After the conclusion of the Infinity Saga in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has branched heavily into television to continue the stories of its many supporting characters. The franchise’s Phase 4 began this year on Disney+ with WandaVision, in which a grieving Scarlet Witch constructed an elaborate sitcom-ish reality to avoid accepting the fact that her lover Vision was indeed dead, slain by the villainous Thanos. Similarly, Phase 4’s second instalment, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, explores the repercussions of Thanos snapping away half the world’s population (and the Avengers bringing them back again, albeit after an interval of five years), and links it to contemporary debates on immigration and refugee crises, as well as taking the opportunity to unravel the problematic legacy of Captain America’s shield—which is emblazoned with the colors of the US flag.
Early on, the series’ titular Falcon, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), says, “That shield means a lot of things to a lot of people.” For the young Steve Rogers, the Super Soldier serum developed by a German refugee, Dr. Abraham Erskine—and the superhero outfit designed for him by the US Army—allowed him to fight Nazi scientists conducting illegal experiments. Decades later, he took up the mantle again to battle alien threats, weed out infiltrators, and even fight the MCU’s other key figure, Tony Stark as Iron Man, in order to uphold his core beliefs and principles. But when Steve passed on the shield to Sam at the end of Endgame, his white privilege blinded him from understanding that such a gesture isn’t without consequence. Sam’s decision to represent and fight for a country built on genocide, colonization, and slavery isn’t an easy one—and it has its fair share of critics, both in-universe and beyond.
The show addresses these criticisms to an extent, even as it tries to remain optimistic. For one, clear-cut distinctions between good and evil are done away with. Instead of the usual genocidal alien, the Falcon has to contend with Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), a radical freedom fighter whom the show frames as a villain—but with whom Sam agrees on principle. The disappearance and reappearance of half the world’s population has left countless people homeless, while the Global Repatriation Council rounds them up like refugees to be deported from one place to another. Closer to home, Sam’s sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) is denied a bank loan because she lacks a proof of income, while Sam (without the safety of his superhero costume) is accosted by white cops for talking too loudly—another humiliating instance of everyday racism. Meanwhile, Steve Rogers’ erstwhile best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), is pardoned for his past as the Winter Soldier—a brain-washed assassin responsible for numerous and often high-profile homicides—on the condition that he attends court-mandated therapy sessions, even as he is plagued by nightmares. And Sam’s initial refusal to take up the shield creates a power vacuum that the government fills by assigning the Captain America title to John Walker (Wyatt Russell), an ex-soldier who represents the worst of the American military and white supremacy.
In a bid to be progressive and relevant, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a show that tries to depict the origin story of a superhero who fights for ordinary people, particularly the marginalized and the voiceless, and who (except for his suit and armor) has no enhanced abilities. But a hero is perhaps only as good as their villain, and while Sam’s characterization is certainly commendable, it is the treatment meted out to Karli Morgenthau that betrays the show’s centrist leanings and its desire to play it safe. The show repeatedly tells us that Karli must be stopped—but whether this is because of her belief in a world without borders, or because of the stolen Super Soldier serum running through her veins that makes her nearly invincible, is never quite clear.
Karli provides help and relief to those displaced by the five-year period ushered in by Thanos and now known as the Blip; governments, meanwhile, refuse even to recognize certain people as citizens. She is against the GRC’s policies to displace those communities further—and she uses her superhuman powers to capture the politicians as hostages, steal medicines for displaced communities, and incite acts of civilian violence in order to get the attention of the world’s leaders. Sam agrees with her fight but cannot condone her violent methods. But Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a former villain whom Bucky breaks out of prison when desperate for a lead, seems to think that Karli, as a Super Soldier, has no right to exist, and he dubs her a supremacist. Meanwhile the rest of the world brands her and her comrades as terrorists. Eventually she dies in a skirmish, and Sam, playing the pacifist, continues her fight by peacefully negotiating with the policy-makers—the very people who regularly turn a blind eye to petitions and whose attention Karli only managed to get via violence.
Thus, the very fact that Sam becomes the new Captain America—and brings Karli’s fight to public attention using less violent means, while Karli and her comrades are safely neutralized—seems to betray Marvel’s deep-seated anxieties around portraying radicalism and activism on-screen. Acts of indirect violence by oppressors and their biased policymaking is accepted as an unfortunate fact of daily life, but an oppressed community fighting back with violence is considered to be an immediate threat to world peace. In fact, the show’s treatment of Karli mirrors the fate of Erik Killmonger’s at the end of the MCU’s 2018 blockbuster Black Panther: the movie’s hero, T’Challa, and Erik are on the same side, fighting for the freedom of Black people; but, since T’Challa is prepared to play nicely and be less militant about it, he wins.
Of course, this isn’t to condone or endorse acts of violence, but the selective spotlight placed on violence instigated by oppressed communities, all while those committed by the oppressors is subtly effaced, is the stuff that makes for comfortable television: it never disrupts or even questions the status quo. Of course, one may argue that no one stays dead for long in comic books, but Marvel’s creative decisions to repeatedly bring back white villains who have committed genocide and what not (Zemo here, Loki in his own Disney+ series), and offer them redemption arcs in sequels, all while “radicalized” freedom-fighters like Karli or Killmonger (who have the support of the people and are forced to use violence to get the job done) remain relatively (but safely) dead, is something that needs to be critiqued. It appears Marvel is trying to be “woke,” but is hesitant or confused about it. Even John Walker’s semi-redemption arc makes little sense outside potential sequel-baiting. It showcases a blatant refusal to take creative risks that would otherwise have made for more impactful and authentic storytelling.
But what makes The Falcon and the Winter Soldier at least slightly different from the rest is that it tries to acknowledge some of its own failures, and the history of white-washing superhero narratives. In contrast to Bucky’s healing journey and the unlearning of his Winter Soldier programming (with the generous help of therapy and free Wakandan—and therefore Black—labor), is the story of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly). Here is a Super Soldier who was also tortured and experimented upon, but was instead jailed and subsequently erased from history on account of his Blackness. His character is a clear nod to the several African American soldiers who served the U.S. military in countless wars, as well as the impoverished Black people who have been illegally experimented upon in horrific conditions—all in the name of science, all subsequently erased from history. Isaiah’s cynicism and his compelling screen presence is perhaps an effort to acknowledge some of the war atrocities and human rights violations routinely committed by white Americans in positions of power. When Sam finally takes the shield from a disgraced John Walker and comes to visit Isaiah, Bradley tells him, “They’ll never let a Black man be Captain America. And even if they did, no self-respecting Black man would ever want to.”
When Sam does take up the mantle, then, he knows he will be brutally judged and criticized for his actions—both from racist white politicians and the marginalized people who may feel that he’s finally sold himself out. But he feels that he must still try to do something and remain accountable, or he will be choosing passivity. In the end, he has a statue of Isaiah built, reinstating his name in museums and history books—a tokenistic gesture for sure but one that we’re meant to interpret as a good and progressive thing, like nodding to diversity casting in Hollywood while systematic inequalities in pay and power are conveniently brushed under the surface. In the end, Sam—with his non-violence and steadfast belief in the essential goodness of humanity—peacefully negotiates with those in power, and we are supposed to assume that this brings lasting change (instead of being a one-off heart-tugging speech); but what exactly that change is remains to be seen.
Similarly, John Walker feels like a heavily caricatured villain—someone whom the audience can find it easy to hate while patting themselves on the back that they aren’t as bad as him. After undertaking unauthorised actions and murdering one of Karli’s comrades on foreign soil, he seems to get his just desserts when he is discharged and stripped of his title by the military; but whether the actual military would convict someone of a similar crime is highly unlikely, giving the alarming rates of police brutality and institutionalized violence upon people of color. The scene in a European city in which John Walker denies the jurisdiction of the Wakandan honour-guard Dora Milaje (members of which have come to arrest Zemo for murdering their king) is a scathing take on America’s foreign policy for sure, but these sorts of neo-imperialist assumptions are a widely regarded open secret in themselves. In the context of a Disney+ streaming series, then, this scene looks “woke” and feels good but isn’t really that brave.
Even as the series fumbles its political overtones, however, it shines when it comes to portraying the friendship and camaraderie between the show’s titular characters. The bond that Sam and Bucky share is beautiful, and built on mutual trust, respect, and regard for the other. Their banter and chemistry had many fans “shipping” them right from the start, along with hopeful speculations about their possibly queer sexualities. While Disney isn’t known for having their characters be “canonically gay” (at least, not yet), that doesn’t stop the viewers from interpreting Sam and Bucky as a gay couple in their heads and fanworks. But whatever homophobic reason stops the big studios from portraying explicit queerness on-screen also indirectly opens up room for queer-platonic and asexual/aromantic interpretations (which are even less represented in popular media). These center friendship and companionship at the heart of a partnership instead of a traditional romantic attraction, thereby still managing to disrupt the status quo of heteronormativity. Having two people deeply care for each other and constantly have each other’s back, without the confines of a traditional couple unit, is a reminder that deep emotional investment isn’t the prerogative of only romantic/sexual monogamous relationships, even if the latter is the popular narrative.
From a failed date in the first episode, Bucky—while still battling PTSD and trauma—finds hope, healing, and community in the company of Sam and his family at the end of the series, highlighting the triumph of friendship and found-family narratives over traditional romances. Bucky and Sam have their disagreements early on, but that doesn’t stop them from working as a team or being concerned for each other’s welfare. Moreover, their partnership allows both of them to grow and learn from each other and themselves: Sam must decide to take the shield, and instead of continuing Steve’s legacy, he decides to start his own; while Bucky learns to be a supportive white ally, apologize for his own internalized racism, and finds a new community to belong to, all in the absence of Steve.
The show concludes with the protagonists walking off into the sunset, their arms around the other, while a melodious song plays in the background—a scene that, instead of being interpretated as romantic, can be read as suggesting that—regardless of whether the bond is romantic or platonic (or a “bromance”)—the relationship is true and beautiful in itself, thereby trivializing the need for distinctions in the first place. At times, it is reminiscent of the chemistry that Sherlock and John share in the 2010 BBC reboot of the Sherlock Holmes stories, which—despite being accused of queerbaiting—is still one of the show’s main selling points, or indeed the alliance that exists between the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale in Good Omens (2019) that again eschews traditional romantic displays of affection but is subtly queer in the very best way.
That being said, there are a few scenes where Bucky flirts with Sarah, Sam’s sister. If the explicit depiction of asexuality is a rarity in popular media, the portrayal of attraction between white men and dark-skinned women is even less so. Interracial relationships between a white man and a woman of color usually favor lighter-skinned female actors of color for the roles—racism and colorism often go hand-in-hand, after all. Exploring Bucky and Sarah’s story in a future sequel, even as a side-plot, would be a small step towards acknowledging and celebrating truly diverse representations.
From another perspective, Sam and Bucky’s evolving partnership—founded as it is on trust and loyalty—is also a microcosm for what healthy relationships can potentially be like, not just between people but also between the government and its citizens. Karli and her comrades are pushed to violence because of the breach of a fundamental social contract—as those in power are more concerned with keeping it rather than using their privilege to help those in need. It is the same breach that creates entitled characters like John Walker and elects them to power. Karli wants to destroy the system rather than fix it because it has repeatedly failed people like her, while Sam still wants to hold out hope. While both approaches have their strengths and flaws, the show deliberately valorizes one over the other. Ultimately, it all boils down to treating people decently, regardless of who they are or the bond we share with them—but the intertwined power structures of racism, capitalism, and patriarchy (among others) make it near impossible and can only breed toxicity and injustice.
Nevertheless, the show’s overall optimism would have us believe that if this transformation of relational politics is possible in the microcosm of Sam and Bucky’s friendship, then perhaps one day it will reflect within the macrocosm, too. In the series’ fifth episode, we see Bucky stay the night at Sam and Sarah’s; he wakes up the next day to the sound of Sam’s nephews playing with the shield in the early morning light, and he breaks into a carefree but sincere smile. It’s a short scene, full of hope and idealism that envisions a world that is both free and without fear, where children can play without the threat of violence creeping up on them. It is the world that Karli died fighting for and for which Sam and the Avengers continue to fight—a world that is truly inclusive and diverse, without borders. It is scenes like these that make the Falcon and the Winter Soldier different from the usual formulaic Marvel content. As a Disney superhero show that struggles to be political and relevant, it has a long way to go, and it wouldn’t hurt to pick up a few lessons from other, similarly themed shows like The Boys (which deconstructs the superhero genre and multinational capitalism more smoothly, and is now in its second season); but at least it seems to be on that route. It could’ve been braver and made fewer compromises, but in its best moments (and there are several, thankfully) it makes for heartwarming and thoughtful television.