The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s Commentary on Race Is Too Much, and Not Enough

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s Commentary on Race Is Too Much, and Not Enough
Rhodey and Sam having a talk one-on-one. (Image: Disney+/Marvel)
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Beyond simply continuing Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes’ respective superhero stories in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has been billed as the studio’s latest foray into social commentary using its larger-than-life characters to reflect some of the real-world challenges actual people face.

While Bucky’s (Sebastian Stan) still in recovery from his years spent brainwashed and made to murder by Hydra as the Winter Soldier, the obstacles Sam’s (Anthony Mackie) been running into have been comparatively “normal” — though emotionally and mentally damaging in their own way. What’s become increasingly clear over The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s first two episodes is that, in its attempt to use Sam to tell a story about Blackness in America, the series can’t seem to break out of a stifling box of its own making, one meant to teach us something about anti-Black discrimination.

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The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s premiere opens with a dazzling display of Sam’s flying skills means to remind you that the man’s truly a bona fide Avenger regardless of whether he’s working on a super team, or flying solo. Even without the shield that the now elderly Steve Rogers entrusted Sam with at the end of Avengers: Endgame, Sam’s able to single-handedly take down Batroc the Leaper and his gang as they hijack a U.S. Air Force jet and attempt to escape with a hostage in Tunisia.

While the Avengers as an organisation may be no more, through Sam’s continued involvement with the military, the series establishes that there are at least some people in the world who recall just what sorts of special skills Sam’s developed in the years he spent operating as a vigilante. The biggest struggle he appears to be dealing with in that first episode is primarily one of doubt, an understandable feeling one might have when considering what it would mean to become the “new” Captain America. While it would have felt a bit rushed through if Sam were to have dropped right into the series already sporting a new pair of star-spangled wings, what the show’s been doing instead with his arc isn’t all that much better because of the way it seems to dismiss or ignore whatever common sense Sam must have developed in his life on the way to becoming an Avenger.

Sam thinking about Steve. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel) Sam thinking about Steve. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel)

Both Sam and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) could have any number of reasons as to why they might want to leave superheroics behind after literally saving the universe. But when the two men meet at the Smithsonian at a celebration for the new exhibit honouring Steve Rogers legacy and Sam states that the world needs new heroes, it’s Rhodey who asks the obvious, pressing question: why won’t Sam take up the mantle? What’s interesting about Sam and Rhodey’s conversation isn’t so much what’s said, but rather how Rhodey specifically pulls Sam away from the gathered military officers and members of the press (who the series’ casting director clearly made sure was portrayed by a diverse array of actors) in order to speak to him one-on-one, not just as Avengers, but as two Black men who can be frank with one another.

Sam’s insistence that the shield and title don’t feel like his is meant to speak to an internal conflict he’s grappling with, but everything about the exchange undercuts the emotional impact the show’s going for because it’s pretty obvious what’s going to end up happening to the vibranium disc. While Sam’s apprehension about becoming Captain America is relatable to a certain extent, the plot “twist” the premiere sets up when Sam looks on in dismay as the government reveals John Walker (Wyatt Russell) as the country’s new Cap falls flat for a number of reasons. In the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, it’s rather hard to believe that Sam, someone who spent years working alongside Steve Rogers, a man who ultimately had to turn his back on the government, would still put any sort of blind faith in the military’s decision making.

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Imposter syndrome is a very real thing that many people struggle with, and it could be rather fascinating to see that sort of story play out on screen, but The Falcon and Winter Soldier portrays Sam with an inordinate amount of self-doubt that belies the character’s other depictions within the MCU. In the year of playing stupid games and getting stupid prizes, Sam effectively handing the shield over the Jon Walker is on-brand. But within the context of a show that’s meant to be about one of Marvel’s headlining Black superheroes, the decision reads as incredibly naive in a way that makes it seem as if racism and workplace treachery are new concepts to him — and they absolutely should not be.

There is no singular form of on-screen Blackness that uniformly encompasses the real, lived experiences of all Black people, but The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has been attempting to turn Sam into the embodiment of Blackness in America in ways that do a disservice to him as a character and to its audience. The story fleshes out the details of his past and personal life by way of his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye), who’s struggling to make ends meet back in their Louisiana hometown where she’s raising her two sons. Much as she’s overjoyed to have her brother back, it’s emphasised how hard life was and continues to be for her because of the societal shifts caused by the Blip that have only compounded preexisting challenges experienced by Black people and other minorities in America. For Sarah, like most of the world’s population, the disappearance and re-emergence of billions introduced a new wave of economic complications that have yet to settle fully, and she’s gotten to a point where she can barely keep the Wilson family’s fishing business open.

Sam and a loan officer having a laugh. (Gif: Disney+/Marvel) Sam and a loan officer having a laugh. (Gif: Disney+/Marvel)

Of the many ways that The Falcon and The Winter Soldier could touch on the realities of how Black people have been historically shut out of economic opportunities necessary to help their businesses thrive, the series chooses a route that’s as moralistic as it is heavy-handed. In Sam’s heated conversations with Sarah about the family business’ future, there are elements of two-dimensional Black nobility — the kind of resigned stoicism seen in movies like The Help and Green Book where the hardships Black characters suffer are meant to serve as reflections of their moral fortitude. The issue with Marvel’s series is, put simply, that the series asks us to believe in a world in which Sam is just a regular man who moves through a more than irregular world that conveniently features certain elements of real-world anti-Black racism to make the most basic of points.

What was flabbergasting about Sam and Sarah’s jump to selling plates to make some cash to attempting to get a loan from a bank was how, in its attempt to portray its heroes as ordinary, it also turned them into the MCU’s equivalent to an after-school-special about the evils of racism. As the phrase “you people,” is bandied about during a weird conversation between the Wilson siblings and a near-caricature of a casually discriminatory loan officer (Vince Pisani), The Falcon and The Winter Soldier becomes almost comedic in its ham-fistedness. After Sam flaps his hands to remind the loan officer who he is in hopes that his fame will grease the wheels a bit, the man makes clear that Sam’s having been missing for five years and the Wilsons’ business not being profitable means he can’t approve them for a loan. By wrapping this particular roadblock for the Wilsons’ up in a larger global catastrophe that the series has yet to really explore from the perspectives of others, it ends up conflating actual racism with a separate, but also important element of the MCU’s landscape when both deserve a more nuanced exploration.

This issue’s also present in the dynamic The Falcon and The Winter Soldier begins to establish in its second episode, “The Star-Spangled Man,” which delves a bit more into Jon Walker’s life and his first days operating as Party City Captain America. The series clearly intends to do more with Walker and Lamar Hoskins (Clé Bennett), who’s playing a sidekick role rather similar to his comics counterpart who operated at different times as “Bucky” (a deeply-problematic name for a Black comic book character) and “Battlestar,” the codename he uses in the MCU. Those two characters, who take on a predictably villainous edge by the episode’s end, will likely be worth more discussion as The Falcon and The Winter Soldier progresses.

Isaiah telling Sam and Bucky to leave. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel) Isaiah telling Sam and Bucky to leave. (Screenshot: Disney+/Marvel)

What ended up being both surprising and quite disappointing about “The Star-Spangled Man” was its attempt to incorporate elements of Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s Truth: Red, White, and Black, the 2003 limited comics series that told the story of how Black soldiers were unwittingly made the test subjects for prototypes of the super-soldier serum that transformed Steve Rogers into a superhuman. Both the comic story and the TV series take some time to touch on how the experimentation on Isaiah Bradley (here portrayed by Carl Lumbly) directly echoes the real-world Tuskegee experiments in which the federal government purposefully infected Black men with syphilis and lied to them about it in order to observe the infection’s impacts on the human body.

But where the comic really dug into the immediate horrors and lasting trauma of Bradley’s treatment at the hands of his government — after they imbued him with powers that made him the first true Captain America — The Falcon and The Winter Soldier drops him into its story quite unceremoniously in order illustrate again how much Sam doesn’t know about the world.

This is similar to the issues that HBO’s Lovecraft Country ran into during its first season when it (like Watchmen before it) made the Tulsa massacre a central piece of its larger world. While Watchmen understood that generational trauma and institutional racism are concepts that can’t be tidily packaged into moments meant to be profound, Lovecraft Country did not, and the same seems to be true of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

Overwrought and rushed as Sam and Bucky’s trip to the Bradley home was all by itself, the fact that the pair are immediately confronted by the police — who demand to see Sam’s ID while they ask if Bucky’s alright — is… just uninspired. The series clearly thinks that switching things up by having the cops ultimately arrest Bucky for not reporting to therapy is clever. But truly it’s not.

Each time that The Falcon and The Winter Soldier stops to ask whether you see what it’s trying to do, it becomes harder to think of the show as doing much more than paying lip-service to a very surface-level understanding of how racism is bad. Racism is bad, and we shouldn’t gloss over opportunities to remind people of that fact, but The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is in a choice position to truly add something meaningful and more dynamic to the conversation. So far, it seems wholly uninterested in living up to its potential.

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