Thoughts on the Falcon and Winter Soldier, Episode 1
When it comes to foreign policy, the episode has some early missteps, but Marvel does have a way of painting within the lines in projects where it’s working with the Pentagon by contrasting the Good Military with the Bad Military (Cap vs. SHIELD in Winter Soldier, the Kree military vs. U.S military in Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau vs. Director Hayward in Wandavision), and it seems like they’ll be doing that with Sam Wilson and Joaquín Torres as the good military that’s intelligence-led and respectful of other countries and John Walker as the bad military that’s -Toby-Keith-circa-2002-jingoistic.
More interesting is what they’re doing with the central character dilemma of what it means for an African-American man to take on the mantle of Captain America in the present day (technically the near-future). The contrasting scenes in the Smithsonian, where it becomes clear that Sam Wilson’s uncertainty about whether he can carry the legacy of Steve Rogers has been manipulated by the Defense Department into allowing them to replace him with a politically “safer,” mass-marketing-oriented, and whiter alternative, set out the show’s themes quite directly.
What gives this more weight is the comparatively more grounded plotline where Sam’s attempt to rescue his family’s Gulf Coast fishing business with the respectability politics of showing up early to the appointment with a new business plan, research on SBA loan requirements, and a last-ditch appeal to his fame as an Avenger run aground on a bank manager’s indifference. While the MCU gives this scene a certain added frisson – how have public and private institutions reacted to the bureaucratic difficulties of half the population coming back from the dead after a five year absence? Do Avengers get salaries? – I was genuinely surprised that a Disney+ show allowed Sam Wilson’s sister to state clearly that banks don’t need world-altering crossover events to discriminate against black people and black-owned businesses and that Sam’s retreat into the military and superheroics have left him somewhat naive.
As the showrunners have said that they took Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s Truth: Red, White, and Black as one of their inspirational texts for the series, I’m interested to see how the show continues to weave in the black experience as a complicating factor in a story about patriotism, heroism, and historical legacy.
Subtly connecting to the themes of ex-soldiers trying to find their way in the “New World Order” is one Bucky Barnes who finds himself trying to navigate government-ordered (and, one senses, government-monitored) therapy sessions with his own personal brand of attempting to atone for his actions as the Winter Soldier. While most of the pathos in Barnes’ storyline comes from his faltering attempts to provide companionship for the father of a young Japanese-American businessman who he killed for accidentally witnessing a HYDRA assassination, it’s noticeable that one of the names on Barnes’ list of “amends” was Helmut Zemo, the villain of Captain America: Civil War, who framed Barnes for murder as part of his plot to destroy the Avengers.
Less clear is what the show quite intends to do with the Flag Smashers. Inspired by the frankly bizarre anti-nationalist terrorist character created by Mark Gruenwald and Paul Neary, Falcon and Winter Soldier‘s version seems to have been inspired by the world’s seemingly united struggle to survive the crippling effects of the Snap – something that’s a little harder to believe in the wake of a not-particularly-united response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the Flag Smashers’ unauthorized superhuman enhancements seems to be connected in some vague way to Helmut Zemo, who (according to the trailers) seems to have generalized from his original anti-Avenger stance to now oppose the very concept of superheroes.
That being said, we’re only one sixth of the way into the series, so we’ll have to wait and see how these themes and plot threads develop.