In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s fourth episode, the titular pair of former Avengers are on a mission to stop Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and her fellow Flag-Smashers. The group’s ill-defined plan puts them at odds with John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the U.S. government’s newly christened Captain America, and his fellow soldier, Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett). Head writer Malcolm Spellman recently discussed the implications of their big fight.
In Marvel’s comics, Walker and Hoskins were introduced as morally suspect analogues to Steve Rogers’ Captain America and his supporting allies like Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson, all the while operating in more underhanded ways that spoke to Walker’s conservatism. Disney+ and Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier introduces the MCU’s Lemar acting in a somewhat similar support role to Walker, but helping him hunt down the Flag-Smashers rather than orchestrating public fights to boost Walker’s profile like in the source material.
While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier sidestepped some of the problematic elements of Lemar’s comics history — like when it was suggested he adopt the “Bucky” codename, a loaded term when used to refer to Black men — “The Whole World Is Watching,” veered into even more troubled territory when it brought Lemar into its pivotal action scene. After Karli accidentally murdered Lemar in the heat of the fight, the episode went darker than anything we’ve seen in the MCU so far. An enraged Walker proceeded to bash in the head of a Flag-Smasher with the original Cap shield as dozens of civilians armed with smartphones looked on in shock and horror.
As if The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wasn’t shouting loud enough at you at that point in the season, Walker, twisting Karli’s words somewhat, accusingly asks her in the series finale whether she doesn’t “think Lemar’s life mattered.” Lemar’s arc and the way the show addressed his death both read like a lacklustre attempt at acknowledging the Black Lives Matter movement, while also playing into a decades-old trope that uses Black pain and death to motivate white characters.
According to showrunner/head writer Malcolm Spellman, the creative team was well aware of the murky territory it was wandering into with its characterisation of Lemar. In a recent interview on the Fade to Black podcast, Spellman explained why, as he sees it, there was no real way to get Walker to where they wanted the character in the show without killing Lemar, despite the fact that doing that played into the very trope it’s meant to be pushing back against.
“From the movies I saw all from the beginning of the ‘80s all the way through now, the purpose of the Black character was either magical negro whose job is to service a white character, and once that white character has gone on their journey, the magical negro disappears,” Spellman said. “Or, the Black guy or girl, but 99% of the time, guy, who’s there to get killed somewhere near the end of act two.”
In Spellman’s view, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was in the clear to kill off Lemar because “we earned it by telling all these other stories with heart,” and while he’s confident that the audience “got it,” it’s somewhat difficult to say what “it” actually was because of how the show often refused to take a firm position on the ideas it was playing with. While stories are always made stronger by having characters illustrate things with their actions (“showing”) instead of just explaining things (“telling”), there’s something to be said for the need for both, especially in stories centering sensitive subjects people are uncomfortable addressing.
As many gestures towards the existence of institutional racism as there are in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the word “racism” doesn’t actually appear in the series. One could interpret this as being similar to the way that people go out of their way not to call clearly racist things racist out of a desire not to upset others, but Spellman argued that doing so would have been condescending to viewers.
“It was because you’d have to be a fool not to see what we were talking about,” Spellman said. “I mean, Isaiah’s a wreck, you know what I’m saying? He’s a wreck and he’s scarred. Wouldn’t we be diminishing it with words when he lifts up his shirt, if you have any sense of history, you know what images come to mind when he lifts up that shirt? What could we put into words that would trump that?”
Spellman’s position presumes a lot of understanding and knowledge about the history of anti-Black racism in America on the audience’s part. It’s somewhat ironic when you consider how a number of shows like Watchmen, Lovecraft Country, Them, and his own Marvel series have all attempted to mine history (to varying degrees of success) because many people are unfamiliar with it.
Though Karli and Lemar, two of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s most high-profile Black characters, are now dead in the ground, Walker’s still quite alive and seemingly being primed for a future in the MCU. The unevenness of Walker’s characterization throughout the series at first seemed like it might be a scripting or directing choice, but Spellman attributed much of the character’s weird vibes to actor Wyatt Russell directly, and is confident that it’s going to serve the character well going forward.
“Wyatt, I gotta admit, the 13 different ways he plays a given moment where sometimes he’s clueless, sometimes he’s an utterly human great guy, sometimes he’s arrogant,” Spellman said. “If we gave him four layers, he added six more on his own. And I do think now just think about where John Walker could go. He’s not limited by the books now with the way we play him He can go he could go as dark as the books if they want, because that’s in there, but he could go way more righteous than he was ever depicted if they wanted to.”
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is now streaming on Disney+.