Good Ideas Are Drowned in a Sea of Characters
Falcon and the Winter Soldier is set roughly six months after the events of Avengers: Endgame, when half the Earth’s population reappeared after a five year absence. The Global Repatriation Council (GRC) is charged with sorting out planet-wide issues of resources and people displaced by the Blip. Much of the population that remained during the five years migrated to different countries to band together, but now they are considered refugees and national borders are being reasserted. The Flag Smashers, led by Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), preferred the unity that emerged before the Blip, and feel the GRC is not helping the refugees. They liken themselves to modern-day Robin Hoods, stealing and redistributing the GRC’s resources to help refugees. They are considered terrorists.
Meanwhile, Sam Wilson has decided to give up Steve’s shield rather than take on the mantle of Captain America. The shield goes to a museum, and Sam focuses on running contract missions for the military and helping his sister remain financially stable. Bucky has been struggling with making amends for his past as a mindless assassin. When the US Government anoints John Walker (Wyatt Russell) the new Captain America, complete with the shield, Sam and Bucky are shocked. They team-up to investigate the Flag Smashers and discover the Smashers have become super-soldiers, akin to Steve, by taking a serum of unknown origin. Walker is eager to work with Sam and Bucky, but they prefer their own methods.
First Bucky reveals that the United States made other super-soldiers, experimenting on and imprisoning black soldiers in secret until only old, rightfully-embittered Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) remained. Then, knowing that their old enemy Zemo has studied super-soldiers, they break him out of prison to lead them to the new super-soldier serum. The characters have a merry old adventure tracking down the serum, and Zemo destroys the supply. But Walker, tired of losing fights with his enemies, finds and takes some serum. Sam meets with Karli and nearly talks her down from more violent attacks, but he is interrupted by Walker. Walker’s partner is killed, and he very publicly kills a Flag Smasher with the shield.
In the aftermath, Karli escalates her attacks, even making her colleagues uncomfortable. Walker is discharged and Sam takes the shield. Walker is quickly recruited by a shadow organization, while Sam is left to struggle with the implications of taking up the mantle of Captain America. Isaiah details what he was put through, and how it was covered up, claiming that no black man should become a patriotic symbol. But Sam is able to square things in his mind, using the historical black experience in America to justify his choice to wield the shield rather than fight against it.
When the GRC holds a vote on redrawing national borders and immediately relocating refugees, the Flag Smashers attack. Sam flies in as the new Captain America, supported by Bucky and even Walker. The GRC is saved and Karli is killed, but Sam does not let anyone off the hook. He insists that the GRC look closer at why Karli was fighting, and choose to help the people she represented rather than sweep them under the rug. Sam helps Bucky confront his own demons and make amends. He also adds an exhibit to the Captain America museum installation about Isaiah Bradley. The show then ends with a title card now reading “Captain America and the Winter Soldier”.
The most interesting and prominent theme running through Falcon and the Winter Soldier (though the series often loses sight of it) is the conflict between the image governments and people in power want to project, and the complicated truths they try to bury. Episode 3 opens with a sleek commercial for the GRC, full of sun and smiling families advertising the good being done for refugees. The reality is that the GRC is not properly distributing resources, leaving camps underfunded, understaffed, and largely overlooked. These are the people Karli is fighting for. But, since the truth of the camps is inconvenient to the GRC’s image, she is branded a terrorist. The United States government wants to present a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, highly-decorated soldier as Captain America, all while covering up decades of illegal experimentation and imprisonment of black men like Isaiah in pursuit of a super-soldier serum.
So much of the show hammers home this dichotomy. In the first episode, “New World Order”, a small-town banker is more than happy to take selfies with Sam, a real Avenger, saying “we love our heroes”, but he is unwilling to help Sam and his family secure a loan to keep their boat and house. Avengers may not be real, but this happens to veterans every day. The theme is even presented through the characters. Walker is happy to project the image of Captain America, and enjoys the clout it brings. But under the surface he is uneasy about the actions that won him military honours.
The public loves a hero with medals, but they don’t want to know the real details of how he earned those medals. Even Bucky presents a very calm, together demeanour. He makes new friends and tries to date. But his closest friend is a man whose son Bucky killed as the Winter Soldier, and no one knows about his past or his age (106!). He struggles to make amends for his past deeds as a brainwashed assassin, and begins the series shutting out Sam and his therapist. He embodies presenting an image that is far different from the truth.
And then there is Sam, the one character (since perhaps Steve Rogers) that seems able to project an acceptable image while also confronting the hard truths. He grew up as a black man in Louisiana, so he is no stranger to the struggles facing black people in America. Also, after a distinguished military career, he worked at Veterans Affairs, helping veterans cope with returning to regular life after their service. This is where audiences first met Sam in the MCU. So he understands how society and the government can treat veterans and marginalized people. He lives in the complicated truths, and even helps others navigate them. At the same time, he was an Avenger, recognized the world over for fighting supervillains and aliens. There is no stronger image that one can project in the MCU.
And so, Sam can defend the members of the GRC when they are attacked, but he can also relate to and sympathize with Karli. He can stop Karli and the Flag Smashers because their methods are too dangerous, but he can also call attention to the conditions that led to their actions and demand change. Sam can be told by Isaiah that the United States was built on the tortured, murdered, enslaved backs of black people, even in the present day, and reinterpret that as the very reason a black man should be the symbol of the United States. Sam bridges the gap between projected image and underlying harsh truths, and that is why he is the perfect Captain America and the perfect central character for a series.
Unfortunately, the series forgets about all of that for a huge chunk in the middle. The emphasis becomes super-soldiers: Karli and her inner circle are super-soldiers, Bucky is a super-soldier, Isaiah is a super-soldier, Walker wishes he was a super-soldier, Zemo hates super-soldiers and Sam does not care about being a super-soldier. This all leads to a huge diversion for the show. It is a fairly entertaining diversion, but it ends up amounting to very little and it pulls focus from Sam.
Baron Zemo, the villain of Captain America: Civil War, was a character that Marvel Studios mandated be in the show. I can see no other reason the writers would include him and allow him to take up so much screen time in this series. In Civil War, he was a former special ops soldier whose family was killed in the climax to Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015). In this film, he is reimagined as an incredibly rich expert in the criminal underworld who hates super-soldiers. Sam and Bucky break him out of prison, and he takes them to Madripoor, a fictional Indonesian island city, where they hunt for the maker of super-soldier serum. They encounter Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Steve’s old flame who has been exiled from the US after helping Steve in Civil War.
She is now secretly the Power Broker, a devious, omniscient crime lord with little place in this particular series. The inclusion of Zemo also allows the show to feature warriors from Wakanda, seeking revenge on Zemo for killing their king in Civil War. This section is fun, with a cool location, great action and Daniel Bruhl having a great time playing a devious psychological villain. But episode 3, “Power Broker”, seems more like a sequel to Captain America: Civil War than an episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and this section of the series features too many superfluous MCU elements that pull focus from, rather than enrich, the main characters.
The concept of super-soldiers is also a diversion that has no thematic resonance to the series, and little lasting narrative impact on the MCU. The creator of the super-soldier serum is killed, the existing vials are almost all destroyed (except for the one taken by Walker), and every super-soldier Flag Smasher is killed. Zemo is captured by the Wakandans and imprisoned again. This storyline amounted to nothing more than wheel-spinning. Sam, the ostensible main character, is given little to do. The greatest impact of this diversion is also the worst element of the series: it devolves nuanced antagonists into crazed villains.