To turn Sam Wilson into Captain America, Malcolm Spellman knew that he had to take the Marvel Cinematic Universe into uncharted territory. What resulted was The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios’ heaviest and most violent story to date. Whether it was the inhumane treatment of Black super soldier test subjects such as Isaiah Bradley or the lingering effects of PTSD in Bucky Barnes and John Walker, Spellman didn’t pull any punches as head writer, and he’s still amazed by the lack of resistance along the way.
“Marvel never blinked,” Spellman tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I kept expecting the tap on the shoulder, but as long as you could explain [a choice] and it felt organic to the stories, they would say, ‘Write the best thing you can write.’”
Once the season finale concluded, viewers were met with a new closing title card that read “Captain America and the Winter Soldier.” According to Spellman, the closing title card nearly cemented Bucky Barnes’ transition to the White Wolf after the character did the work necessary to amend his past as the Winter Soldier.
“I got to see that moniker [White Wolf] in watching one of the cuts, and man, it really affected me emotionally,” Spellman shares. “I believe they wanted the impact of Captain America and the Winter Soldier to land. And I do think that had they done Captain America and the White Wolf, it might not have been as emotional of a landing because it’s too much math and too much evolution. But I don’t know for sure what it was. I got blindsided by that while watching the cut — but I loved it.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Spellman also addresses his interest in an Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) prequel story, as well as Isaiah’s unique role in Sam Wilson’s hero’s journey. He further discusses whether John Walker (Wyatt Russell) is redeemed or not.
Compared to the rest of the MCU, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier explored heavier subject matters and themes, and the action sequences were a bit more violent in order to emphasize the points being made. In hindsight, are you surprised that you were able to take the MCU into such uncharted territory?
Yes. (Laughs.) And Marvel never blinked. I kept expecting the tap on the shoulder, but as long as you could explain [a choice] and it felt organic to the stories, they would say, “Write the best thing you can write.”
This show is about many things including forgotten heroes and how that status has impacted the likes of Isaiah Bradley, Sarah Wilson (Adepero Oduye), Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and even Donya Madani (Veronica Falcón). Was this through-line very much by design?
Yeah, what we wanted to get into was a certain sentiment. I would say that Isaiah is a little bit separate from them because he so purely embodies other discussions. But with the ideas of discarded people and the fruitlessness of endeavoring for people in this current climate, my philosophy is not that it is fruitless to endeavor for the greater humanity. But I do think those characters embody what it’s like to be discarded after dedicating yourself to something that is for the people.
Sam and Bucky would get very defensive whenever Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) or Isaiah would challenge or come close to challenging Steve Rogers’ legacy. Did you feel like you were walking a tightrope since the goal was to cast a shadow on the institutions that created Steve Rogers’ Captain America, and not disparage Steve himself?
It was definitely a tightrope. We just tried to be as honest as possible, and if Steve is who Steve is, we should be okay. Zemo, obviously, had very, very thorough talking points and some inescapable truth in what he was saying. But if we’re honest, you never had to try too hard to protect Steve because Steve Rogers really embodied the promise of what you hope Cap would be.
By the time you came on board, was Sam’s Captain America suit already conceptualized?
They had versions of it, and it blew my mind. The first thing I saw when I walked into the writers’ room was the concept art already up on the walls — including Zemo with the purple mask. All of that.
When Breaking Bad was on the air, Vince Gilligan remained surprised as a significant portion of the audience kept rooting for Walter White despite his many evil deeds. With that in mind, once John Walker brutally murdered a Flag-Smasher in episode four, were you also caught off guard by the fact that some people immediately rushed to his defense?
No, that’s part of the conversation that John Walker embodies, and at the same time, we never set out to judge John Walker. Walter White is ruled by ego, and Walter White is pursuing an endeavor that doesn’t really have a value to anyone. Once he makes a certain amount of money he needs to take care of his family, which is $737,000, everything he does after that is consciously bad. John Walker is a far more complicated character in his pursuits, and I’m not comparing John Walker to Walter White on a quality level or making a judgment like that. I’m just saying his pursuits are not as stark as Walter White’s, and I think his journey has a few low points. Everyone focuses on him killing that person, but that motherfucker went and lied to Lemar’s (Clé Bennett) family. John Walker is misguided at times and righteous at times, and we let all of that be part of the stew that is that character.
Since Walker has yet to confront the trauma of his past like Bucky has, his heroic act in the finale feels temporary to me. He was still battling his unchecked demons throughout the final confrontation. Until he does the work that Bucky did, should anyone remotely think that John Walker is redeemed?
I will only talk about John Walker in our series because I don’t know where he is gonna go. But I agree, and I think you have an astute observation. Look at the energy from Bucky even when this thing begins. There’s a humility to the scope of what he’s done. John Walker is just beginning his journey; he’s at least 70 years younger than Bucky. He gets taken low, and he does the right thing in the heat of battle in episode six. But look at his energy when he’s talking to Val (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). That arrogance is part of what he embodies.
In the finale, Val mints Walker as U.S. Agent. Out of curiosity, did you shoot that scene at the same location as episode five’s hearing due to actor availability and/or Covid factors?
Ooh, you would have to ask Kari Skogland that.
[Writer’s Note: I did just that.]
Kari Skogland: Yes, we did shoot them at the same location, but it was before Covid so it had nothing to do with pandemic production. We wanted his new future to be revealed in the same place where he faced the tribunal that stripped him of his Captain America title. It added to the irony of the moment.
Fictionally, it’s either late 2023 or early 2024, and Sharon Carter has been on the run since 2016. Endgame also implied that she was snapped by Thanos in 2018. But based on the level of resentment that she has towards the U.S. government, as well as her rise to power in Madripoor, I don’t get the feeling that she was part of the snap since 2.5 years on the lam doesn’t seem like enough runway for her to become the Power Broker. Dr. Nagel (Olli Haaskivi) also said that when he got back from the snap, the Power Broker immediately funded his research, which suggests that Sharon’s business wasn’t upended by the snap. Are you able to say if Sharon was definitively snapped or not?
I bet you if you can get [executive producer] Nate Moore or one of the writers on the phone, they would be able to answer. We have these discussions in the room, but the effort we put into tracking all that is too hard for me to commit to answering right here in this interview. There is a human-foot-tall stack of documents that have been circulated in tracking all this stuff, and I cannot possibly remember right now.
How close were you to changing Bucky’s moniker from the Winter Soldier to the White Wolf?
I got to see that moniker [White Wolf] in watching one of the cuts, and man, it really affected me emotionally. The reason [the closing title card] still says The Winter Soldier is solely based on Marvel feeling like they needed to keep some of the original title in there to land that feeling. I don’t think it had anything to do with where Bucky is going or how Bucky evolved as a character. I think that they felt like if they went too far away from the original title, you wouldn’t feel the impact of those words. But I’m speculating here.
Ayo (Florence Kasumba) told Bucky to steer clear of Wakanda for the time being, and since the Wakandans dubbed him as White Wolf, could the delayed transition be a response to that overall dynamic?
I think there’s still some energy there. I forget what Ayo says, but who’d she bring the suit to when he needed that favor? Again, I’m speculating here, but I believe they wanted the impact of Captain America and the Winter Soldier to land. And I do think that had they done Captain America and the White Wolf, it might not have been as emotional of a landing because it’s too much math and too much evolution. But I don’t know for sure what it was. I got blindsided by that while watching the cut — but I loved it.
Can you talk a bit about the evolution of Isaiah Bradley’s arc, as well as his influence on Sam?
Isaiah is the living embodiment of Sam’s doubt. Isaiah tells the truth. And at no point do we absolve this country for the sins that it committed against Isaiah and the sins that it will continue to commit against Black and Brown people. So Sam has to confront that fear, and what was interesting about it is that the hero normally slays that dragon in a “hero story.” Walking into Isaiah’s house with that shield is Sam with the talisman. It’s Sam confronting the dragon, and he doesn’t slay the dragon. He confronts it, and the dragon is as righteous and true as it ever was. So in the face of that, he still had to decide whether or not to become Cap.
If Kevin Feige called you into his office to discuss an Isaiah Bradley prequel, would you give that project serious consideration?
(Spellman quickly responds.) For sure.
From script to screen, what moment turned out even better than you imagined?
Everything with Carl Lumbly and Anthony. Every single one of those scenes just gutted me.
Lastly, those troublemakers at The Hollywood Reporter recently published a very exciting story regarding Captain America 4. Can you say anything about it at this time?
You’re gonna be wasting your time.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is currently streaming on Disney+.