How “Falcon and The Winter Soldier” caught me off guard

Nick Reed, Scarlet Staff

It’s kind of weird to explain the Marvel Cinematic Universe out loud. It’s one of those things that I guess we all just take for granted. It’s so ingrained in American popular culture that it’s hard to imagine life without these characters and stories revolving around us.

The strange part about saying that is, I’ve never really been a fan of the MCU. Call it an extension of my pre-teen need to dislike anything and everything popular, but my first MCU movie didn’t happen until “Captain America: Civil War”, and it took me a lot longer to warm up to the series.

A big shift in my thinking was in 2019 with the release of “Avengers: Endgame”. I started to change my mind. I mean, I couldn’t be the only 18-year-old in the country not going to see it.

And I did see it: directly after prom with my best friend (yes, we were still in our prom clothes, and yes I did cry). Although I jumped on board the hype train late, I was still happy to be along for the ride.

So when the newest batch of MCU content came – the Disney+ limited series I was beyond excited. After the enormous critical and commercial success of “The Mandalorian” and “Wandavision”, I was excited to see where things could go from there. My friend and I sat down to watch “Falcon and The Winter Soldier” every Friday morning.

Picture it: two of the loudest people you know, staunchly progressive, sit down to watch what amounts to military propaganda. I think you can imagine how things went from there.

Set 24 installments into the MCU, “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” picks up where Captain America’s story left off. The last we saw our titular hero, he was old and passing on the torch (in this case his shield) to Sam Wilson, the Falcon. Much like “Spiderman: Far From Home”, we now find our surviving heroes dealing with the aftermath of the Infinity Saga, picking up the pieces and trying to fill the shoes left by the legends.

The show follows Sam and Bucky as they attempt to deal with a radical terrorist organization known as the “Flag Smashers” (I know, my friend and I got a kick out of that one). There’s a lot to unpack with these enemies.

First of all, their whole MO is that they represent refugees displaced by the blip (the 5 year period where half of all life in the universe was snapped out of existence). I honestly sort of like this; it shows that there are repercussions to the actions of these larger-than-life figures, not unlike“Daredevil” focusing on the damage the Avengers caused to New York City in the titular movie. 

Their goal is pretty noble; they imagine a world without borders, and therefore without the pointless conflicts that result. This seems like a good thing, right? In true Marvel fashion, the leader of the “Flag Smashers” has to be an irredeemable sociopath with a penchant for random killing.

There’s also the secondary antagonist of the series: John Walker. Walker serves as a foil for Sam’s character arc; he is the opposite of Steve Rogers in every way, yet he has risen to take the mantle of Captain America.

My reaction was not dissimilar to most fan reactions upon his introduction: disgust and contempt. Now obviously this was purposeful; you’re supposed to hate Walker. He’s arrogant, power-hungry, and just all-around has issues. Coupled with the skill of his actor Wyatt Russell, he makes a fantastic villain.

This leads us to both my favorite thing about the series and my biggest problem with it; the themes. You see, the super-soldier storyline leads viewers down dark rabbit holes that are not so easily tackled by a traditional Marvel movie.

We first find out that Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are not our only super-soldiers. Finding out the Flag Smashers are as well is enough of a shock, but then Marvel drops the bombshell that there is another; Isaiah Bradley , a black man who was the subject of experiments, and then imprisoned and forgotten.

Bradley seemingly has the same power and moral compass as Rogers, but due to the color of his skin was unable to rise to the same heights. For a studio funded by the military, this is a pretty big deal. In fact, this is one of the most overtly political things I’ve seen the MCU do.

There’s also the Walker’s character arc. Meant to typify a modern American reality rather than the rose-colored portrayal of Steve Rogers, Walker is the worst America can be. After the death of his best friend at the hand of a Flag Smasher, Walker goes berserk.

Here’s a moment that caught my friend and me really off guard. Walker, who at this point has stolen a batch of the super-soldier serum, proceeds to DECAPITATE a Flag Smasher in public, using Captain America’s shield. Yeah, I know.

It’s a little heavy-handed. but it gets the point across; this is how America usually acts abroad, and how the majority of the world views us. Steve Rogers is a special case; John Walker is the norm. This is what America is really like.

It’s the darkest I’ve ever really seen Marvel get, and considering this was being filmed during the summer of last year, I wonder how much of a role current events played in the writing of the script. Either way, unlike real life, Walker is soon stripped of his title as Captain America, and closer to real life, is not punished with any prison time for the extra-judicial murder of a foreign national.

There’s also this metaphor at play, where Karli, leader of the Flag Smashers mentioned earlier, and Sam, have this running dialogue. The gist of it is, Karli’s more or less right but she’s just too violent to be taken seriously, so she has to be a bad guy. Sam, the good guy, tells her violence isn’t the way.

This is quite obviously tone-deaf and a pretty offensive oversimplification of the Black Lives Matter movement, where protests sometimes get violent. By sometimes, I mean 93% of protests were and are completely peaceful.

The series ends with Sam taking on the mantle of Captain America, and saving the day. Karli is killed before she can hurt the GRC (Global Repatriation Council), and Sam tells them on national television that they need to listen and open a dialogue with people like Karli.

That’s a lot.

You know what though? I’ll take it. For a Marvel movie that’s about as progressive as it can get, and honestly, it’s not an incorrect sentiment.

The show seems to be all about how we confront stories like the ones Marvel tells in an ever-changing world. The world of Steve Rogers doesn’t exist anymore, and it may have never existed at all. 

We need to tell new stories, stories based on the truth.

“Falcon and The Winter Soldier” exposes the dark underbelly of Marvel, and with it the dark underbelly of the United States. Just like in our world, institutional racism keeps millions down, millions that need to be uplifted.

The show ends with Sam showing Isiah a statue he had dedicated to him at the Steve Rogers museum exhibit we were first introduced to in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. Isaiah’s grandson is there, and with Sam now serving as the new Captain America, there seems to be a clear message; it is time for these stories to grow and change, and include those who have been ignored for too long.

It’s not a perfect story. Ccoronavirus reshoots, flat acting, and tip-of-the-iceberg symbolism all plague this show. However, if you’re a Marvel fan, or just someone who wants to see how popular culture tackles current events, this is a must see.