Photo: Episode 2: ‘The Star Spangled Man’/Disney+
Those who believed that the MCU’s best years might be behind it would do well to contemplate the leap in evolution that is the MCU’s move to Disney Plus. Already, ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ has demonstrated the immense potential of expanding big comic book stories to a serialized weekly format. The first episode introduced two potential antagonists to the titular heroes: the ‘Flag Smashers’ and John Walker, the new Captain America.
Yet, the second episode opens right off the bat with a softer side of Walker. We see him nervously preparing for his introduction, receiving pep talks from both his loving wife Olivia (Gabrielle Byndloss) and his devoted ally Lemar Hoskins a.k.a. Battlestar (Clé Bennett). We might have expected Walker to come across as arrogant and hyper-aggressive, but he’s nervous and self-effacing.
Related article: Episode 1 of ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ – The Hero’s Shadow Looms Large – And the MCU Soldiers On
Showrunner Malcolm Spellman handles this plot in such a refreshingly nuanced way–it makes the Thanos saga look like dichotomous child’s play. John Walker isn’t an evil person (at least he doesn’t appear to be) but he can’t see the more systematic foundations of his privilege. Then again, if the government was going to choose their own Captain America regardless, should the Americans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe be relieved they at least chose someone who seems to have an actual capacity for empathy and self-awareness?
Episode 2 of ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’
It mirrors the typical political situation we see in real life, “At least it’s ‘problematic situation A’ and not ‘more problematic situation B, C, or D’.” It’s worth remembering that Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was chosen to be Captain America not because he was a good soldier, but because he was a good person. For Sam, there’s no Captain America except Steve Rogers. Bucky feels similarly, but he’d much prefer Steve’s choice of successor to the government’s. Of course, Steve had two people he could have chosen to give the shield to. By choosing Sam, he implicitly didn’t choose Bucky, and while Bucky understands why, it still hurts–especially after Sam rejects Steve’s approval.
What’s interesting is that while Sam and Bucky distrust John, the show’s narrative isn’t forcing that perspective on the audience. It’s actually allowing both of our heroes to be vulnerable, giving them dimension they’ll need if they are to be intriguing characters outside of Steve Rogers’ shadow. Honestly, John Walker so far seems a bit more capable of opening up about his feelings than Sam and Bucky are. Both of them desperately need therapy.
Sam spent five years not existing, only to return for a climactic battle with space aliens. Bucky did the same, but he also spent decades as a brainwashed assassin controlled by Hydra. Bucky is required to attend weekly sessions with a therapist (Amy Aquino) as a condition of his pardon for his Winter Soldier crimes, and in the second episode Sam gets pulled in for a couples session! Neither of them are very receptive to the therapist’s soul-gazing suggestion; they seem to prefer exposure therapy. This means facing down the past.
First, Bucky takes Sam to visit Isaiah (Carl Lumbly), an elderly veteran who was secretly injected with Super Soldier Serum and sent to fight in the Korean War. There, he fought the brainwashed Bucky and managed to tear off part of his arm. For his service, the US Government imprisoned him and ran tests on him for thirty years.
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Naturally, Sam feels betrayed by the revelation that there was a Black supersoldier that he (and the rest of the world) never knew about. Nevertheless, he and Bucky manage to come to a detente to work together until they can solve the mystery of the Flag Smashers. Eventually they realize this means another painful trip down memory lane. They have to go see Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl).
And what about the Flag Smashers? The show takes an even-handed approach to them as well. It turns out that somehow they are all Super Soldiers, but underneath their extreme strength and sinister-looking masks, they’re pretty normal human beings–definitely not falling under the umbrella of ‘androids, aliens and wizards’ that Sam uses as a catch-all for Avengers adversaries. After they manage to soundly defeat Falcon, Winter Soldier, the new Captain America, and Battlestar in combat, they escape with a truck of supplies. A civilian who believes in their mission gives them shelter, and they joke about the dinner of Slovakian chicken livers he offers them.
Then one of their members, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), receives a mysterious text threatening to reclaim stolen property and kill the Flag Smashers. They escape, but one of the Flag Smashers has to stay behind and sacrifice himself for the cause. Significantly, when Bucky asks John if he’s ever jumped on a grenade, John replies that he has four times… Thanks to his reinforced helmet. Perhaps there’s more heroism amongst the Flag Smashers than the ‘heroes’ the US Government is sending to fight them.
By episode two, ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ has shown us five characters who took up the identity of ‘Captain America’ at some point in the comics. Each of them represents a different part of the American story. Steve Rogers, featured only in flashbacks, photographs and conversation, represents the idealism of the ‘Greatest Generation’ but also represents an America aware that its time has come and gone. Bucky, who in the comics becomes Captain America after Steve Rogers’ apparent death, represents an America that lost its way during the Cold War and is attempting to atone. Isaiah, who fought in the comics under the alias ‘Black Captain America’, represents an America still deeply divided by racial enmity and injustice.
Sam, despite his reticence in the MCU, eventually does become Captain America in the comics, representing an America that faces its troubled past on a path toward healing. John, a flawed Captain America in the comics, represents an America that is righteous and idealistic but not particularly willing to compromise or acknowledge the sins of the past. Only time will tell how these various ideologies will play out in the MCU, but thank goodness these characters are actually exchanging their ideas, and not just fists and bullets.
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