Falcon and The Winter Soldier: Refining Identity and Politics

After the emotional rollercoaster that WandaVision put me through, I went into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier thinking I was signing up for an action-packed buddy comedy. What I got instead was a really good continuation of the Captain America films, complete with politics that felt all too real!

Spoilers!

Politics and Captain America going together is nothing new. The original Captain America comics started out as WWII propaganda and they were published before America officially got involved. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War also had political themes.

Now I usually don’t like political themes or “ripped from the headlines” type of writing. I’ve seen way too many cases of it being done badly. At worst, the characters are basically standing on a soapbox and preaching to the choir. In the case of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, however, the political message is woven in naturally with the show because it connects to Sam Wilson and his character arc.

When we last left Sam Wilson at Avenger’s Endgame, he received Steve’s shield. The problem is that he didn’t feel worthy of it. He never used the shield during that opening mission. So in Episode 1, he gives the shield to the Smithsonian Museum. Not only does Sam have to deal with the looming threat of the Flag Smashers (an organization that appears to be modern-day Robin Hoods), he also has to help out his family with maintaining the family business. I loved that Sam’s family gets introduced in this series in the form of his sister Sarah and his nephews. But the scene at the bank where Sam couldn’t get a loan hit hard. (I know that crowdfunding could’ve dated this series, but many fans were saying that Sam should’ve started a “gofundme.”)

Meanwhile, Bucky is trying to readjust to living in the real world, complete with sessions with a government-appointed therapist. He’s got a list of names written in Steve’s old notebook of people he has to make amends with, but so far, he’s just been getting back at some bad guys he helped put into power. This storyline feels familiar to me for some reason… Some people liked Bucky’s therapist, Dr. Raynor, but TikTok sensation and former Air Force Veteran Nicque Marina pointed out how similar Dr. Raynor acted to VA therapists she used to see. Dr. Raynor was government-appointed and while I liked her in Episode 2, she was pretty abrasive and I’m glad that she didn’t overstay her welcome.

Anyway, Episode 1 basically establishes the character arcs for Sam and Bucky as well as their personal, real-world, real-life struggles. And it ends with introducing a guy who embodies a lot of the stuff that Sam and Bucky lack: privilege and prominence. Hello, John Walker.

John Walker has his share of fans who have sympathized with him a little bit more than he deserves, I think. In my honest opinion, John Walker is a complicated character. Unlike other MCU antagonists, he doesn’t start as an outright villain with charisma. He’s the chosen soldier for the government, perfect on paper but lacking in essentials (like being able to speak more than one language). It’s pretty easy to see John Walker as representing how the world sees the American military, for better and for worse. And while he isn’t a racist character, he’s very privileged. He’s surrounded with Black people who uplifted and supported him: A Black marching band championing him at his old high school, a Black wife, and a Black best friend.

My personal beef with John Walker is his entitlement complex. Yes, the government chose him to be Captain America and he knew that he had a lot to live up to. But he still acted like an entitled, inconsiderate brat in a lot of ways, like thinking he can just ask Sam and Bucky to be his sidekicks when they did all the work. I won’t discredit John Walker’s military accomplishments. It’s implied that he’s in Special Forces (by the green beret he wore in Episode 5). Sam and Bucky dealt with HYDRA agents, went on the run from the government, and fought Thanos’s army twice. John Walker couldn’t hold his own in a fight with the Dora Milaje.

The entitlement issues come to a head in Episode 4. The debate about the super soldier serum gets discussed between Zemo, Bucky, and Sam. Later on, Walker has a similar debate with his partner, Lemar Hoskins aka Battlestar. While Lemar believed the somewhat true statement that the serum would just emphasize whatever strength the user already has, he forgot Erskine’s explanation of how the serum actually worked. And I can’t believe that a guy like him never heard of the idea that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Walker did not get enough comeuppance in the finale, especially given his actions at the end of Episode 4, but to me, him joining up with the ambiguously evil Contessa is exactly what he deserves. He thinks that he’s getting what he wants, but I’m hoping there will be an instance where the Contessa will ask him to do something he doesn’t feel comfortable doing. And if and when he realizes he got in bed with the wrong people, we’ll all point and laugh. For now, I’m just rolling my eyes at how basic and privileged he is. (Quoting Lincoln, dude? Really?)

Walker represents one of the many ideologies brought up in the series. Walker represents the government, white privilege, and extreme entitlement. On the other side of things are the Flag Smashers. On the surface, Karli and her cohorts come off as modern day Robin Hoods. They’re shown trying to redistribute vaccines to refugees. The problem is that the motivations of the group are kind of a mixed message. On the one hand, they want to have a more globalized society, with people being able to find jobs and housing and healthcare no matter where they reside. In essentials, it’s a good idea. But on the other hand, their desires come at the expense of literally half the world that was lost from Thanos’s snap. Karli is a teenager and it’s implied that the serum radicalized her into taking extreme measures. But her own followers were starting to get worried, especially towards the end.

I’m sad that Karli died at the end, but thematically speaking, I wasn’t exactly on the side of the Flag Smashers aside from their ally that spat in John Walker’s face. They represented extreme lawlessness, even with their best intentions.

A third ideology presented in this series came from Zemo, Sharon Carter, and Isaiah Bradley, who all represented various types of cynicism. Zemo’s cynicism is of the Ayn Rand/objectivist variety. He thinks that anyone who takes the serum is a supremacist and he’s not wrong, but Sam was quick to point out that Zemo’s viewpoints are just as extreme. (Side note: While I loved how efficient Zemo was in getting exactly what he wanted and his dorky dance moves, he still creeped me out when he was giving Turkish Delight to kids on the street. Dude broke the Stranger Danger rules from the 90s! Did nobody read CS Lewis?!) Sharon Carter is nihilistic and embraces her new chaotic neutral lifestyle, done with all the stars and stripes. She’s a burned spy and she has every reason to be nihilistic, but her taking advantage of that pardon at the end is opening a whole new Pandora’s Box of trouble! She is scaring me!

Finally, we have Isaiah Bradley, who’s cynicism is more than justified. His story is a mix of the comic Truth: Red, White, and Black and stuff from actual history like the Tuskegee experiments and Henrietta Lacks. This man was put in jail for essentially doing the same thing Steve Rogers did (only his brothers-in-arms ended up dying soon after they were rescued). It’s no wonder he lived a very solitary life with only his grandson for company. Bradley acts as a cautionary tale for both Sam and Bucky. All three of them were veterans who served their government, but were discarded after they were no longer seen as assets. (Side note: I am loving the conversations brought up amongst the veteran community.)

In the midst of all these conflicting ideologies, Sam is set on walking that narrow road, where he can define what the right thing to do is. He sympathized with the Flag Smashers, but cautioned against taking extremes. He understood Isaiah’s pain, but he chose to take a stand instead of falling into despair. I loved watching Sam’s journey throughout the series. I also loved that Sam didn’t get on a soapbox until the very end. For the most part, his actions speak for themselves.

The process of refining involves removing impurities from substances such as iron or silver. To me, Sam refined what being Captain America means and the ideologies behind the shield. His speech at the end really resonated with me because it felt timely and timeless. This series could’ve easily happened about a decade ago (complete with the politics) and it would’ve felt just as realistic because the struggle to find your place in the world and keep the powers in check is one that’s been around for a very long time. And like what Sam said “The only power I have is that I believe… we. Can do. Better.” Sam’s speech to Isaiah is equally relevant as he is defining how he is going to be Captain America. He wants to uphold the history of all the Black people who came before him, Isaiah included. I was so happy that Isaiah got a section of the Captain America exhibit dedicated to him!

My favorite thing about this series as a whole, though, was Sam and Bucky’s dynamic. They started out not exactly being the best of friends, but by the end of the series, Bucky was practically adopted into Sam’s community in Louisiana. Sam helped Bucky realize the difference between avenging and actual atonement. The time they spent fixing Sam Wilson’s family boat and the cookout in the finale will live in my mind rent-free. We do not get enough domestic Avengers!

Overall, I think this series is one that really reflects the politics of the 2020s. While there will sadly be people who won’t understand or refuse to acknowledge the lessons that this series has to teach, it’s gonna open a lot of discussions. And at the very least, it gives us a lot of insight into the struggles military veterans have to deal with and the importance of not going to extremes when it comes to politics or ideologies.

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