The new Disney+ Marvel Cinematic Universe series “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” is about the legacy of Captain America. Inevitably, it’s also about the legacy of America.
This isn’t new ground for the superhero genre on television; HBO’s “Watchmen” and Amazon’s “The Boys” have both used costumed adventurers to critically examine the United States’ history of racism and colonialism and how that historical record impacts its place in the world. But based on the first episode of “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” (the only of the series’ six made available for review), the MCU’s approach looks likely to be less serious, and less thoughtful, than its predecessors.
The new series “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” is about the legacy of Captain America. Inevitably, it’s also about the legacy of America.
“The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” picks up after the events of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” At the conclusion of that film, the original Captain America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), retired. He handed his shield over to his friend and ally Sam Wilson, aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie). In the first episode of the new series, though, Sam decides he can’t take up the Captain America identity because the shield “feels like it belongs to someone else.” He gives it to the U.S. government to preserve as a museum piece.
Steve was white; Sam is Black. A storyline about a Black man taking up the Captain America mantel is obviously, in part, about the relationship between America and racism. A Black Captain America is a symbolic assertion that America should represent Black people as well as white people; it demands that America see Black people as central to its own identity.
Again, “Watchmen” was willing to talk about racism and Black history directly. Its iconic first superhero, Hooded Justice, was a Black man who survived the white supremacist Tulsa massacre and fought the Klan.
The MCU, though, is much more coy about these issues. Sam’s sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), suggests fairly directly that she can’t get a business loan because of the racism of financial institutions. But the series insists that Sam’s relationship with the shield, and with America, is strictly personal. He decides not to use the shield because he doesn’t feel it’s right for him.
No one — neither Sam nor anyone else — talks about what it might mean for Captain America to be Black. No Black friends or colleagues suggest it might be important for Sam to take up the mantle and help confront racist injustice. Nor do white racists behave as you’d expect them to. After Sam gets the shield, he doesn’t get deluged with racist death threats, as Hank Aaron did when he was about to overtake Babe Ruth’s home run record, or as President Barack Obama did when he became president. The MCU chooses to pretend that Black achievement in the U.S. is attended by neither hope nor hate.
The first episode also lays the groundwork for an examination of the United States’ relationship with colonialism and nationalism. The supervillain of the series is Flag-Smasher, the leader of a quasi-anarchist group that we are told wants “a world that’s unified without borders.”
The soldier who describes the anarchist’s motives admits this borderless world sounds appealing. But he insists that the group’s idealism is foolish. Sam agrees. “Every time something gets better for one group it gets worse for another,” he says. Such zero-sum logic casually buttresses a reactionary status quo. If more civil rights for one group means less for another, the haves are fully justified by ethics and self-interest in crushing protest by the have-nots. The way the discussion hops from border controls to a blanket rejection of change is disturbing given our ongoing orgy of anti-immigrant sentiment and a call for strong borders that has led to concentration camps for migrants.
This lack of engagement with the downsides of America’s obsession with border security is matched by a lack of engagement with the less savory aspects of America’s military interventionism. It’s clear already that “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” like other MCU narratives — from “Iron Man” (2008) to “Captain Marvel” (2019) — is very enthusiastic about the American military and American military hardware.
The opening of the first episode is an effects-heavy action sequence where Sam aids an anti-terrorist military operation in the Middle East. Flying around in foreign airspace, Sam unleashes his own personal drone while dodging dozens of missiles. These missiles have to explode somewhere, but we’re focused on Falcon and thus spared the sight of collateral damage to any unfortunate foreign nationals. The rest of the world is a fun staging ground for U.S. military superfeats. The consequences for people who live in the rest of the world are decidedly secondary to the spectacle.
The other plotline in the first episode involves Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Captain America’s World War II era sidekick. Bucky was preserved by the evil organization Hydra for decades, mind-wiped and turned into an assassin. He’s now recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and trying to make amends for his past. Bucky is 106 years old, and his plight could be used to talk about America’s forever wars. But that connection isn’t much explored, at least early on.
In short, in the first episode, questions about the United States’ ambivalent relationship to heroism and virtue are raised only to be avoided, or glibly dismissed with reassurances and hollow patriotic boosterism. It’s possible the series will complicate the conflict and give Flag-Smasher (Erin Kellyman) a chance to clarify her views on American xenophobia, colonialism and violence.
But trailers and promotional material for the series all suggest that “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” isn’t especially interested in those discussions. Instead, it seems to want to be an action-adventure buddy show featuring quips and high-spirited stunts. As always, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a light-hearted show about superheroes punching each other. “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” does itself no favors, though, by pretending it has something to say about America.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer and critic in Chicago.