SPOILERS AHEAD: This piece discusses plot points throughout episodes 1-5 of The Falcon & The Winter Soldier. If you have not viewed these episodes, you may want to save this for reading later.
Who would have thought that a show from American corporate giant Disney would be so hard-hitting. They could have built a show that was heavy on action and devoid of meaning. Instead, The Falcon & The Winter Soldier highlights U.S. cultural and institutional failings at almost every turn – especially in regards to race and class. To have it in a show that should, by all rights, be just a piece of mainstream popcorn entertainment is not only surprising – but exactly what America needs right now.
The murkiness of good and bad
Five episodes in and it’s still a bit murky who the real villains of the show are. This has, in fact, been a point of criticism in regards to the show – but it speaks true to life. Karli Morgenthau and the Flag Smashers, ostensibly the show’s primary villains, are sympathetic figures – even as their actions become more extreme. After having their lives upended by those in power, they dream of a world without borders and a flatter power structure that empowers the common people.
The other emerging villain is John Walker. He is the quintessential “patriot”. A distinguished soldier with a humble background, John idolized Steve Rogers and the American ideals he upheld. He has risked his life to protect others and clearly wrestles with the burden of responsibility that is being America’s new mascot. He tries to do what is right and is a sympathetic figure in many regards – especially as he is rejected by those who essentially made him what he is.
Both Karli and John wrestle with ideals of supremacy – believing their motivations trump everyone else’s and ultimately using them to justify their increasingly destructive actions. Zemo critiques the very concept of supremacy during a conversation about Steve Rogers, highlighting the path both Karli and John seem to be hurtling toward: “The danger with people like [Steve Rogers] is that we put them on pedestals. They become symbols. Icons. And then we start to forget about their flaws. From there, cities fly, innocent people die, movements are formed, wars are fought… Do we want to live in a world full of people like the Red Skull?”
Zemo’s remarks about Steve act as an especially pointed critique of the concept of American Exceptionalism – but can be applied to all forms of supremacy. Once people believe themselves or their ideals to be supreme to another’s, they can justify any amount of terrible atrocities.
The process of radicalization
The show highlights this process of radicalization through Karli, John, and what might be considered the show’s true villains: The people at the top of the system pulling the strings and seeking to maintain the status quo – all while attempting to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the harm the system causes, instead seeking to place the blame on those most hurt by the system.
Karli begins to radicalize when the GRC (a U.N.-like council) neglects those who built new lives for themselves after the Snap in favor of those who returned in the Blip – displacing millions and keeping them in camps with inadequate resources. As she continues to be unheard or silenced, her actions become more radical. John, on the other hand, was already on the path of radicalization. American exceptionalism and American institutions molded him into a person who found brutality and death, even of unarmed individuals, to be justified and even state-sanctioned. As he tells the panel that oversees his military discharge: “You built me. I lived my life by your mandates. I dedicated my life to your mandates. I only ever did what you asked of me – what you told me to be and trained me to do. And I did it well.”
Despite this plea for those in power to recognize their role in everything and take responsibility for it, John is unceremoniously stripped of all benefits and made a pariah. And, just as with Karli, deaf ears lead to increasing radicalization. It’s especially interesting to note that the same senator overseeing John’s military hearing also seems to be one of the major players in the GRC. Unintentionally, those in power appear to have radicalized two different factions and set them on a collision course with one another. It’s a scathing critique about how those in power in America bear responsibility for radicalization on both the left and right.
Issues with centrism and privilege
Even Sam and Bucky, the show’s clear heroes, serve as lessons on power. The show highlights how Sam and Bucky’s relative privilege allow them to hew to more lofty ideals. Sam, for his part, must come to terms with just how complicated the relationship between black people and America is. Though not a stranger to racism, as someone who was born after the Civil Rights Era, he has been afforded the opportunity to explore and build his identity in ways that previous generations of black people have not been. He comes to realize that the idea of a black Captain America isn’t just contentious for some white people, but also some black people. As Isaiah says: “They will never let a black man be Captain America. And even if they did, no self-respecting black man would ever want to be.”
For Bucky’s part, he ultimately has to apologize to Sam for putting so much pressure on him to wield Steve’s shield: “I don’t think either of us really understood what it felt like for a black man to be handed the shield. How could we?”
Both Sam and Bucky also hew to classically centrist ideals – believing that the ends do not justify lethal means. The show lays out a few pointed critiques of this as well. When Sam mentions to Karli that killing never makes the world a better place, she retorts that Sam is “either brilliant or just hopelessly optimistic”, going on to note: “The people I’m fighting are trying to take your home. Why are you here instead of stopping them?” Zemo echoes that sentiment during a conversation with Bucky. When he notes that the only way to stop Karli may be to kill her, Bucky responds that “we’re going to do it our own way” – to which Zemo laments “I was afraid you would say that”.
A tale of two Americas
The Falcon & The Winter Soldier is, ultimately, a tale of two Americas. Sam gets harassed by police while Bucky (who actually has a warrant for his arrest) is treated respectfully. Isaiah gets sent to prison for 30 years for the exact same thing that cemented Steve Rogers as an American hero. White people get represented while black people have their history erased. Sarah says it best in a phone call with Karli: “My world doesn’t matter to America, so why should I care about its mascot?”
Steve represents an idealized America – the kind that privileged Americans imagine the country already is. His shield was shining and pristine. John represents the America that the disenfranchised experience – heavy-handed, brutal, and uncaring. His shield was, unsurprisingly, covered in blood. It remains to be seen if Sam will pick up the mantle of Captain America (though it seems likely). If he does, he will represent the America in-between. A country grappling with its past and present while hoping to achieve the ideals America is supposed to represent. But, just as with John’s shield, there is a lot of blood to wipe away.
Luckily for all of us, The Falcon & The Winter Soldier isn’t shying away from these difficult topics and pointed criticisms – and it’s nature as a piece of pop-culture entertainment makes it both accessible and likely to be seen by Americans from all walks of life. Hopefully it will push open the door to a larger national conversation that can help us similarly wipe some of the blood away and build a better tomorrow.