On The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, the Struggle to Deal With Cap’s Legacy Is Real

On The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, the Struggle to Deal With Cap’s Legacy Is Real
The gang is back together. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

One of the biggest memes of the past week has utilised the surprise appearance by John Walker as “the new Captain America” at the end of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s premiere episode. Seeing this seemingly goofy, obviously inferior, version of the superhero — previously characterised by Chris Evans — has inspired millions to clown on him. But in the second episode of the Disney+ show, it was obvious very quickly that this new Captain America was not going to be a joke. In fact, he’s complex, conflicted, and will be an integral part of everything that’s going on.

Episode two of the show, “The Star-Spangled Man,” begins with Walker (Wyatt Russell) about to do an interview on Good Morning America (ah, corporate synergy). They’ve set up on the football field at his old high school and we see him in Army fatigues in the locker room. He’s weighed down with the expectations of being Cap, even though it’s only been two weeks. He’s proud but knows it’s not just about fighting, it’s about being a beacon of hope. A symbol. All of which becomes very clear once he suits up and runs out to the interview.

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The bleachers are filled with people already wearing new Cap shirts, holding toys for him to sign, and clamouring over selfies with the hero. It felt very much like Disney’s vast Marvel Universe holding a mirror up to itself. Inside the MCU, people are finally beginning to profit from superheroes, the U.S. Government, or otherwise. Phase 4 has, almost, become self-aware.

During the interview, we learn more about this man who was chosen to be Captain America. Mostly that he is — like Steve Rogers before him, like Sam Wilson now — a hero in his own right. Highly decorated, incredibly skilled, if not for the fact Steve chose Sam to take the shield, Walker is seemingly a pretty great choice. These same thoughts are going through Bucky’s head as he watches the chat unfold on TV.

John Walker doing the real Cap work. (Photo: Marvel Studios) John Walker doing the real Cap work. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

Sam is thinking about Walker too, because…how can he not? In addition to the obvious pain of having this person take his place, there are posters of the new Cap everywhere. Even the air hanger where he’s getting ready to head to Europe and take down the Flag Smashers. Bucky is there too, and he makes it very clear to Sam he’s angry he gave up the shield. Sam is angry as well, but not just because of Walker — he just doesn’t want Bucky telling him how to do things.

Bucky forces himself onto Sam’s mission, and the flight to Europe is really the first time in the series we get to explore this new, strained, Bucky and Sam dynamic. It’s a constant pissing match filled with anger and disgust, but also a weird mutual respect and trust. It’s kind of beautiful to watch. Less so than the moment where Bucky tries to be Steve Rogers and jump out of a plane without a parachute, only to scream and crash all the way down to the ground. “I have all of that on camera,” Sam says, just perfectly summing up this weird, still new-ish friendship.

The bickering continues as the pair find and engage with the Flag Smashers who, apparently, have a hostage. Bucky races to catch up to their truck, which is filled with stolen medicine, and see if the hostage needs help. She doesn’t. In fact, it’s almost as if she’s a decoy. This is Karli Morgenthau (Solo’s Erin Kellyman), the leader of the Flag Smashers, who in turn smashes Bucky, kicking off an exciting action set piece between the group. For the heroes, the revelation here is twofold. First, there isn’t just one Flag Smasher with super strength, they all have it. Second, Sam and Bucky are about to be defeated by their foes when an unexpected ally arrives: the new Captain America himself. He and his friend Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett) join the fight and, while they also get their asses kicked, they at least help Sam and Bucky not die.

I'm Enfys Nest! I mean, Karli Morgenthau. (Photo: Marvel Studios) I’m Enfys Nest! I mean, Karli Morgenthau. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

The Flag Smashers have the advantage of lots of local support. Well, except for the random text Karli gets from someone saying they want to kill her. She ignores it (though we definitely should not!), and explains that her group is about to do something big. “One world, one people” she and her followers chant, representing their beliefs that the world was better when they were united in sorrow during the Blip.

Though they made it out alive, our heroes are not happy about the assist and make it clear they don’t want any part of this new Captain America. Begrudgingly, they do accept a ride from him out of the middle of nowhere which gives the group a chance to chat. The conversation covers a lot of ground, from learning that Walker wants to team up with Sam and Bucky to explaining he mainly helps a group called the GRC (Global Repatriotzation Council) whose job it is to help people get back on their feet post-Blip. It’s the same organisation the Flag Smashers are fighting against, hence why Walker and Hoskins tracked Red Wing — which got smashed by Morgenthau in the fight — to join the fight.

All of this is very informative until Hoskins says his name is “Battlestar” and Bucky’s had it. It’s in this moment he puts together that Walker and Hoskins don’t necessarily want to be the new Captain America and Falcon, they just want to be superheroes, down to the cheesy name. Which is fascinating because these are some of the first characters we’re meeting in the MCU who grew up with the Avengers — in his interview earlier, Walker notes he was in his second year of college when Captain America re-emerged from his icy slumber. Now, not only want to be Avengers themselves, they also have the resources (and the impetus of the government) to do so. It gets back to that aforementioned self-aware Phase 4, where new heroes are emerging that worship the characters we, the fans, worship. They just so happen to be in the world with them, while we’re watching, which feels like it’s going to becoming a major through-line across the show.

Photo: Marvel Studios Photo: Marvel Studios

Before Bucky and Sam can leave these wannabe heroes, Walker pleas for their help one more time, telling them he’s not trying to replace Steve. He’s just trying to be the best Captain America he can be, and “that would be a whole lot easier if I had Cap’s wingman by my side.” Sam, rightfully, does not take that line well. This man, who has his own Black sidekick in Battlestar, just minimized and disrespected Sam down to a mere sidekick. “It’s always that last line,” Sam says as he leaves, tension thick in the air.

Afterward, Bucky has someone he wants Sam to meet in Baltimore. They arrive at the house of a man named Isaiah (Alias’ Carl Lumbly). Isaiah, it turns out, was another American super-soldier. He was tasked with taking down the Winter Soldier around the time of the Korean War and almost succeeded.

Bucky doesn’t want a rematch, part of his attempts to heal and move on, he just wants to get information on how the Flag Smashers could’ve gotten the serum. Isaiah does not care about that. He’s filled with decades of pain and rage toward Bucky for bringing up his past — a past in which Isaiah was jailed, beaten, and experimented on for thirty years, simply for being the superhero he was designed to be. He doesn’t say it, but the implication is obvious: He was treated that way because of the colour of his skin.

Stepping away from the show here, it’s clear this Isaiah is Isaiah Bradley, a Marvel character who once held the mantle of Captain America in the comics. How closely the show will mirror or get back to his story is unclear, but the revelation that he exists, and was similarly left in the shadows of his returned, white predecessor, opens up massive questions about the past of the MCU. Questions Sam immediately begins asking after Isaiah kicks them out.

Bucky reveals Steve never knew about Isaiah and, in fact, most people who should know about him didn’t. Before we can find out why that was, though, the cops show up and begin to harass Sam for yelling at Bucky. It’s a clear case of racial profiling, and Sam isn’t having it. Finally, one of the officers realises who these two guys are and apologise but not before a) showing their asses as racists and b) realising that Bucky has a warrant out for his arrest…for missing his mandated therapy session.

Carl Lumbly as Isaiah Bradley. (Screenshot: Marvel Studios) Carl Lumbly as Isaiah Bradley. (Screenshot: Marvel Studios)

One trip to incarceration later, and Bucky’s therapist Dr. Raynor arrives, but it turns out she didn’t get Bucky out — it was an old friend of hers, none other than Walker himself. He’s still trying to get Bucky and Sam to be on his team and having one of them in jail wasn’t helping. Before he can talk to them though, Raynor asks both Sam and Bucky to sit for a session. Why Sam agrees to this, I’m not exactly sure, but who cares: It’s great.

The two go back and forth, insulting and bickering like hypermasculine children, all of which is highly entertaining but Raynor wants more. She wants truth. And she gets some when Bucky explains his biggest problem with Sam at the moment is the anger about him giving up the shield. Not because it’s against Steve’s wishes, though that’s part of it, but because if Steve was wrong about Sam’s worth, then maybe he was wrong about Bucky’s too, and Steve’s validation of Bucky’s worth seems to be a huge part of how he’s functioning in his post-Hydra life. The interweaving of Bucky’s self-loathing and Sam’s resolve, along with their fears, and their respect for each other — and so much more between the two — really shines in this scene and gives the show some really rich, complex stuff to hopefully explore moving ahead. Especially when, upon leaving the therapy session a few things happen to really set Falcon and The Winter Soldier in gear.

First, Sam and Bucky agree that they’ll part ways after defeating the Flag Smashers. Second, they tell new Captain America they can’t work for him because he has too much oversight, setting up a Civil War-esque rivalry. And third, Bucky’s plan to find the Flag Smashers is to talk to the one person alive who might know about how the super serum returned. The one person who know more Hydra secrets than even the infamous Winter Soldier: Baron Zemo.

Compared to most Marvel shows, “The Star-Spangled Man” was a seriously dense piece of television. It left us with so much to consider, whether it’s John Walker’s arc, Sam and Bucky’s volatile relationship, Isiah Bradley, or the growing threat of the Flag Smashers. Oh, and don’t forget their ideas versus the ideals of the world, the ever-present racial tension, and the reintroduction of a proper supervillain! Yeah, things are just about to get cooking.

Photo: Marvel Studios Photo: Marvel Studios

Assorted Musings:

  • As Bucky and Sam go after the Flag Smashers, Sam jokes that after some time in Wakanda Bucky thinks he’s “White Panther.” “It’s actually White Wolf,” Bucky replies. It’s not the first time Bucky’s past in Wakanda has been mentioned, but it is the first time in a long time that this White Wolf moniker has been invoked. This hints at a possible way for Bucky to put one past behind him and embrace another, something fans have been clamouring for for years.
  • Is it just me or was it very weird and out of character for the new Cap to pull out a pistol during the fight? Steve hasn’t been afraid to pull out a gun or two in his time — especially when he got started out in WWII. I get that he doesn’t have superpowers, but it just didn’t mesh. Odd that it was glossed over so quickly!
  • Obviously, the entire scene with Isaiah is important and powerful but there’s one fleeting moment that really stood out. Isaiah says “You think you can wake up one day and decide who you want to be?” And though he’s talking to Bucky, the reaction shot is on Sam, who squints his eyes ever so slightly. To me, that felt like all the conflict in him rolled into one question. Can he be Captain America? Is he already Captain America? Hopefully, this isn’t all we’ll see from a really important and interesting figure in the Cap mythos.
  • Who do you think texted Karli? My first guess was Zemo, because we know he comes into the show, but seeing him in a cell at the end, that seems less than likely. The texts said “You took what was mine. I’m going to find you and kill you.” We assume that means the super serum, right? If so, who had it? A former Hydra operative? We’ll find out.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is now streaming on Disney+.