By Alex Edwards
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the newest addition to the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Despite the show’s concept being built simply from the fantastic chemistry of lead actors Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan, the show offers a poignant discussion on race in America, a rare example of a Disney property using its influence for political discussion.
The show follows the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame where Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) is given the mantle of ‘Captain America’ by the retiring Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). Despite the gesture seemingly presented as an honour, for Sam, the title and its legacy are a heavy burden. In the first episodes of the series, Sam retires the shield, feeling he is not the right fit to represent his nation. He fears it would be divisive for a person of colour to take up the mantle that was previously adored by all. He says, “we need new heroes, ones suited for the times we’re in”. The decision is taxing on Sam and the pain is only exacerbated when the new Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russel) is revealed; an imposter, dragging out the shield that Sam had just lay to rest.
Created during the second world war, Captain America’s challenges are clear-cut; good against evil. When removed from this simplistic environment and placed in the modern-day, the challenges that Chris Evans’ version of the character faced were more morally ambiguous, challenging the American central ideals of freedom. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has evolved the character from its historical roots to be a figure of present-day America.
America is the spotlight for racial inequality experienced worldwide, and now more than ever people of colour in America struggle to have a sense of patriotism in the famously self-proud country. In the show, Sam meets Isiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), the ‘Black Captain America’ who had his heroism and history erased. For actions similar to Steve’s in The First Avenger, Bradley is subject to a horrible life of experimentation; the discrimination that Sam feared so clearly on display. With this experience Bradley tells Sam “those stars and stripes don’t mean nothing good to me” and “no self-respecting Black man would ever wanna be [Captain America]”. Bradley’s opinion is impactful on Sam; why should he stand up for a country that hasn’t and isn’t standing up for him?
During Sam’s considerations, John Walker is diminishing the power of the title, demanding respect because he carries the shield. Both the titular comedic duo and the impostor Captain America set out against a radical group ‘The Flag Smashers’ in frequent action scenes that are largely inconsequential to the plot but show the increasingly unhinged nature of the new ‘hero’. In episode four, The Whole World is Watching, Walker uses the shield to murder a surrendering member of The Flag Smashers, figuratively and literally bloodstaining the shield. The low angle shot of innocent blood over the iconography of modern America is an image so powerful, it explains Sam’s motivation for change in an instant.
Isaiah Bradley’s tragic past is a strong deterrent for Sam to become Captain America, but Walker’s actions, alongside the other abuses of power we see Sam personally subject to from police, motivate Sam to take up the role of Captain America. If Steve Rogers took the symbol of Captain America from the past to the present, Sam Wilson’s role will be to evolve the ideals of the character into a better future.
As Bradley highlights to Sam after seizing the title, “you aint no Malcom, Martin or Mandela”. Although it is true that the decision to make Sam (and Mackie) the new Captain America won’t go into the history books as a powerful moment in the fight for equality, all representation is inspiration. The recontextualization of Sam’s line ‘‘we need new heroes, ones suited for the times we’re in’’ is exceptionally powerful under the knowledge that, by the end of the series, he knows that he is that hero and the right time is now. Falcon has always been a small flying figure in the background of movie every poster; now Sam Wilson gets to stand at the forefront.
Illustration: Alex Edwards