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The Falcon And The Winter Soldier: episode 2 -“Star Spangled Man” finally brings our main characters together and asks what it means to actually be “Captain America”.
Let’s just get it out there right now, right off the jump: John Walker — AKA Captain America 2.0 — sucks. Well, maybe he doesn’t suck persay, but he’s just not likeable and, most importantly, he’s not Steve Rogers.
Let’s also be honest here too — Wyatt Russell is not going to be your Captain America going forward.
It’s not to say that Russell’s a bad actor or doesn’t deserve a role in the MCU. In fact, in the comics, John Walker eventually steps down as Cap and becomes “U.S. Agent” for various reasons I won’t spoil here. But even if that doesn’t happen in the MCU, Walker’s no Captain America.
Cap is a character who is likely the most well known and bankable presence in the MCU this side of Iron Man. Marvel Studios is not going to move forward with Kurt Russell’s kid in that position. You know it, I know it and Marvel Studios knows it. Hell, I bet even Wyatt Russell knows it — he’s just a means to an end. What is the end? Well, it would be safe to assume that Sam assumes the Cap role – but it’s too early to tell.
The writers know seem to know that Walker is just a stepping stone too, so they have purposely written him in a way that is somewhat amenable but not fully engaging the way the MCU needs a new Captain America to be portrayed.
Walker may have the jawline, the perfectly coiffed blondish hair, blue eyes, and the chiseled physique – but there’s something about him that is just…off.
What is it exactly? Maybe it’s because he was initially so nice, or maybe how he is so adherent to government control, how he flashed the police lights at Bucky and Sam in the most annoying way possible, or how he delivered the ominous “stay out of my way.” I can’t exactly put my finger on it. Yes, he’s nice on the outside, but you can tell he is smarmy as hell and very insecure on the inside. Ultimately, Walker is that annoying overachieving class pet who always did the right thing, had a 4.0 GPA, and won an award for never missing a day of school. But he wanted you to know about it.
Bless his heart though — Walker wants to be liked, and he honestly does try to make good with Bucky and Sam. He even admits, in the most sincere way I could possibly imagine, that he doesn’t WANT to be Steve Rogers but rather he just wants to be the best Captain America he can be. While it’s a virtuous sentiment which feels like it’s loaded with the right intent, there’s an inherent gaping fault line with its very premise. Despite his protests to the contrary, the mantle of Captain America was indeed handed to him by a committee of people who wanted to press the easy button after the world collapsed. THAT is the major problem.
“Captain America” simply cannot be bestowed by a committee; never mind a bunch of politicians who felt it was necessary to select the next Cap from a group of overachieving nerds like just like Walker as if it were the NFL draft. The mantle of Captain America is earned through achievement, but also vigor and conviction in the right avenues.
In his press conference at the beginning of the last episode, Sam Wilson posits that the symbols of Cap are nothing without the man behind them. While he’s not necessarily wrong, he certainly isn’t right either. As I noted in the breakdown of the first episode, Captain America is not just a man, but an ideal.
I had the pleasure of re-watching Captain America: Civil War two days ago and afterward, while watching this episode of TFTWS, I kept hearing echoes of this scene from Civil War in my head:
“Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No, you move’.”
In the MCU, this quote comes from Peggy Carter, as told by her niece Sharon Carter at Peggy’s funeral. You comic book nerds, however, will recognize this quote from its originator in the comics: Steve Rogers.
Captain America is not a shield, a motorcycle, a cute costume, or even a person.
These words are Captain America: Do what is right and remain steadfast in that decision, no matter who is telling you you’re wrong.
Steve embodied this mantra from start to finish – whether it was fighting bullies in Brooklyn, jumping on a grenade in training (notice how Bucky brings this up to Walker when he asks for a legitimate reason he should be considered Cap), fighting Tony, reconciling with Tony, or, most of all – standing up to the American government when it was called for – as was the case in Civil War.
This is the fundamental flaw in John Walker’s existence as Cap: he cannot stand up to the government because the government is the reason he is Captain America 2.0.
Walker takes orders, benefits from all the considerable resources because he takes those orders, and does what he is told because that’s what best suits the American government. End of story. Yes, Steve was given his abilities by the American government, but he was not SHAPED by the American government.
Everything about Walker – being interviewed on Good Morning America (at night?), going back to his high school and having the giant pep band, signing autographs, and even right down to his newly designed outfit and insignia feels like it’s the sum of answers focused grouped to death. Having trouble with alliances? Focus group. Want to make people feel better? Focus group. Need a new symbol of hope and America of old? FOCUS FRAKKING GROUP.
It’s like when Dunkin’ Donuts rolls out a brand new product – they buy commercial space on radio/tv, the produce all the posters for adverts and slogans (notice all the posters splattered everywhere stating “CAP IS BACK”) and they engage in a corporate roll out that has been tested, retested, and tested again for good measure. The government is telling you “Cap Is Back”, but how can he be Cap if he doesn’t fulfill the base requirement of actually being Cap?
John Walker, Sam’s decision to let go of the shield, and Bucky’s need to feel validated perfectly illustrates the overall theme for this episode: what (not who) is Captain America?
To Walker, it’s a moniker, or a role he leveled up to — like he if were playing Mario and got a mushroom. To Bucky, Cap is a friend and leader – something he uses to validate himself and to overcome his past deeds as The Winter Soldier. For Sam, well, Cap is a complicated subject. Sam wonders if he is worthy of the role. Bucky would certainly affirm that notion. But Sam sees only Steve as Captain America and anyone else trying to fill those extraordinarily large size 13’s as an imposter wearing a nice suit – including even himself.
Just because one is given super soldier powers does not mean they are Captain America – just ask the MCU’s version of Isaiah Bradley, whose repayment for all dedication to the army during the Korean War was 30 years imprisonment and more tests than Dolly the sheep would know what to do with.
Conversely, just because someone tells you that you’re Captain America doesn’t mean you are either – John Walker is living proof of this. Again, let’s not overlook the fact that the government nerds chose a white man who has blonde hair, blue eyes, and “tested off the charts” in all the right “categories.” God it even feels dirty typing that.
More to that point, the question can a black man even stand as Captain America must be racing through Sam’s mind. Can he be beacon of light for a country which has oppressed and silenced black lives and voices since its inception? How can he take the role if he isn’t already treated with the level of respect any man – let alone Captain America – deserves? He can’t even get an SBA loan, or walk down the street having a conversation with his friend without facing implicit racism.
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Isaiah serves as a mirror and warning for Sam — this is what you could possibly become when you do your duty as a black man, give everything over to the people you serve, and fight for your government’s best interests. You end up stuck in a run down house, denying your existence, waiting for the next shoe to drop while missing a lifetime of love, respect and honor. You fight for your governments best interests while they have no intention to serve yours.
And, yes, for those keeping track at home – this show is absolutely tackling a very hard subject in racial inequality and it’s doing it in a remarkably effective manner.
The show is asking one simple question among its many others: can Captain America be black?
That’s a hard question – I firmly believe yes. But I’m a middle aged white male in one of the bluest states in the union – my sentiments may not match up with my counterpart living somewhere in one of the reddest states of the union.
Taking it a step further, should there even BE a second Captain America — regardless of his color?
Was Steve right in passing down the shield to Sam? Did Steve unwittingly set Sam up for failure because it’s too much responsibility to stand fast for what’s right in spite of whatever is barreling towards you? The journey we have begun in TFTWS is this: how does Sam reconcile his insecurity with the “goodness” Steve Rogers saw in him? Even if he can, does that reconciliation allow Sam to evolve into his version of what it means to be Captain America and does it grant Bucky the confidence to move forward as simply, Bucky? (Note how many times he’s told people they can’t call him Bucky because that’s what Steve called him.)
Watching Bucky and Sam come together in this episode is a nice move forward for the show. Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie have an incredible chemistry together as a buddy tandem and the banter nails the absolute right tone of the MCU (something with which WandaVision seemed to struggle.) The action sequences continue to be right on the money and deliver memorable high octane fuel after the slower and more methodic pacing of WandaVision. While that’s all well and good, it’s the smaller sequences that define TFTWS.
Cops break up a legitimate quarrel between Bucky and Sam, and immediately ask Bucky if Sam is bothering him only to deescalate the situation when Bucky gives them the “do you know who
I am this is” treatment. Sam tries to help Bucky understand that he made the choice to “give up the shield” because he thought it was the “right choice” to make (see the connection to Cap’s ideal here?) and Bucky begs Sam in therapy to step into the inherent goodness both he and Steve see in him. Bucky needs Sam to get that shield because Steve gave it to him, and Steve cannot be proven wrong. For if Steve was wrong about Sam, then he HAD to be wrong about Bucky’s salvation. Without Cap’s validation, Bucky’s life, and his progress as a functional member of society, are wholly invalidated.
All of these scenes are indicative of the conflicts that Malcolm Spellman is using to drive the narrative for this show. Equality, self worth, systemic racism, and what it means to be an American in a wildly flawed American society are all being grappled with a deft touch in these small moments — which culminate with the impromptu therapy session in the jail cell. This scene is gold on every level as it provides context for our heroes, lays out the conflict between the two of them, and provides the foundation for their actions going forward.
From the inherent conflicts about the perception of their respective relationships with Steve (note that Sam only knew Steve as Cap, and Bucky knew Steve as a scrawny kid — both of which are correct but not fully Steve either), to how they measure themselves against his looming presence, TFTWS is more about Bucky and Sam understanding their value to each other than any whiz bang action that the show has so far handled perfectly.
What is not handled so perfectly is the transition to Zemo. Yes, Helmut Zemo from Captain America: Civil War is coming back and I want it all. Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo is my favorite antagonist from any of the Marvel films — a smart, passionate, and extremely skilled man who recognized his strengths and, most importantly his weaknesses, and used them to gain revenge on The Avengers. He served as a perfect mirror to the almost god-like figures and embodied real world stakes for a group of heroes who are largely immune to such vulnerabilities.
Zemo’s a GREAT character. But, in this instance, the writing posits Sam and Bucky are going to chat with Zemo about how a group of people have suddenly transformed into super soldiers without any fanfare. The reasoning is that he knows all “secrets” and if anyone would know about this group, it would be him. It’s weak reasoning at best but I’m willing to go along to get along because Bruhl’s presence is something I have looked forward to since it was announced he was going to reprise this role.
While it continues to fall victim to the cliff hanger style pitfalls which feel cheap and relatively unearned, TFTWS took a big step forward with this episode with the storytelling for it’s main characters. We’re finally diving into some real pathos between Bucky and Sam; how they continue to measure themselves against Steve Rogers, and they both need each other to become free of that burden. It’s still obviously the second part of what I would consider to be a six hour movie, but the MCU has long blurred the lines between what is a television show and what is a movie. Either way, I am HERE for all the Sam and Bucky Banter as it is easily the best facet this show has to offer.
APROPOS OF NOTHING FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER: EPISODE 2 – “STAR SPANGLED MAN”
- I mentioned earlier that there is zero chance Wyatt Russell remains Captain America in the MCU after this series. I really do believe that. But, it does leave a giant Captain America sized hole in the MCU lineup. Perhaps Kevin Feige fills that hole with some of the new characters he’s gained from Disney’s purchase of Fox Studios. Perhaps he does nothing and just leaves Captain America on the sidelines.
- BUT, if he does revive the Cap character, it either has to be played by Sebastian Stan or Anthony Mackie. There is precedent in the comics for this as both Falcon and The Winter Soldier became Cap for short periods of time. It would be natural to expect Falcon to assume the Captain America role — especially given the study on racial inequality TFTWS seems to taking on. BUT it would also be a fun bit of subversion in having Falcon remain steadfast in his choice in not taking on the Captain America title and letting Bucky take it on. Both would have purpose while validating the agency of the characters. Plus it would be a terrific way to honor Steve Rogers and the ideals that make up Captain America.
- Recognize the song that was being played by the pep band? You should! It’s an updated version of Captain America’s theme by Alan Silvestri.
- Are we 100% sure The Flag Smashers are the bad guys here? It seems like they stole something from Power Broker and he wants it back badly. Additionally we have some followers calling them Robin Hoods. They don’t want anarchy so much as they are trying to serve equality — a very interesting route to take especially given the racial inequality tones of this episode. After getting an emotional goodbye from a random log carrier who helped stop the Power Brokers men, there seems to be momentum of likeability for this group and their leader Karli Morgenthau.
- Oh yes, Karli Morganthal – a play on the comic book version of Karl Morgenthau. He was an extremist who believed nationality was the downfall of society. Thus you have his female counterpart saying “one world, one people.” Oddly enough, Karl and John Walker were briefly allies at one point….hmmm….
- Recognize Karli from somewhere else? You probably should. She’s played by Erin Kellyman who starred in Solo: A Star Wars Story as Enfys Nest — a character who was originally thought to be a villain but ended up being a freedom fighter for her her people…hmmm…
- Morgenthau seems to have stolen something big from Power Broker. Yup, as we suspected last week, Power Broker is involved in this giant web. Power Broker is a bad news dude who is responsible for a lot of other bad news dudes becoming very powerful.
- Isaiah Bradley’s story – in both the comics and the MCU is heartbreaking. But his grandson Eli does play a role in the comics. After Billy and Tommy in WandaVision, and featuring Hawkeye’s daughter in Endgame, and now we have Eli – Do I daresay that the MCU is building towards the Young Avengers? Food for thought…
- Who is Lemar Hoskins? Besides being the sidekick to Captain America 2.0 in the MCU, he is also known as Battlestar. Yes, the name is super lame, and it feels like it was ALSO the product of a focus group (that or he gave himself the nickname) but Battlestar does play a decent little role in the comics too. Usually serving as the sidekick, or popping up occasionally here and there. In fact, he was eventually given super human powers by none other than…Power Broker. Hmmm…
- Androids, Aliens and Wizards. Triple A. A GREAT running joke throughout the entire episode. Also, Sorcerer’s are wizards without the hat. Wait, what would that make Harry Potter? Either way, truly funny stuff.