The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Well that was something. I suspect that if you are not as deeply immersed in the Marvel Comics Universe as I am, this series will have come over as rather odd. I’ve also noticed some dissatisfaction among what I might call Left Twitter. But, when you consider the constraints on the series, I think it did rather well. Explaining why will have to take us deep into spoiler territory.

Let’s start with the set-up. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier takes place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, and therefore after the Blip. During the Blip, half of the world’s population vanished. This left wealthy countries with a serious lack of manpower for their industries. They eagerly welcomed immigrants from less-wealthy countries. Now that Thanos has been defeated, the Disappeared have returned, and in many cases have found foreign immigrants living in their homes. Understandably, this has led to a lot of political tension. The UN has set up an organisation called the Global Repatriation Council to help migrants return home, but many do not wish to do so.

The upshot of all this is the rise of a global migrants’ rights organisation called the Flag Smashers. They want to return to the world that they knew during the Blip, when national boundaries meant far less. Sam and Bucky get involved when they learn that one of the more militant Flag Smashers has superpowers, which turn out to be the result of someone having made a new batch of Super Soldier Serum.

Although Steve Rogers gifted Sam his shield when he retired, Sam has decided not to take on the role of Captain America, at least in part because he’s concerned at how a Black Cap would go down at home. He donates the shield to a museum display in Steve’s honour. But the US government sees an opening, retrieves the shield, and appoints an ex-sports-star and ex-soldier called John Walker to be the new Cap.

The Left Twitter criticism of the series appears to be that Sam and Bucky should have joined up with the Flag Smashers, blown up the UN Building, and vowed to destroy Capitalism. That was never going to happen. You might possibly get away with something like that in an X-Men show, because the X-Men are already seen as terrorists by the government, but absolutely not in a Captain America show.

In the Captain America universe, stories like this always end up reinforcing the status quo. If the supposed terrorists that our heroes end up fighting appear to have a good cause, then they will be portrayed as turning to violence and having to be stopped. Either their leader will turn out to be an agent of a foreign government, or she will turn evil for some reason. In this case they chose the latter resolution. It left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth, but the script gave us sufficient alternative moral grey areas that we can think that maybe Sam and Bucky have made a mistake.

A more cogent complaint is that the series had far too much going on for a six-episode story. That also was partly inevitable, because Marvel seems to have decided that the role of the TV series will be to move the plot on, and introduce new characters, in advance of new movies. To some extent that’s a good thing. So much went on off-camera in the Avengers movies, that I’m surprised people not familiar with the characters managed to keep up. But it does mean that the series don’t work well in and of themselves.

Let’s take a look at the work The Falcon and The Winter Soldier had to do in addition to the Flag Smashers plot. It had to handle Sam’s transition to the new Captain America and introduce the new Falcon. It had to handle Bucky’s recovery from the trauma of his role as The Winter Soldier and transition him to his new role as White Wolf. It told the story of John Walker’s disastrous stint as Captain America and his transition to the role of US Agent under the control of Madame Hydra. It told the story of Isaiah Bradley, a Black man who was part of the US Super Soldier project after WWII, and introduced his grandson, Eli, who will one day join the Young Avengers alongside Billy Maximoff. It re-introduced us to Baron Zemo from Civil War, who is so much more interesting in the MCU than he ever was in the comics. And it provided some very interesting revelations about Sharon Carter. Phew!

Oh, and it appears to have killed off Batroc Ze Leaper, though I rather hope that he crawled away and survived somehow.

Was it necessary to cram all of this into one series? I don’t know, but clearly Marvel wanted all of these bits of narrative advanced. What is necessary to limit the story to a mere six episodes? Well, that will have been a budgetary decision, and frankly the production team probably had to do a lot of work behind the scenes to be allowed to tell this story the way that they wanted. Maybe six episodes was all that they could get permission to make.

Much of the show was about race. Sam’s reluctance to take on the mantle of Captain America, Isaiah’s disgraceful treatment by the US government, and the struggles of Sam’s sister, Sarah, to keep her business afloat all play into this. The use of Zemo also gave the scriptwriters an excuse to involve the Dora Milaje, because it was Zemo who led the terrorist attack that killed King T’Chaka. I’ve not seen any People of Colour up in arms about the way this was done, so hopefully there were not too many faux pas.

I’ve seen a few Asian people complain about the lack of Asian people in Madripoor, which is actually in South-East Asia. That criticism seems well made.

However, the show was also very explicitly about White Privilege, in two specific ways. The first was the narrative arc of John Walker. He’s a typical, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American hero. He was quarterback of his college football team. He fought in Afghanistan. He has a chest full of medals. It is no wonder that he was chosen as the new Captain America. If you were to ask Walker if he got where he did through privilege he would probably be appalled. He’d tell you that he was really good at what he did, and that he even had a Black Best Friend (who got fridged to give him motivation, because that’s what Black Best Friends do, right?).

Nevertheless, Walker’s path through life was easy in a way that Sam Wilson’s never could have been. And the story of Isaiah Bradley shows us exactly what the US government thought of the prospect of a Black Super Soldier. Also, his privilege is the reason why Walker is such a failure as Cap. Steve Rogers had been a failure at everything in life prior to being chosen as a test subject for the Super Solider programme. Walker, in contrast, had succeeded spectacularly at everything he did prior to becoming Cap. He didn’t know how to fail, or what to do when he did, except react with anger like a child whose toys had been taken away.

And then there’s Sharon. She’s blonde, blue-eyed, a relative of the legendary Peggy Carter, and a kick-ass heroine. She’s the absolute embodiment of what a white woman should be in a superhero universe. And The Falcon and The Winter Soldier showed her to be a criminal mastermind. The official story is that after the events of Civil War the US government abandoned Sharon because of her support for Steve, and she had to go into hiding. But she doesn’t reveal how she survived to Sam and Bucky, and now that we know the extent of the criminal empire she has at her command I find it hard to believe that she vanished in the Blip as she claims.

In the show, Sharon completely fools Sam and Bucky with her sob story. Thanks to Sam’s help, she gets her old job back in the US secret service, and she immediately sets about planning how to use that to her advantage. White women are fucking dangerous, because no one ever suspects them.

How far back does Sharon’s treachery go? I haven’t had time to look into it in detail, but other people have. If you are interested in digging deeper in the MCU I recommend the Twitter feed of @fangirlJeanne. She recently pointed her followers at this speculative video from back in 2016, when Civil War has just come out. I have to say that it makes a lot of sense to me.

The one aspect of the show that did not work for me was Bucky’s arc. I didn’t really understand why it worked, both for him and for the people that The Winter Soldier had wronged. Also the therapist he was assigned to, while very funny, was a very bad therapist. They can’t event complain that this is the sort of person the US military would assign to Bucky, because Sam worked as a therapist in the Veterans’ Administration before becoming Falcon. He should have been appalled at the way Bucky was being treated.

While I’m here, I’d like to compliment the quality of some of the acting on the series. Wyatt Russell does a great job of portraying Walker as simultaneously a stuck-up white boy, someone who wants to do good but doesn’t know how, and a victim of the US military machine. Daniel Brühl is once again superb as Baron Zemo, and I shall be buying the series on disc when it comes out in the hope that the extras will contain the full version of Zemo dancing from the party in episode #3. I’m pretty sure that we haven’t seen the last of Helmut Zemo, and if you want to know why you might want to Google a comic called Thunderbolts.

Finally, on the acting, although she only got two short scenes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus completely stole the show as Madame Hydra. I can see her being as popular as Loki.

If you are thinking of individual episodes to nominate for the Hugos, my vote goes to #5, officially titled “Truth” but which I referrer to as “Sam and Bucky Repair a Boat”. The finale, “One World, One People”, is OK, but has too many obvious set-pieces (I loved the Sam-as-angel shot, but boy was it hackneyed). It also has the most unbelievable thing in the entire series, which is saying a lot for a superhero show. I am referring, of course, to the fact that the politicians took Sam’s speech on board and changed their behaviour as a result, rather than fobbing him off with platitudes and carrying on being as brutal and uncaring as before.

Which brings us, at last, to Sam’s speech. I suppose it is inevitable that someone taking on the mantle of Captain America has to make a speech, and there is a fine tradition of speech-making in the MCU. Sam’s speech isn’t as on point as the one that T’Challa makes at the end of Black Panther, but it is good, and it contains one very memorable line.

“The only power that I have, is that I believe that we can do better.” – Sam Wilson

Unlike Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and now John Walker, Sam Wilson does not have any superpowers. His is supremely fit, but most of his advantage has come from his wings, from his robot pal Redwing, and now from a Vibranium shield. Nevertheless, he has earned his role as Captain America, and as a member of the Avengers. What’s more, the power that he refers to above is one that we all have. Every single one of us knows that our politicians can, and should, do better. Like Sam, we should tell them to do so.