We’re running a weekly recap of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+. There are spoilers, duh! You’ve been warned.
I find Sam Wilson at his most relatable when he’s suffering from imposter syndrome. In the opening minutes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam recalls the moment from Avengers: Endgame when Steve Rogers bestowed the iconic vibranium shield, and with it, the mantle of Captain America, to Sam.
“How’s it feel?” Cap asks him.
“Like it’s someone else’s,” comes Sam’s reply.
Steve saw in Sam something the Falcon doesn’t yet see in himself. After all, Captain America is more than just a super soldier with a shield that defies the laws of physics. He’s a symbol. A cheesy, albeit old-fashioned symbol, sure. But a symbol nonetheless.
As an MCU audience, we’re intended to look at Captain America and see the best of us. We’re to see an uncompromised military man with an unwavering commitment to the good and true ideals of our nation, to the principles of freedom, independence, and the common good that hold it all together. Even—and perhaps especially—when the nation fails to return the promise.Sam is, by every measure, the living embodiment of American excellence and all the ideals for which the shield stands. But he’s not just any man. He’s a Black man.
But more than that, the value for which Captain America and the man Steve Rogers stood more than any other was that of sacrifice. It describes the kind of man or woman who’d throw themselves on a grenade to save their squad, or face down the horde of Thanos all by themselves if they have to, even if it means certain death.
Peggy Carter’s words, as echoed by her niece, Sharon, sum it up well: “Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, No. You move.”
That’s all well and good. But the truth is, Sam knows better than Steve ever could what it means when the nation you love doesn’t return the promise. Ian McLoud said it best when he tweeted, “Captain America trusted Sam Wilson with his shield, but the SBA can’t trust him with a loan?”
It’s not right. Or fair. Sam is, by every measure, the living embodiment of American excellence and all the ideals for which the shield stands. But he’s not just any man. He’s a Black man. Which means the scene at the bank—where the surface pleasantries only sharpen the sting of disparate impact—is only one of the many indignities visited upon men and women of color like Sam every day.
And so it’s no wonder Sam opts to donate Cap’s mantle to the Smithsonian. Sam knows he can love his country to his last breath, through every ounce of his being, to give them absolutely everything he has to give. But at the end of all things, it remains an open question if they will love him in return.
It’s a different story entirely for James Buchanan Barnes. Like Steve Rogers, the Winter Soldier is a super soldier, yet one of another type. Recessitated from the battle field some seventy years earlier, Bucky’s body was given new life as an agent of Hydra, to kill, maim, and murder Hydra’s foes. The trouble is, still alive and whirring underneath the Winter Soldier’s every murder was Bucky himself.
That is, until one day, in an annoyingly typical display of Captain America-esque self-sacrifice, Bucky’s old friend Steve Rogers nearly got himself killed to bring the subconscious Bucky back from underneath the Winter Soldier’s cloud.
Steve’s plan worked. But ever since, Bucky’s been haunted by the ghost of his former self. Save for a short reprieve on Wakanda, the newly-not-bad Winter Soldier has gone from one fight to the other, with little time to reflect, heal, and amend for the harms of his old life.
Which is yet another way these new MCU series finally give space for these beloved characters to breathe. If all we ever had was the event films, Bucky would have been healed on Wakanda. That’s that.
But no. This fella has six episodes to finally get his head right. And for now, at least, there is no fight to draw him from the important work of finally wrestling his demons to the ground and making his amends.
A couple final thoughts.
We were introduced to a group called the Flag-Smashers this week. We know little about the group so far, yet one of their core ideologies appears to be agreement with Thanos. They believe the world was better off with half of all living things Blipped away.
Now, consider the possibility. At first blush, doesn’t that seem insane to you?
But then I remember this world is full of weirdo religious sects, including some of the “Christian” persuasion. It doesn’t take much for people to view themselves as the select “Remnant” deemed righteous and spared from damnation.
Now listen, I have no idea if that’s how the Flag-Smashers see themselves. But it raises a point I hadn’t considered before: Religion after the Blip must have gotten super weird.
And if you need any more convincing, just consider how our current pandemic with its lockdowns, mask mandates, and vaccine rollouts triggered people’s worst apocalyptic paranoia while dialing up a simmering Christian persecution complex all the way to 11.
Now imagine what would’ve happened if Covid had Blipped half of us.
To close, I find myself thinking of some words from James Baldwin.
I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright.
If I were to place a Vegas bet, I believe the six-episode arc of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will be the story of Sam finding his moral center in the country he loves, even when that country tries to pulverize his finest principles out of him.
Sam told the Smithsonian crowd we need new heroes. “Ones suited for the times we’re in.” Well, the hero for the times is often not a hero of the times. That is, left to their own devices, “the times” may never pick a hero like Sam.
Lucky for all involved, Sam’s time isn’t up to them.