[This story contains spoilers for the premiere episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.]
After a year without the MCU, Marvel Studios is moving full steam ahead with Phase 4. Or perhaps, that should be full stream ahead, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands on streaming platform Disney+. While there’s still some uncertainty about whether this summer’s upcoming theatrical releases, Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, will stick to their current dates, there’s no shortage of Marvel Studios series hitting this year. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, created by Malcolm Spellman and directed by Kari Skogland, gets off to a soaring start, leaving viewers no time to catch their breaths from WandaVision. The latest MCU series promises to have major implications for the titular characters, and the MCU at large, particularly when it comes to how Blackness is navigated in America.
Unsurprisingly, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels very much of a piece with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). But rather than questioning what Captain America means in a world where he exists, it questions what he means in a world where he is no longer present, yet still necessary. The episode posits that what America symbolizes and what Captain America stands for are two very different things, and most impressively it manages to do that by authentically highlighting the Black experience in America.
That experience, which we see the personal ramifications of in the episode, is defined by lack of recognition, being asked to make identity into a performance, and being passed over in an effort to give the spotlight to less qualified, and white candidates who speak to America’s biases and history of racism. Regardless of the fact that the series is a two-hander, with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) receiving equal billing, the first episode very much belongs to Sam.
Despite being handed the shield by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) at the end of Avengers: Endgame (2019), Sam is asked by the Department of Defense to give the shield back over to the government, under the pretense of using it as a museum display piece, along with the message that it’s time to create new heroes. Sam obliges but is conflicted by the decision. This conflict is explored in a way we haven’t seen before in the MCU, yet it’s a moment I’ve been waiting on. Sam and Rhodey (Don Cheadle) have a conversation about what Cap’s legacy means, and what Sam’s future as a hero holds. This is the first time in the MCU, outside of Black Panther (2018), that two Black heroes have had a meaningful conversation about their roles as heroes in a predominately white space.
In some ways, the conversation between Sam and Rhodey carries even greater weight than the discussions between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) because their journeys began in two separate franchises, and both have been supporting players, sidekicks, for white leads. Add in the fact that both Sam and Rhodey are military veterans, serving a country that has so often failed to serve them and their people, and Spellman opens the door to a really interesting discussion about how the American government and citizens see Black heroes. And on a more emotional level, it’s noteworthy seeing two Black heroes support each other, outside of the battlefield, but as friends who understand each other’s circumstances on a deeper level. Sam and Rhodey’s meeting is the equivalent of seeing another Black person at an all-white event and sharing a nod and a smile. It’s a feeling of recognition that in the moment feels near transcendental, and because of that you carry it with you.
This consideration of Black superheroes in white spaces is furthered by Sam’s non-superhero life and his attempts to help his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) get a loan so they can hold on to their family boat and home. His efforts to receive a loan are met with non-overt forms of racial biases that dictate so much behavior in this country. After the bank employee mistakes him for a football player, he asks Sam to pose for pictures, including one with his arms outstretched, an unspoken acknowledgment that unless Sam makes himself immediately recognizable as the Falcon he’s just another Black man, who could be an athlete at most, because that’s as high as many want to see Black people rise in America. After all of this, Sam and Sarah still can’t get the loan, the excuse being that policies have changed after the Blip. Sarah points out that it’s funny how policies always seem to change for some people.
The systems that existed before the Blip that kept marginalized people down still exist, but now under even more conditional terms. To use tragedy as a means to turn racism and discrimination into law is the history of America, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t shy away from it. Rather than the Blip and “death” of Captain American being used as an opportunity to heal old wounds and build anew, which is the path Bucky takes on his personal mission to make amends, the American government is merely using it an excuse to “return to normalcy,” a phrase we’ve heard a lot in our nonfictional America over the past few months. And this normalcy comes in the form of a new, white Captain America, John Walker (Wyatt Russell), whom the DOD claims best represents America going forward.
But of course there is no going forward, there’s only going backwards, with the hope that some secret truth will break the wheel and create the momentum for real change. What’s clear from the first episode is that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will not be taking the easy way out when it comes to looking at what America symbolizes and what the rise of a Black Captain America necessitates in terms of breaking down old structures, and notions of superheroics.