‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier:’ what it really means to be Captain America

April 30, 2021

The MCU/Disney+ hit series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has just concluded its six-episode season, and its six hour-long episodes covered and packed more of a punch than almost anything that the MCU has ever released, mostly for its nuance in discussing issues of race and American history.

These themes are most explicitly demonstrated in the way in which the transfer occurs of who gets to be Captain America after Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) dies. Before dying, fans will remember that in the events of the last movie “Endgame,” Steve had passed on the shield—the legacy of Captain America—to Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). However, the show opens with Sam deciding to give the shield to the American government, claiming that he doesn’t think himself the right person for the job. 

However, the government, after congratulating Sam on making the “right decision” and claiming that the shield would be safely stowed in a museum, goes and chooses a different—and noticeably white—military man named John Walker (Wyatt Russell). Everything about Walker is unsettling: the fact that he came from a school with a largely Black and brown population and yet remains the sole star of his school, the fact that he exclusively introduces himself as Captain America (whereas fans will remember Steve Rogers only ever called himself by his first name first), the fact that he believes that being a super soldier is the only way to become Captain America. Essentially, Walker is everything that Captain America isn’t supposed to be—or, more accurately, Walker is the flawed, titled version of Captain America that unmistakably parallels some unsettling beliefs and ideals of America itself: pro-military, white and obsessed with power. 

On the other hand, we have Sam: a Black man who represents all the dreams of America that could be or still might be. Since his introduction in “The Winter Soldier,” Sam Wilson has always been hard to not love—he helps veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and unquestionably sides with Steve in the events of the later movies, but it’s in this show that viewers see even more to his already-stellar character. Sam defines himself by how he helps people like his family members and his community. His first priority after handling save-the-world business is to go straight to helping out his sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), fixing up the family boat and even staying in touch with Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who has his own history of trauma after being a brainwashed super soldier. 

In addition to his kindness, Sam is ultimately someone who isn’t concerned with prestige. For instance, when asked if he would take the same serum that gave Steve Rogers his strength, Sam doesn’t even hesitate to say “no.” Sam understands that the true power of being a hero isn’t about the super strength, magic or even high tech—it’s about the ability to connect to people. Another instance of this is in the fourth episode “The Whole World is Watching,” in which Sam goes in to negotiate with a young revolutionary named Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), who was labeled a terrorist for taking extreme measures to procure medicine and supplies for people in need. Whereas characters like John Walker want to confront Karli with guns blazing, Sam is the only one who wants to talk things through—he knows where Karli’s coming from and understands that Karli’s goals are essentially to help people first, and that is why Sam is almost successful in reaching out to her. To any viewer, it’s obvious that Sam is the Captain America everyone is waiting for. However, this is America we’re talking about, and the show doesn’t let us forget for one second how much bloodstained history there is between America and its Black citizens. 

The show does this in multiple ways: Firstly, in how the government thanks Sam for turning over the shield and then goes around and chooses a white man to “represent all of us”—and then in smaller ways, like the fact that a banker refuses to help out Sam’s sister, or the fact that the police only back away from Sam once realizing he’s the Falcon. And then, perhaps the most haunting and telling nod to the struggles Black people face in America is the introduction of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly): a super soldier himself, but unlike Steve Rogers, one was incarcerated and experimented on. In the fifth episode titled “The Truth,” Isaiah explicitly points to the larger implications of his whole story: “They erased me. My history. But they’ve been doing that for five hundred years.” He goes on to tell Sam that after everything America has done to Black people, “no self-respecting Black man” would ever want to carry the title of Captain America. That gets to the main point of the show: what it means to be a Black superhero, what it means to be a Black American superhero and all the complications and implications that come with that. 

Sam Wilson ultimately takes up the shield, despite Isaiah Bradley’s warnings. There is, of course, the classic superhero training montage to go with his newfound comfort with the shield, but one of the most touching moments is when Sam’s nephews Cass and AJ Wilson (Chase River McGhee, Aaron Haynes) reach out to touch the shield. The awe on their faces is unmistakable, and the quiet joy on Sam’s is hard to miss. This feels important—a reminder to the audience that there is more to Sam Wilson inheriting the shield than just being the new Captain America. Sam being Captain America also sends out a message to the younger generations of a new hero that could actually, finally not only represent them but also represent the better future of what a hero—an American hero—could be. Not the violence or the foolish pride that self-proclaimed Captain Americas like John Walker possess, but the kindness, compassion and genuine optimism for the future that Sam Wilson has. 

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