In many ways, the finale of The Falcon & The Winter Soldier, “One World, One People”, was fantastic. It was a spectacle of action. Sam finally took up the mantle of Captain America. World leaders got the chastisement they deserved from a black man. It had high notes throughout. However, on closer inspection, the episode – and series – has left me unsettled.
The representation of radical activism
In the beginning, the Flag Smashers seem to be a clear facsimile for movements like Black Lives Matter. They are fighting to be heard by their leaders for an equitable system that doesn’t harm them. Then they start blowing up buildings and attempting to kill hostages. While there is a strong case to be made that violence and change go hand in hand, there’s also a point to be made that the depiction is problematic:
“I think it would have been a much bolder narrative choice to show a powerful rebellious leader that didn’t feel the need to perform random murderous acts. That would have made any drive to stop Karli in her tracks all the more morally complicated and compelling. Now people like chief status quo defender and faux-Cap John Walker can point out that Karli killed a bunch of defenseless people and justify his antipathy toward her.” – Kaila Hale-Stern, The Mary Sue
Additionally, while the show was filmed before the January 6 capitol insurrection, the Flag Smashers’ storming of a government building in the finale has invited comparisons to the capitol terrorists. This makes Sam’s sympathy toward Karli – and his admonition that people need to stop calling her a terrorist – uncomfortable for people who might otherwise also sympathize for her. Finally, there are issues with Karli’s progressive movement being reduced to a plot device:
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is very Introduction to Radical Politics 101, and I have no doubt that there are people who see themselves in and identify with Karli. Still, it is upsetting to see a Black girl’s struggle for freedom, and for a cause bigger than anything most of our ‘heroes’ have done in the Earthly sense, be used as so much fodder for the development of male characters.” – Princess Weekes, The Mary Sue
Alongside these issues with representation, the show also has a problem with redemption.
The importance of redemption
In my last piece, I mentioned how important it was that a show like The Falcon & The Winter Soldier was tackling the topics of racism, classism, and the process of radicalization on both the Left (Karli Morgenthau) and Right (John Walker). It seemed poignant that “the senator” played a role in both Karli and John’s radicalization. With one hand, he refused to listen to those like Karli being hurt by the system. With the other, he instilled a certain worldview in John that paints Karli as the villain – even though they probably have more in common than not. The senator put these two on a collision course and then, when things went South, he put all the blame on John and Karli – absolving himself of responsibility. As we see in the finale, after this rejection, John lashes out at those he has been indoctrinated to believe are responsible.
Both could probably be de-escalated though. For Karli, the system needs to be changed to stop harming her. John would be more complex to de-escalate, but it could happen if he’s willing to unlearn what he’s been taught. The root causes of his issues would also need to be addressed – and some of what Karli is striving for would actually benefit him. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really happen for either character – even though it should.
The problem with redemption in The Falcon & The Winter Soldier
As we peer at The Falcon & The Winter Soldier through the lens of the real world, having a narrative with de-escalation and redemption is important. And having a narrative with real systemic change is important. If we don’t figure out how to do this in the real world, we inch closer to sectarian violence or civil war. This is probably what most frustrated me about the finale. The series seemed to be building toward this message, but it all comes undone at the end. Sam chastises world leaders in a powerful speech, but goes right back to work for an unjust system. Walker has been prematurely forgiven while likely jumping into bed with an extremist. And Karli is dead. Admittedly, it’s very true to life, but antithetical to the message the show seemed to be building toward.
Time will tell whether the MCU’s world leaders and the system have really changed, but it rings a bit hollow at the end of The Falcon & The Winter Soldier. One thing I do thank the show for though is pushing this discussion further into the mainstream. Despite its flaws, the show has highlighted issues worth discussing – and thanks to The Falcon & The Winter Soldier, they’re being discussed more than ever.