Towards the end of Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019), an aged Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) passes his signature shield, the symbol of everything Captain America represents, to his friend and partner Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Sam has a moment of hesitation but, at Steve’s urging, he accepts it. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a sprawling interconnected narrative that has jumped from film to film for over a decade now. After Endgame, audiences expected to next see Sam Wilson as the new Captain America in a film set a year or two later. But the MCU has changed, expanding to include single-season television series designed to tell worthwhile or unique stories that occur in-between the films.
Now audiences can see the story of Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch dealing with her grief and trauma in WandaVision (2021) between appearances in Endgame and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (Raimi, 2022). Audiences can follow a rogue version of Loki who escaped the timestream during the time travel shenanigans of Endgame in Loki (2021). And, in this case, audiences can experience the uncertainty of Sam’s journey to becoming Captain America in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021).
These stories are not exactly essential viewing. A lot happened to characters between the events of previous MCU films, and viewers were satisfied with the odd hint or dialogue that implies a more fleshed-out MCU. But the Marvel Studios shows on Disney+ provide the Marvel creators an opportunity to fully realize some of these side adventures. A cynical view of this opportunity amounts, simply, to “more content”. But these shows are also providing an opportunity to spotlight the secondary characters and actors that have made the MCU seem so vibrant.
In the case of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, besides providing a well-earned vehicle for Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, as Bucky/Winter Soldier, it is an opportunity to examine ideas of race, identity, and heroism in America. More specifically, what is the image that governments like to present to the world, and what complicated, difficult truths are they hiding? What was heroism in the 1940s, when Steve Rogers became Captain America, vs in the 2020s? How much, if anything, has changed in those 80 years? If Steve Rogers was a perfect, lightning-in-a-bottle hero for the world, what should his successor look like or be like? These are fascinating issues that the series raises. Unfortunately, it really struggles to coherently address them.
The question of a successor to Steve Rogers as Captain America has been explored several times in the comics. Steve Rogers/Captain America and his young partner James “Bucky” Buchanan first appear in Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941). Steve is turned into a super-soldier and fights Nazis during the Second World War. His popularity waned in the ‘50s, but he is reintegrated into Marvel Comics in Avengers #4 (March 1964). In that issue, he is found after being frozen in a block of ice since the end of the war. He emerges into a changed America, one that does not quite match his wartime idealism. As the sliding time-scale of the Marvel Universe expanded his time in the ice from 20 years to 75 years, Steve has been increasingly removed from his time and has been cleverly used to comment on today’s values. He has long since become a symbol of the theoretical ideals of the United States, and a critic of how far the country is from meeting those ideals in reality.
In 1987, for example, Steve bristles under the politicized oversight of the United States government and retires from being Captain America. He is replaced by John Walker in Captain America #333 (September 1987). But Walker is more brutal and reactionary than Steve, leading to a tragic loss of life on his missions. He demonstrates that most people would buckle under the pressure to be a symbol, and Steve is reinstated as Captain America in Captain America #350 (February 1989). Walker reinvents himself as US Agent soon after.
In a classic 2005 story, Bucky is revealed to be alive (having fallen during Cap’s final war mission). He has been living as a brainwashed Soviet assassin, cryogenically frozen between missions. Steve restores Bucky’s memories, leaving Bucky to face the weight of what he had been doing. When Steve is apparently assassinated in Captain America Vol. 5 #25 (March 2007), Bucky is sought after to take up the Captain America mantle. He did so from 2007 to 2010, even after Steve returned to life (yay comics!).
But the comics have also explored the racial component of heroism through Captain America. The stunning miniseries Truth: Red, White & Black (January-June 2003) by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker envisioned a secret history to the super-soldier experiments, in which the super-soldier serum was perfected through illegal experimentation on black men before it ever reached Steve Rogers. This was largely based on the real-life Tuskegee Syphilis Study and other awful stories of black people becoming victims of medical experimentation. In Truth, 300 men are the subjects of experimentation but only one, Isaiah Bradley, survives. However, after years of imprisonment, mistreatment, and neglect, he is left with brain damage.
Steve was the ideal image, but he was created using methods that were swept under the rug. The series explores the criminal mistreatment and minimization of black heroes and accomplishments, and tackles the question of whether society would accept a black super-soldier. This idea was picked up in Captain America Vol. 7 #25 (December 2014) when Sam Wilson/Falcon, Steve’s longtime partner, becomes the new Captain America. This change lasted until mid-2016, but it allowed writers to explore how modern society would react to a black man carrying Cap’s symbolic shield (spoiler: not well).
By positioning Captain America as a symbol of heroism and ideals that the United States mythologizes but has never matched, the character has long been used to interrogate the values of the country. People love to point to Cap as the image the United States projects, but he often has to grapple with the difficult truths under the surface. By changing the man carrying the shield, stories have often explored America’s shortcomings. Falcon and the Winter Soldier was the opportunity for this to be dramatized.
In the MCU, super-patriot Steve Rogers emerges from the ice at the end of his first film, Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011), just in time to lead the Avengers in The Avengers (Whedon, 2012). Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014) was the first opportunity to explore Steve’s mindset after waking up 65 years in the future. He bonds with Sam Wilson at Veterans Affairs over the uneasiness of normal life after wartime. In that film, he also discovers that SHIELD, the peacekeeping force Steve joined, is being run by his Second World War villains, Hydra, and they have been using Bucky as an assassin. This begins Steve’s disillusionment with authority.
In Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016), Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), a former soldier disillusioned with superheroes after their actions killed his family, frames Bucky for a terrorist attack. As Zemo’s plan unfolds, Steve’s loyalty to Bucky and uneasiness with government oversight tears the Avengers apart. Sam remains loyal to Steve throughout. And as Bucky is cured of his brainwashing in Wakanda, Steve and Sam form an underground team of rogue superheroes. In Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018), the heroes fail to stop Thanos from eliminating half the population of the universe, including Bucky and Sam. In Endgame, the remaining heroes undo this universal genocide five years later (The Blip). But Steve uses the time travel equipment at his disposal to return to the ‘40s and live the life he should have led. As an old man, he passes the shield to Sam. But what will Sam do?
As early as 2016, there were rumours that Disney would launch its own streaming service. By September 2018, Disney+ was announced, and Marvel Studios announced they were developing original series set in the MCU for the service. One of the first projects to be developed centered on Sam and Bucky, envisioned as a buddy-cop show starring Steve’s old partners. Writers were brought in to pitch ideas, but Malcolm Spellman’s pitch, focused on race and identity, was chosen. He was hired in October 2018, and he set the focus of the series. Falcon and the Winter Soldier was officially announced in April 2019, with a premiere set for August 2020, the first MCU series produced by Marvel Studios. Kari Skogland was hired to direct all six episodes as a five-hour film, giving continuity to the direction.
Anthony Mackie was hesitant at first, since Marvel had never made a series before. He felt the weight of being a black lead in what could be Marvel’s first failure. But Marvel Studios had a proven, decade-long track record of producing high-quality projects. Unfortunately other factors got in the way of success. For one, producers mandated the inclusion of several characters, such as Zemo, who pull a lot of focus from the core characters and themes of the show. For another, the Covid-19 pandemic complicated everything.
Filming on the show began in October 2019 and halted in March 2020, when the pandemic shut down the world. Filming resumed in August 2020, the original month of release, necessitating the series to be delayed to March 2021. As a result, it was the second MCU series out of the gate, following WandaVision. There are also rumours that a part of the story related to the villainous organization, the Flag Smashers, involved a pandemic. After the outbreak of Covid-19, the story needed to be reshaped to eliminate that element. These are just rumours, but they arose largely in response to a lackluster handling of the Flag Smashers within the show. Were the characters poorly developed from the beginning, or was it a sloppy response to the pandemic? We do not know at this time.