We’re running a weekly recap of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+. There are spoilers, duh! You’ve been warned.
Let’s retrace how John Walker got here.
After Steve Rogers retired as Captain America, he passed the vibranium shield to his friend Sam Wilson. But then Sam, burdened under the weight of all that America represents—both good and ill—couldn’t see himself as a symbol for patriotism. So he turned the shield over to the United States government. The government, in turn, gave it to John Walker, a man who is blissfully free of such burdens.
But that’s not to say he’s burden-free. For John Walker, the shield’s baggage lies in the complicated legacy of its owner. He internalizes the heroics and spectacle of Captain America. And this makes him insecure. He needs the security the shield represents. He needs an unambiguous belief that America is great. America is best. So in John’s mind, it stands to reason that with the shield bestowed upon him, he should be great and best too.
Up until now, Sam Wilson and James Buchanan have rebuffed John’s efforts to capture the Flag Smashers. We can manage this mission just fine on our own, thanksverymuch, they tell him.It is not normal for those with power to lay it down for another’s sake. To those insecure in their power, this feels like surrender. It feels like shame. Humiliation.
Sam even snubbed John’s offer to be Captain America’s sidekick. Who does Sam think he is? You’re gonna say no to me, your new Captain?
So John is mad at Sam now. But Sam’s not the only one drawing John’s ire.
Wakanda’s Dora Milaje intervened in this week’s episode to apprehend Helmut Zemo for the murder of their King T’Chaka. John Walker was incensed that these warrior women—from Africa, no less—were unimpressed by the Captain American mantle. “The Dora Milaje don’t have jurisdiction here,” Walker spouts. For John, the power of Captain America’s presence gives him authority to be there, even when he’s within the borders of a sovereign state like Latvia. John cannot conceive of a scenario where the Wakandan royal guard would share equal jurisdiction as him.
Ayo will have none of it. “The Dora Milaje have jurisdiction wherever the Dora Milaje find themselves to be.”
Then, as fits the pattern with most of Walker’s interactions, words fail him. And a fight ensues.
Captain America LITE is easily defeated. In his humiliation, John observes, “They weren’t even super soldiers.”
So it comes as no surprise that when the opportunity finally avails itself for John to nab the last remaining vial of supersoldier serum, Walker consumes it immediately. To him, superhuman strength is the missing key to becoming Captain America.
America is great and best.
Now John is too.
Earlier, Zemo had opined, “The desire to become a superhuman cannot be separated from supremacist ideals.” Here he was referring to Karli Morgenthau and her army of supersoldier revolutionaries. Like John, Karli sees the serum as a key too, albeit one for empowering the powerless, to finally tipping the scales in favor of the downtrodden and weary. Which is why Sam’s heart has gone soft for Karli. He believes her motives are pure, even if her methods aren’t.
Zemo, on the other hand, can’t abide Sam’s idealism. He insists that Karli cannot help but be corrupted by sheer strength she now wields as a supersoldier. She is not an exception to the rule. She is a supremacist, just like every other supersoldier before her.
That’s not true, Sam insists. Just look at Steve Rogers.
Fellas, relax. You’re both right.
Steve Rogers may have been the exception. But John Walker is most certainly the rule.
Paul once encouraged the church in Philippi:
Everyone should look not to his or her own interests, but rather to the interests of others. Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.
It is not normal for those with power to lay it down for another’s sake. To those insecure in their power, this feels like surrender. It feels like shame. Humiliation.
But for the woman or man who adopts “the same attitude” as Christ, walking in humility, willfully laying down their life—these are keys to the Kingdom.
This way of living is quintessential to the Christian’s greatest strength. But the new Captain America knows nothing of this strength.
It’s easy to look at this man and see a cartoonish, hotheaded buffoon. But if I were to play armchair psychologist for a moment, John’s weakness—the thing that drives his descent to madness—is his sense of entitlement. Sure, we can say rage and anger have its place in John’s arc. No doubt, white-hot revenge inspired Walker to jam his shield into the head of an enemy who had already surrendered.
No matter. These are but symptoms of John’s mad pursuit for the deference he feels he is owed. Unfortunately, with the supersoldier serum now pulsing through his veins, he finally has the power to demand it of everyone around him.
To close, I leave you with a final, mostly unrelated thought.
In any superhero story, the best villain will challenge our hero’s worldview and change them for the better. It’s how Bruce Wayne at the end of 2008’s The Dark Knight is a fundamentally different man after his encounter with the Joker. It’s how Wakanda becomes a more welcoming, open, and empathetic nation after King T’Challa’s battle with Erik Killmonger in Black Panther.
After this week’s episode, I’m convinced the same can be said of Sam Wilson and Karli Morgenthau. Sam can’t help but lament the same injustices and indignities that motivate Karli and her Flag Smashers. It’s why he’s so resistant to pinning Karli’s radicalization to supremacy. To Sam, Karli is working to right the same wrongs that he himself can plainly see.
Because of Karli, Sam won’t be the same man when this show is over. Karli is molding Sam into a better hero. A better man. My guess? A truer, better Captain.