Each week, as new episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier release on Disney+, LTN writers will reflect on each episode. You can find all of their reflections here.
“What makes a hero? Who are superheroes for? And can a nationalist symbol be reclaimed by someone whom that nation has consistently and historically rejected?” –Sophie Gilbert
Truthfully, I don’t know the answer to this question. It’s a difficult one. But the final episode of Marvel Studios’ The Falcon and the Winter Soldier makes a pretty good case.
In Episode 6 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, “One World, One People,” in true MCU final-chapter fashion, we drop straight into a crisis already in progress. The Flag Smashers, aided by Episode 1 villain, Batroc, have hacked and halted a GRC meeting, officials are being evacuated, and our merry band of misfits is en route to intervene. Bucky, Sharon Carter, and even John Walker attempt to intercept GRC hostages. While Sam Wilson flies right into the besieged building, decked out in a shiny new set of wings, a brand-new, Wakanda engineered, star-spangled suit, and an old, symbolic shield. The team squares off against Karli Morgenthau, Batroc, and the Flag Smashers, and after a few scattered brawls, a daring rescue, a brief chase, and a plot-twist (Sharon Carter, a kingpin – WOAH), we witness a (sorta) new hero facilitating a simultaneously ancient and long-overdue conversation. It felt like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had been building up to that moment—carefully, thoughtfully making its case.
Early on in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I identified with Karli Morgenthau. A would-be hero trying her best to fight for those who had no one else who cared to fight for them. But as she continued on this journey to justice, she allowed herself to be corrupted by power and rage in the same way that power corrupted the people and systems she was fighting against. I identified with Isaiah Bradley—a character expertly portrayed by actor Carl Lumbly and originally created by Robert Morales for the seven-issue comic series “Truth: Red, White, and Black” which tells an imagined story based on the real-life atrocities of what has come to be known as “The Tuskegee Study.” In the penultimate episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, aptly titled “Truth,” Isaiah tells Sam his deeply disturbing story. Afterward, the first black super-soldier challenges a hopeful Sam, “You think things are different? You think times are different?”As a Black American (and I’m sure many other Black folks will agree) it’s easy to identify with Karli and Isaiah—to see the systemic and institutional injustice that has been and continues to be perpetrated against people who look like me (and people who might not) and become exasperated.
As a Black American (and I’m sure many other Black folks will agree) it’s easy to identify with Karli and Isaiah—to see the systemic and institutional injustice that has been and continues to be perpetrated against people who look like me (and people who might not) and become exasperated. It’s easy to get angry watching Derek Chauvin drain the life from George Floyd. It’s easy to become incensed watching folks plead, “Stop killing us,” only to be told, “They deserved it.” It’s easy to become resentful of a country that allows supremacy to permeate its DNA and get comfortable. It is simple—and justified—to want to “rage against the machine.” Resentment, anger, exasperation—these emotions are easily reached. The difficult part is figuring out what to do with them.
Karli channels her frustration with injustice into a movement that became destructive, in hopes that drastic measures would wake people up to the circumstances she and so many others were living in. Even Sharon Carter allowed her anger to completely change her—and in the most devious way possible. While Isaiah Bradley, with little other choices, simply hid.
“A hot tempered person stirs up strife, but those slow to anger calm disputes.” (Proverbs 15:18 NASB)
This verse was one of the first things to come to mind while reflecting on this episode, this series, and all of the big feelings I have about it. I couldn’t help but think of Sam Wilson as the man “those slow to anger.”
At the beginning of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we flashback to Sam’s last conversation with Steve Rodgers, the OG Cap. Steve gives Sam the iconic shield and asks him, “How does it feel.” Sam replies, “Like it’s someone else’s.” I can’t help but view the star-spangled shield as a symbol for America (duh). Throughout this series, as we witness Sam—a veteran and a hero—experience unjust treatment, profiling, and rejection by the people and systems of a country (and a world) that he has repeatedly saved, I can understand how he might look at the shield, at America, “like it’s someone else’s.” There were times when it would have been understandable—reasonable, even—for him to use his irritation in ways similar to Karli, or Isaiah. Instead, he chose to fight back in a different way. He says to Isaiah, “We built this country. Bled for it. I’m not gonna let anybody tell me I can’t fight for it. Not after what everybody before me went through.”We built this country. Bled for it. I’m not gonna let anybody tell me I can’t fight for it. Not after what everybody before me went through.” – Sam Wilson
Sam Wilson, as the new Captain America, reclaims the shield – literally and figuratively. He dons the stars and stripes, and all of the conflicting symbolism inextricable from them; he uses his frustration to fuel his resolve. And while doing so Sam challenges Bucky to do the *real* work required for him to heal and to renew his mind. He helps Sharon find redemption in the eyes of the government (which is a bit of a double-edged sword). Most notably, he calms the central dispute of the series. He advocates for empathy for the very people he’d just finished fighting, the Flag Smashers – comparing their behavior to that of the GRC itself, and challenging them saying, “We can’t demand people step up if we don’t meet them halfway.” Sam even uses his platform to allow Isaiah Bradley to reclaim his own story – creating a memorial exhibit for him in a museum.
Sam Wilson becomes Captain America – not to prove that he is worthy of it, but to fight to make this country a place that is worthy of him and those, like Isaiah, who came before him.
So, what makes a hero? I think this series makes a good case for heroes being those who are reluctant to claim power; those who use that power not to subjugate but to redeem. Those who don’t allow themselves to be irreparably corrupted or discouraged by injustice. Those who use empathy and reason as frequently as weapons or fists. Those who can see the good, even in their enemies.
The beauty of this type of hero is that it can be anyone. We all have the capability to take the platforms and the gifts and talents entrusted to us and use them to make our communities, our cities, our countries better, more just, more equitable places. We all have the ability to step up, to “calm disputes”. We don’t need a shield, super serum, or fancy spandex to effect change. To paraphrase the new Cap, “The only power [we need] is that [we] believe we can do better.”
The “falling action” of this episode pretty clearly sets up some future shenanigans. Sharon Carter, who we now know to be the Power Broker, is pardoned and reinstated to her high security clearance position in the CIA. But her subsequent phone call makes it clear that she has no intention of hanging up her kingpin hat any time soon. I can’t imagine this “redemption” is going to last very long.
We also get a little more time with John Walker and mysterious shot-caller Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. She’s a very, well, intriguing character – as those who are familiar with the comic lore will understand. John’s got a brand new suit (which is a similar design, but is now black instead of blue) and a brand new name – “US Agent”. With the abrupt bombing death of the remaining four Flag Smasher super-soldiers, John Walker now becomes the only super-soldier on the chessboard. That info, plus the presence of Fontaine, Zemo, and dubbing of Walker as the US Agent should *absolutely* have comic book nerd spidey-senses tingling. For those unfamiliar, though, suffice to say, the games are most definitely afoot.
It’s hard to be sure what’s in store for our titular heroes. There seems to be a Captain America 4 movie in the works. But the details of that film and whether or not there will be a second season of our favorite buddy-cop superhero series remain to be seen. Lots of projects are in the works over at Marvel Studios, and I’m sure we’ll see much more of the new Captain America and the Winter Soldier.