Perhaps the most intriguing edition to The Star-Spangled Man regards the underlying tensions generated by the introduction of John Walker as the “new” Captain America. When we are first introduced to the character of Walker at the top of this episode, we’re offered something of a sympathetic reading toward him. At least this is how it may appear on the surface. Scratch a little deeper, however, and something stranger lies beneath. He appears anxious, humble even. When others speak of him, he’s painted out to be some sort of exceptionally talented super soldier who was picked to carry Rodger’s torch for a reason. Except something about all of this doesn’t quite feel right. For all the sweet talk and character boosting going on during these opening scenes, we are never actually shown any of these so called qualities he allegedly possesses. Everyone who’s labelled John a noble hero and exceptional grafter are people with a favourable bias toward him. They are his partner, his best friend, and a media outlet with an agenda to promote his cause. None of his characteristics are communicated through action, much as they were with Steve Rodgers back in the days of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).
All of this is deliberate, of course. Walker’s presence is designed to cause unease. Everything about him is wrong from the word go. He is not Captain America, and no news anchor or smitten girlfriend is going to convince audiences otherwise. Walker doesn’t act or feel like an Avenger. He’s depicted as a man cosplaying as one. The suit doesn’t fit, his body language is awkward, and any attempt to appear heroic just looks like a man who’s showboating to a crowd. To add to this, it’s made apparent right from the opening scene that he’s had no interaction with any members of the Avengers initiative. He’s practically walked into a job in which he has no prior experience to justify his promotion. I know I probably sound like a cynical employer refusing a fresh-faced employee the chance to spread their wings, but when it comes to taking on wizards, androids and aliens, you kind of need someone who’s spent some time on the field.
It’s not until much later on in the episode that we begin to understand just why Walker’s implementation as Captain America feels so gosh darn uncomfortable. There’s a racial bias bubbling beneath the surface of this story, all of which stems directly from this particular character. Despite being offered the mantle by the man himself, Wilson requested that Rodger’s shield be displayed in a museum to commemorate Steve’s service. Instead of respecting the wishes of a man who helped defeat Thanos, Wilson’s request is rejected. Instead, the title of Captain America goes to a bloke who’s done absolutely nothing substantial to have earned the title. Sure, Walker may have accumulated a handful of medals during his career, though I doubt the likes of Ultron and company are going to shudder at the thought of an opponent with a dazzling trophy case.
The racial bias lying beneath the surface of this episode is brought to the forefront during a sequence in which Sam expresses frustration upon learning that black super soldier, Isaiah Bradley, has been kept hidden from the public eye as far back as the 1950s. While his white counterparts have been plastered all about the news bulletins since the days when Steve Rodgers was fighting Nazi’s, Bradley has been hidden away. He never received unending fanfare or adoration from the news outlets. Instead he was locked away by his government and experimented upon. During the same sequence in which Wilson flags up the injustices inflicted upon Bradley, an officer stops him in the street, subjecting him to the same sorts of racial profiling black people experience in America on a daily basis. It isn’t until the cop eventually recognising who Wilson is, that he backs down and apologises.
Such themes of racial prejudice have been present since the opening episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, albeit in a much more subtle of manner. All those scenes revolving around Sam struggling to help support his sister, Sarah, and her failing business all tie into what we’re learning here. Wilson is an Avenger, yet unlike various former colleagues of his, he’s completely broke. Despite being one of the most famous men on the planet, he doesn’t earn a penny for his heroic deeds Heck he still gets stopped by the cops when he’s not wearing his iconic suit! He’s worked alongside Norse Gods, billionaire playboys, world class surgeons and renowned scientists, yet despite having aided them in preventing Thanos from turning all of reality to dust, he’s barely got a penny to his name. This is not a coincidence, kids. Wilson is a man stuck in a society that casts him aside in favour of celebrating the heroics of his white counterparts.
Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s decision to apply real world racial biases into its narrative is a further attempt to try and ground the MCU in a reality similar to our own. Although this is a story set in a universe in which wizards, aliens and robots frequently cause havoc, Marvel Studios are still keen to ground their fantastical fables from time to time. How else would audiences be able to connect and relate? We’ve seen this attempt to scale the whimsy down in features such as Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), yet it’s only now that we are starting to see the new Disney Plus platform take advantage of its televisual platform to deliver more practical story told within this timeline. We’re venturing into surprisingly relatable territories here. Territories in which the social bigotries present in our own world are being applied to a fantastical realm in which sorcerers and super humans run riot.
Such a storyline furthermore gives Marvel the opportunity to address the problems of their own past. Considering the cluster of actors cast to play Avengers are primarily white men, this is an opportunity to critique the uneven demographic that dominates the Infinity Saga era that stretched between 2008 and 2019. This is the studio’s opportunity to explore racial inequalities rife in our own world, as well as squaring up to their own racial biases regarding past casting decisions. In a world in which the white guy often gets the best job, now is a chance to shine a light on the unconscious biases that run rife within our societies, and attempt to combat them once and for all. For a show that aired less than a year after George Flloyd’s brutal murder and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests it inspired, this feels like a remarkably appropriate time for a powerful and influential media outlet to finally start questioning some of its own past relationship with racial discrimination.
Breaking Down Borders
Thus far, Falcon and the Winter Soldier has attempted to establish the Flag Smashers as its core antagonist. Though established as a threat for Wilson and Barnes to confront, there are a handful of hints here and there which imply they may be a little more complex than your usual band of troublesome conspiracy theorists.
After spending five years living in a world in which the powers that be were broken out of shape, thanks to Thanos and those pesky thumbs of his, the Flag Smashers yearn to return to a version of planet earth as it stood prior to the events of End Game’s climactic conflict. They’ve seen what the planet looks like without the big kids in charge. A world in which division and national identity do not dictate the lives of earth’s citizens. They’ve glimpsed at an alternative way of living, and they are keen for things to return to the way they were. They are enraged at the reinstatement of the status quo following the blip’s reverse, and are fighting to usurp the power structures that they believe the world was better without.
What’s most interesting, aside from the hints at what earth may have been like during the blip, is the level of sympathy applied to the Flag Smashers this time around. We first get whiff of a compassionate reading after we are introduced to the people who help them. There supporters don’t appear to be extremists or convicts. In fact, most of them seem ruddy well pleasant for the most part. They cook them nice meals, organise comfy dorms for them to bunk in, and make sure they have dual screen desktops to do their homework from. They are quite the hospitable bunch! What’s more, the Flag Smashers themselves seem to be considerably lovely in return to these charitable folk. They don’t act like thugs or ungrateful bullies. They seem genuinely grateful for the support they are getting. Non of this comes across as the establishing of generic nasties. Something more human seem to lie behind these characters.
There is a particular scene later on in the episode that further reframes these characters as possible non-antagonists. The scene in question consists of the Smashers flee a looming convoy of American agents in a mad dash. During this sequence, the group seem panicked and desperate. One of them even offers to sacrifice himself so that his comrades have a chance to escape unharmed. His sacrifice ends in the man’s death at the hands of these agents, regardless of the fact that he harms none of them in retaliation. What’s noteworthy about this scene is how it frames the Flag Smashers as victims fleeing a sinister gang of suits. A tense score and emphasis on the Smashers fearful reactions paint these would-be villains as humans on the run. It’s not the anarchists that come across as the bad guys here, but the agents hunting them down.
Considering Falcon and the Winter Soldier has so far taken aim at the racial biases baked into Western power structures, it’s fairly safe to assume the show may very well choose to sympathise with those who’ve been framed by the government as the threat. Seeing as the show was filmed while Trump’s America was still very much a thing, I’m guessing Disney weren’t so keen to make a story that props up the American government as some king of eagle eyed savour. Tales of noble governments and patriotic heroes aren’t the in thing at the moment. We’ve had a bit of a wake up call in recent years. It’s not easy to speak fondly of the men in high office when we’re all too aware of how corrupt, callous, stupid and dangerous they can be.
A Lovers’ Tiff
A sizeable number of fans have compared Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson’s relationship to that of a romantic couple. Some have even been quite thrilled at reading this as a romantic subplot in which two men work through their feelings for one another. Sebastian Stan didn’t seem to be much fan of this idea when it was put to him. That’s a shame, as it’s a pretty sweet reading of the pair, which I’m all for. Still, just because Stan isn’t a fan, doesn’t make it less likely. We can chose to interpret texts as we so desire, regardless of what the auteurs and film theorists say. If we want Wilson and Barnes to be the hottest new couple gracing our screens, then so be it!
At this stage in the game, however, things don’t seem too rosy for our pair of love doves. In fact, I’d go as far to say their relationship is a dash toxic at this moment in time. The duo have a habit of insulting one another. Every opportunity consists of them calling each other names and commenting on how much they’d love to damage one another’s gadgets. It’s all so degrading and mean spirited! Certainly not the recipe for a fruitful love live, that’s for certain. Wilson even goes so far as to coerce Barnes into hurling himself out of a plane without a parachute (depending on how you read that entire scenario). A spot of couples counselling doesn’t go down too well for the pair either, particularly when they resort to transforming the exercises provided to them into some sort of competition.
The Star-Spangled Man does attempt to address the root cause of their conflict. At least it does from Barnes’ point of view. He’s angry at Wilson for passing up the offer to take on the role of Captain America, an anger that’s exacerbated when Walker is appointed the position despite his lack of experience. Barnes’ anger toward Wilson has manifested as self-doubt, causing him to question Rodgers’ judge of character. If Rodgers was wrong about Wilson, does that make him wrong about Barnes?
This is an interesting character arc to explore, particularly when we consider Barnes to be a reformed villain. He’s still coming to terms with the atrocities he’s committed in the name of Hydra. We already saw him try to come to terms with some of his guilt last episode. This time around, we’re beginning to learn that this guilt has infiltrated and influenced his relationship with Wilson.
Barnes is a man poisoned by guilt. Despite having been in the process of healing from his days of being a brainwashed assassin, his journey is still far from complete. The fact that Falcon and the Winter Soldier is willing to address who this character was and where he’s going is far from a bad thing in my book.
It’s pretty obvious that there’s plenty of good ideas running throughout this show. Racial bias, untrustworthy power structures, anarchists with a fresh perspective following their time living amidst Thanos’ blip, and a duo of protagonists with a heap load of relationship complexities to untangle. This is the sort of ingredients that can rustle up a tasty and nutritious TV show, provided it’s cooked appropriately.
The problem so far, however, is neither of the first two episodes feel as though they stand on their own two feet. Each chapter feels like a part to a larger story, without them retaining any sort of identity which they can call their own. Episodic instalments serving a larger narrative is all fine and dandy, but if none of it stands up when viewed in isolation to the rest of the series, it does itself a disservice. I understand that this is just a single chapter in a larger six-part story, but surely each part should feel well-rounded and complete to at least some extent.
Falcon and the Winter Solider’s predecessor, WandaVision (2021), managed to achieve such a task. There, each episode played out as a singular piece to a larger narrative Jigsaw, while also working as it’s own thing in isolation to the wider series. Perhaps the fact that it incorporated sitcom mechanics into each of its stories helped on that front. Regardless of the reasons, the show worked in a way Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t at this stage.
The Star-Spangled Man is largely set up to a story that hasn’t unfolded yet. There’s very little in terms of a beginning or end. Instead there’s just one great big middle part. Perhaps when binge watched in all six parts, this will all come together nicely. On its own, however, all this feels like is setup.
There’s plenty of interesting ideas in here that puts Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s second chapter in my good books. Sadly, its lack of working in isolation demotes my final verdict somewhat, but not enough for me to warrant this a bad episode.