***Warning: contains The Falcon and the Winter Soldier spoilers!***
It is hard to put succinctly my thoughts on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but I will say this: Sam Wilson is a goddamn hero, and it is totally what he deserves.
The six-episode season concluded on Thursday not with a bang but with a pop, neatly tying up all the loose ends of the season whilst leaving enough string to pull for what we’re hoping is a soon-to-be announced season two. Disney officials, I am looking to you for this one.
The story really delves into current political narratives and, surprisingly, manages to toe the line between cheesy and impactful really well. We have our main antagonists, the Flag Smashers, a group of refugees who have found their lives turned on their head following the re-unification of a world ‘post-snap’. (For those who want a refresher of the three hour film, you can check one out here). In typical superhero movie fashion, anyone who goes against our main characters is immediately the one who needs to be stopped at all costs: unfortunately for that rhetoric, however, the main characters here are Sam Wilson, the man who always seems to see the best in people, and Bucky Barnes, ex-brain washed Winter Soldier who just wants to do something good for once. It makes for a compelling tale, and we will get back to it in a moment.
Sam and Bucky’s dynamic has all the things you would expect from enemies turned allies turned… friends. Partners, for sure, as they like to call each other. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan both have great chemistry off-screen, which really adds to the dynamic we see on screen. Barnes, who is dealing with some questionable therapy and a road map to ‘forgiveness’, as well as reeling from the loss of a best friend he just got back, appears to pick fights with Wilson at any time he’s afforded it. A snappy comment there, an eye roll here. What’s passed off as mere awkward banter soon delves into something more as we get into episode two – Steve believed in Sam and gave him the Captain America shield to prove it. Steve also believed in Bucky, so what does that mean for him when Sam refuses the shield? Also – why is Sam so adamant about taking up the mantle in the first place?
It is this dynamic that actually adds to the layers of the Flag Smashers’ interactions with the two of them. While on a trip across Europe to try and find the group – headed by the dedicated and (admittedly) terrifying Karli – Sam starts to feel a lot of sympathy for the group and what they’re trying to achieve. This is furthered by his own underlying plotline of the film, where he and his sister are trying to find money to keep their family business alive, which suffered immensely in the time Sam – and the other half of the world – were gone. It brings up prominent themes that are all too familiar in the real world: refugee response by first world countries, distribution of goods that are overseen by the rich and powerful, and anti-black racism that drives a lot of Sam’s motives as he navigates this new world. He starts to understand Karli and the Flag Smashers’ cause, and doesn’t believe when he is told by those around him – Bucky, and familiar face Zemo – that he is fighting for a lost cause. Karli is too far radicalised; people like her must be stopped for good.
The conversations surrounding race continue with each episode. We meet Isaiah Bradley, a CIA secret, who was given an experimental super-soldier serum during the Korean War and sent to kill on behalf of his country. When all was said and done, and the overall experiment failed, Isaiah was sent to prison to be tested on further, and declared dead to those waiting at home for him as the war came to a close. It is not a new tale – the treatment of black soldiers during wartime has been discussed more and more. Despite the fact they were enlisted to fight for the freedom of the Western world, they still faced segregation, violence and racial threats both by their own countrymen and from those they met abroad. Isaiah’s treatment rightfully left him angry, scorned and unforgiving – and his reaction to Sam and Bucky showing up to his house uninvited throughout the season demonstrates that. In the penultimate episode of the series, when Sam gains the shield after a brutal beatdown he and Bucky laid on John Walker, he visits Isaiah who has these words for him: “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.”
Sam leaves feeling heavy, with a major choice to make. He was offered the shield by Steve, the original Captain America, and has been pushed all season by Bucky that his decision to leave it behind was a mistake. Added to the growing dialogue between him and Karli, who has shown nothing but aggression and disillusionment towards the system Sam has fought so many years for, he has a lot of things bouncing around in his head. It also sets up the conversation so many have been waiting for: for Sam and Bucky to finally have a heart to heart that would make their partnership mean something.
“When Steve told me what he was planning, neither of us could have understood what it’d feel like for a Black man to be handed the shield.” And he’s right. How are Steve and Bucky – as white men first and foremost, and added to that white men from the 1940’s who have had absolutely no time to adjust to this current and modern world – to understand the nuances of how Black men are perceived not just in and by America, but around the world? It is a growth moment for both of them – we seem to notice the decision Sam has made in what direction he will take with that shield of his, and what Bucky needs to do to finally feel like he’s making progress with the whole ‘healing from being an ex-assassin’ thing.
I think the overall point of the show – or, we’re hoping, this first season – is to show that Sam Wilson is the hero here. The programme is called The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The season ends with a change: Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Sam dons his blue, white and red uniform, grabs his shield, and becomes the Captain America we have seen so far only in print. A line from the second episode is repeated; “It’s that Black Falcon.” “No man, that’s Captain America.” And Sam saving the day with his action heroics isn’t even the extent of the impact his character has in the episode. As the dust settles and the body bag is zipped over Karli, Sam finds himself head to head with the individuals Karli technically died in order to stop. He is told by the Senator “you couldn’t possibly understand how hard this is for us”. The crowd – and audience – goes still.
Sam Wilson, all season, has been told no – and he isn’t going to accept that again. Because Sam knows which fights to fight for and has shown that consistently since the first time we met him in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Sam has fought tooth and nail this whole season to be listened to, respected, understood and made space for. Whether it’s by keeping his family business alive, butting heads with Zemo or trying to convince others why he still chooses to believe in the legacy Steve Rogers left behind: Sam knows exactly how difficult it is for these people. And he’s done standing around trying to fix up messes that never need to be made in the first place.
This was Sam Wilson’s show. And while I am eternally grateful for the moments Bucky Barnes gave us throughout the season, to say this was anything less than Captain America and The Winter Soldier would be a disservice. I can only hope that this precedent continues once they begin releasing those damned movies every summer again.
Featured image courtesy of Marvel Studios.
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