At its core, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a meditation on what Captain America means.
The series unfolds in the wake of Avengers: Endgame, which saw Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) passing the mantle to Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Handing the shield to Sam, Steve asks, “How does it feel?” Sam responds, “Like it’s someone else’s.” This snippet of conversation replays over the opening minutes of the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, setting up the primary theme of the show. Sam has to make the shield his own. He has to decide if he wants to be Captain America and what it means to be Captain America.
Throughout the show, Sam is confronted with mirrors and analogues. He meets Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), the African American super soldier who was arrested and experimented upon by the country that he served, erased from history like so many minority servicemen. He is confronted with the entitled John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the blonde-haired and blue-eyed veteran recruited by the United States government as the new Captain America.
Sam is paralleled with other characters. Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is reintroduced as a member of the aristocracy of a country that no longer exists after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) has taken the super soldier serum and leads a group known as “the Flagsmashers,” hoping to abolish borders and nationalism completely. All of these characters exist as a point of contrast, a way for Sam to figure out what kind of hero Captain America needs to be right now.
To put it simply, it is a turbulent time for American self-image. The past few years have seen the erosion of the United States’ position as a global leader. The country is highly politically divided. Studies suggest that the nation is increasingly pessimistic about the future. More recently, the country struggled to cope with the global pandemic. There are ongoing debates about the perceived end of American exceptionalism.
As a result, it is more important than ever to define what Captain America needs to be. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was obviously plotted before a lot of the more recent challenges, but it reflects that anxiety. It understands that Captain America carries a symbolic weight that Iron Man or the Incredible Hulk does not. “Everybody in the world expects me to be something,” John Walker tells his wife Olivia (Gabrielle Byndloss). It’s important to figure out what that something is.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier deserves credit for wading into themes relating to race, acknowledging that Captain America cannot be an ideal that speaks exclusively to white Americans. Karli even calls out the shield as “a reminder of all the people history just left out.” This applies to Sam himself. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier dedicates an entire subplot to the challenges facing Sam’s sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) in keeping the family business afloat.
Karli asks Sarah what she thinks of Walker as Captain America. “I didn’t choose him,” Sarah replies. “My world doesn’t matter to America, so why should I care about its mascot?” The experiments conducted on Isaiah evoke real-world horrors like the radiation trials conducted on prisoners and the syphilis experiences conducted on black men. “They will never let a black man be Captain America,” Isaiah warns Sam. “And even if they did, no self-respecting black man would ever wanna be.”
This is very important and very commendable, but it runs up against the biggest problem with how The Falcon and the Winter Soldier defines the idea of Captain America. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is much more interested in arguing for what Captain America isn’t. The show argues by way of negative comparisons, illustrating the kind of hero that Captain America shouldn’t be. It hesitates to make any meaningful positive arguments about what Captain America should represent.
For example, the Isaiah Bradley plotline makes it clear that Captain America should no longer ignore the experience of African Americans. The John Walker angle insists that Captain America cannot be an expression of self-righteousness that hurts innocent civilians as shows of strength. The Karli Morgenthau thread insists that Captain America must not get so lost in cynical moral relativism about how “complicated” the world is that the ends justify the means.
All of this is good, but none of it is a proactive statement of what it means to be a hero in the modern world. It is not a statement of purpose or direction, but simply a marking of certain concepts as “out of bounds.” More than that, as commendable as the focus on Isaiah Bradley has been, it’s hardly a bold argument to contend (as both the Walker and Morgenthau plots do) that “Captain America shouldn’t kill unarmed civilians.” Hopefully, that’s not controversial in itself.
To illustrate this point, consider the basic premise of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. At the climax of Avengers: Infinity War, half the world’s population disappeared. This had significant social repercussions. As Sam explains, “For five years, people have been welcomed into countries that have kept them out using barbwire. There were houses and jobs. Folks were happy to have people around to help them rebuild.” However, in Endgame, that half of the population returned, displacing those immigrants.
While the setup is a very “comic book” premise, it has any number of real-world antecedents. The decision to set the show largely in Europe invites comparisons to the migrant camps at the edge of the European Union. However, it also taps into the exploitation of immigrant labor in the United States at a time when the country considered building a giant wall on its border. More broadly, it reflects the ascent of radical nationalism across the globe. This is a heady topic.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is unambiguously clear that the “resettlement camps” are horrific and that the migrants trapped within them are suffering. Karli’s mentor figure “Mama Donnya” (Veronica Falcon) dies from tuberculosis because conditions in the camps are so bad. There are no doctors or teachers to tend to the children. The show is sympathetic to Karli’s anger and frustration. “I agree with your fight,” Sam tells Karli. “I just can’t get with the way you’re fightin’ it.”
This is another negative statement from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. While Karli might be fighting for a good cause, she is doing it in the wrong way. Notably, she kills a bunch of civilians in the sort of blunt moral event horizon that exists largely to prevent the audience from feeling too sympathetic to her. However, here’s the question that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier never answers: If Karli is fighting the wrong way, what is the right way?
This is important because nobody except Karli is doing anything to help these people. Sam is brought in to stop Karli from stealing medical supplies to help her community, but he returns home to Louisiana after a big fight with Walker. Even at the show’s climax, Sam is less concerned with helping the dispossessed than he is with catching Karli; he doesn’t act to stop the systemic abuses conducted by the Global Repatriation Council, but to protect that body from Karli.
The final episode fleetingly touches on this. After a climactic battle in which Walker is redeemed and Karli is killed, Sam confronts the GRC to berate them for their heartlessness. Even then, the episode pulls its punches. “This isn’t about easy decisions, Senator,” Sam warns the anonymous chairman (Alphie Hyorth). He delivers a stirring monologue to the news cameras about the plight of the refugees, and exposition later in the episode suggests that the GRC’s efforts to forcibly repatriate the refugees have been halted.
However, things are no longer getting worse, but are they getting better? It’s not made clear that the camps are being shut down and the displaced refugees are being allowed to settle. The framing of the news is deliberately vague coverage of “changes in (GRC) overall policies.” It recalls the reality that, despite a “commitment to a fair and humane immigration system,” the Biden administration continues to operate detention camps on the U.S.-Mexico border and follow a policy that divides families. “The only power I have is that I believe we can do better,” Sam states, a trite sentiment given that the heroes resurrected half of the life in the universe in Endgame.
This gets back to the core question that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier asks and then refuses to answer: What does Captain America stand for? After all, the character was first introduced to readers making a proactive political statement about what America should be, punching Hitler in the face a full year before Pearl Harbor. That was a firm declaration of intent and identity, even at a time when the prospect of American entry into the Second World War was massively unpopular.
Weirdly, the cinematic Captain America franchise largely ignores this history. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve enlists after America has declared war on Germany. While there’s a cute nod to that iconic cover, Captain America doesn’t fight Nazis. The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) kills more Nazis on screen than Captain America. The First Avenger even refuses to present the Red Skull as an expression of toxic Nazi nationalism, taunting Steve, “I have seen the future, Captain! There are no flags!”
The Captain America movies largely avoid interrogating what exactly Steve Rogers’ nationalism means, by refusing to contrast it with a more explicitly toxic version in The First Avenger and then by turning the character into an international fugitive in Civil War. These sorts of questions are essential to Captain America, who spent extended portions of his comic book history battling thinly veiled stand-ins for the Ku Klux Klan or Richard Nixon.
Of course, there are reasons why The Falcon and the Winter Soldier would be reluctant to make any sort of positive statement about what Captain America should be. In a country as polarized as the United States, any positive statement about the character’s identity would risk potentially alienating viewers. It is better to define what Captain America isn’t, marking boundaries at various extremes while avoiding any specifics. It’s all a blur.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier asks a lot of interesting questions about what it means to be Captain America in 2021. It just refuses to provide any substantive answers.