We have a Black Captain America, so what now? The finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, “One World, One People,” saw Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) don the Captain America suit. And what a glorious suit it is! But it’s the man in that suit that gives it meaning. The journey that audiences have seen Sam and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) take following the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame has been rife with challenges, both physical and psychological. Both men, by contending with history, theirs and others, emerge better for having done so. On the surface, the finale seems to wrap everything up nice and neat. There are, of course, seeds for the future that are planted, but most characters end up where the course of their arcs have been leading them all season. In some ways it’s uncommonly tidy for the MCU. Some might argue that it’s even safe. But we’ve witnessed a Black man become Captain America, and to see him succeed in that role can’t be tidy or safe business.
For all the action beats, character deaths and reveals in the sixth and final episode, the scene I keep coming back to is Sam, Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), and Eli Bradley (Elijah Richardson) at the Captain America exhibit in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Sam introduces them to a new part of the exhibit, a statue of Isaiah Bradley and a display telling his story, and the “dozen African American soldiers who were recruited against their will and without their consent” who were experimented on in the attempt to re-create the super-soldier serum. Isaiah is visibly moved by this gesture and hugs Sam. But I think it’s important to reflect on the context and larger significance of this scene. I don’t believe that it’s that exhibit itself, one housed within a government-administered museum, that stirs Isaiah. I think it’s the understanding of what Sam’s new role of Captain America can achieve.
It’s one thing to call on the government to create change, to implore people in power to have empathy for those who are powerless. But it’s another thing entirely to create change yourself. Sam’s speech to the government officials, and press, is beautifully worded. “The only power I have is that I believe we can do better.” There is power in those words, without a doubt and they hearken back to Sam’s comic book origins as the son of a preacher who knew a thing or two about powerful words. But they are still just words nevertheless.
Last week, I brought up the issue of the illusion of change, of the impermanence of drastic shifts in the status quo, and the inability to creating lasting change without first reckoning with the past. The Isaiah Bradley exhibit is the first actionable step Sam takes in forcing America to face its past and the truth of what happened to a dozen soldiers. It is the first step in “doing better.” And again a step is different from a solution. Sam as Captain America can never be a complete solution, just as the series could never address the entirety of America’s many and varied systemic abuses. But both Sam and the series move the needle significantly in the right direction.
The language used in the Isaiah Bradley display, “against their will,” and “without their consent” is a noteworthy acknowledgment, particularly in light of the fact that just earlier this week Americans heard the Speaker of the House refer to George Floyd’s murder as a sacrifice. Given his prior conversations with Isaiah, Sam’s goal isn’t to make Isaiah Bradley into a martyr or give cause for America to pat itself on the back for accomplishing the bare minimum of justice, but to convey the fact that Isaiah’s story, like so many others, is a permanent fixture of America’s history. The fact Isaiah is depicted by a statue also has its relevance, considering the statues of Confederate soldiers and colonizers that still stand in America, reminders of the lies Americans tell themselves on a daily basis about who built America. Isaiah Bradley’s statue stands in opposition to that, a reminder of the truth.
Would the Smithsonian in our real world ever house such an honest condemnation of the American government? It’s a valid question. And I’m not certain it would. But as much as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had to reflect real-world issues in order to provide legitimate commentary, whatever comes next in terms of Sam’s journey as Captain America must push beyond the now of our reality and dare to imagine a better future where change can and does happen. Superheroes were created to be inspirational figures for children, to condemn evil, and later, in Captain America’s case, to foster support for World War II efforts. But I can’t help but wonder if, in the attempts to force superhero comics to grow up with their readership, and to capture reality in the ’70s and ’80s, that we stopped looking at these characters to find solutions to real-world crises, to inspire children, despite no longer exclusively catering to them. It’s no stretch to say that Alan Moore and Frank Miller changed superheroes, but at least in Moore’s case, it wasn’t so that these characters would just go on to echo his work for eternity. Yet, we became content with superheroes slumming it in the muck of our reality, fighting with the way things are, grimly reveling in the fact that “nothing ever ends” and “the war goes on.” But, in too many ways, we saw superheroes stop fighting to change the reality of social ills in any actionable way.
The finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is optimistic, arguably more so than any episode we’ve seen in the series previously. But I don’t think that optimism is unearned or unnecessary. We have become so inundated with images of Black Americans being beaten down on our screens, both in the news and in our pop culture, that to see one win and rise, was for me, an almost alien feeling. Sam makes it clear that he knows his role as Captain America will not be entirely embraced. “I know there are millions out there that are gonna hate me for it. Even now, here, I hear it. The stares, the judgment. And there is nothing I can do to change their minds.” But, at least for the purposes of this finale, we don’t see or hear that hatred, not even from those we might expect to, like John Walker (Wyatt Russell). Is this entirely realistic? Perhaps not. But shouldn’t seeing Black people honored and celebrated without the echo of dissenting voices be our reality? Surely if we can accept the fantasy of a white man in a star-spangled costume defeat the Nazis, then we should be able to accept a Black man in a similarly star-spangled costume force the American government to reckon with its own terrorism?
Sam’s success as Captain America relies on acknowledging the past and the present, but he can’t remain there. Rather than simply react to the world, Sam must be proactive for his role to have any meaning, even if that means breaking free of certain tropes associated with the suffering Black hero, the noble negro, which we’ve clung to in our attempts to bring realism to our media. There’s a place for realism certainly, but when it comes to the first African-American superhero, there is an opportunity to dream beyond the harshness of reality. If Sam becomes Captain America only to end up like Isaiah Bradley, then his taking up the mantle only becomes an effort to wallow in reality. I don’t think seeing Sam face the wrath of racist neighbors in red hats, get pulled over by the cops, or thrown in prison (again) is what we need to see. What seems more revolutionary is to see Sam soar, even in the face of inevitable setbacks, and actively do the work to create a better America where children like his nephews don’t have to imagine the experience of being the Black Captain America in the future being exactly the same as being a Black person today. Sam Wilson, as Captain America, has the opportunity, like his predecessor, to become a man out of time.