is seen in the last episode with another compelling character, Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a hint we’ll see more of both.
Here, Walker was positioned mostly as a nightmarish example of what happens when an insecure, damaged guy chases the mantle of Captain America – and the super soldier serum – for all the wrong reasons. (I still don’t understand why his only punishment for killing a subdued terrorist suspect in broad daylight was losing a job. Though that does sound familiar.)
I’ll also jump down the superhero fandom rabbit hole a bit more to complain about one other thing in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: the fight scenes. Marvel’s superhero movies have always been careful about how each hero’s power stacks up against others, even across movies. So it always irritated me a bit that these Flag Smashers, who are essentially average – if desperate – folks given great speed and strength from a serum, could successfully take on the Winter Soldier, a highly trained assassin with matching speed and strength, a Vibranium arm and who fought the original Captain America to a draw several times. OK. I feel better now.
I’ll be honest: As a Black comic book and superhero fan, I wasn’t always in love with Marvel’s big screen version of Sam Wilson/The Falcon. The films had a way of always reminding us he was Captain America’s second fiddle – in ways the character himself, a proud Black man, inexplicably encouraged. “I do what he does, just slower,” Wilson said, nodding toward beefcake white hero Steve Rogers in one memorable line from the 2014 film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Ugh.
Black characters accepting a subordinate status always rubs me the wrong way. So it was a revelation to see the argument made in this series that all the performance-enhancing serums, propaganda rallies and traditionally white-bread staffing decisions in the world can’t surpass a dedicated Black man determined to defend his nation while also holding it accountable.
Pulling off that two-step of defense and accountability might just be the biggest feat this new Captain America achieves.
And this Black superhero comics nerd can’t wait to see him try.