The Marvel Cinematic Universe began its fourth phase by reflecting on its past before taking a step into the future. WandaVision started things off by unpacking Wanda Maximoff’s grief after Vision was killed, as she kidnapped an entire New Jersey town to help her cope before transforming into an all-powerful force that sets the stage for films to come. Now, with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel is expanding its scope to explore how the world has changed since Thanos snapped it into a new era.
The new MCU series has already traveled much farther distances than WandaVision, making stops in Tunisia, Switzerland, Washington, D.C., New York, and Louisiana. Around the world, people are still adjusting to life after the Blip; only six months removed from when the Avengers brought half of the universe back from the dust, people are enjoying the return of their loved ones but also grappling with the very understandable chaos caused by billions of people suddenly reappearing. And while Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes are giving this new world a go after disappearing for five years themselves, there are a select few who believe that it was better off when people were bonded by this universal tragedy: the anarchist group known as the Flag-Smashers.
The Flag-Smashers are positioned to be the foil to the titular superhero duo in the series, and so far represent a different type of villain than we’re used to seeing in the MCU. As Lieutenant Joaquin Torres explains to Sam early in the premiere, the Flag-Smashers’ manifestos have been circulating on online forums, as they continue to spread their belief that the world was better off when it was “unified without borders.” It’s not a horrible sentiment, but the group does seem to be ignoring the price the world had to pay for such “unity”: losing half of the human population at the hands of a purple alien. Sam and Bucky aren’t up against an individual, but rather a misguided ideology.
When Torres goes undercover to investigate the anarchist group in Switzerland, he finds himself among a cluster of citizens loitering outside of a bank, walking around slowly and staring into the abyss of their phones like people did in the early days of Pokémon Go. But a whistle sets a plan in motion, and suddenly, Torres and everyone else around him are handed masks by a Flag-Smasher as the group carries out a bank heist. The well-intentioned lieutenant drops his cover extremely quickly, and winds up getting his face stomped in by one Flag-Smasher who seems to wield super strength. After being knocked unconscious, Torres wakes up and provides a (#important) report on the incident to Sam, while also speculating that the man he encountered was the leader of the Flag-Smashers.
The Flag-Smashers have roots in the comic books, but rather than being an entire group of anarchists, the Flag-Smasher is originally just one man: Karl Morgenthau. First appearing in Captain America no. 312, in 1985, Flag-Smasher has a long history opposite Steve Rogers. The son of a Swiss banker turned diplomat, Morgenthau becomes radicalized after his father is killed during a peaceful demonstration that goes awry. Morgenthau then commits his life to destroying the ideas of nationalism and countries in favor of a more unified world. (In a truly on-the-nose introduction to match his silly name, Flag-Smasher makes his debut by riding in on a fancy aircraft and, uh, smashing flags at the United Nations Plaza in New York before crying out his name into the night.) He is, of course, meant to be the ideological antithesis of Captain America, who fights crime in an American flag costume. Soon after his first encounter with Cap, Morgenthau becomes the leader of a terrorist organization known as U.L.T.I.M.A.T.U.M., which shares his vision for eliminating symbols of nationalism and separatism with the purported intention of creating world peace. (Marvel absolutely loves ridiculously wacky acronyms, and this one has to be an all-timer: Underground Liberated Totally Integrated Mobile Army to Unite Mankind. Comics in the ’80s were really something else.)
In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the MCU has repurposed the original Flag-Smasher and his organization to neatly fit the context of its own recent history, using the Blip as a backdrop and source for the group’s inspiration. The chaotic five-year period when half the universe’s population disappeared presented the perfect entry point for a more minor but longtime Captain America antagonist, while also granting the opportunity to continue building the new Marvel universe after films like Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home—as well as WandaVision—provided only small windows into how the catastrophic events of Infinity War impacted society. The Flag-Smasher and U.L.T.I.M.A.T.U.M. of the comics have been folded into one entity, with its leader now being the remixed character Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman).
Karli has yet to be formally introduced, but she’s featured prominently in the show’s trailers, and she also makes a brief appearance in the premiere as the curly-haired Flag-Smasher who’s dealing out masks like party favors at the start of the bank heist. It’s possible that Torres is right that the powered-up Flag-Smasher who knocked him out is the group’s true leader, but considering their way of thinking, the Flag-Smashers may not even have a symbolic head at all. Regardless of who may be the one in charge, though, the Flag-Smashers have at least one member with superhuman abilities—acquired through some version of the super soldier serum or some other means, like potentially getting a little help from a character named the Power Broker. (Virtually nothing has been revealed about the Power Broker yet, but his moniker makes a sneaky appearance within the background of the show’s credits sequence.) Pair that super strength with the fact that the group is surprisingly well organized and technologically savvy and it looks like Sam and Bucky are about to have their hands full over the course of the six-episode season. (Not to mention that Zemo has yet to resurface to complete his quest to end the age of superheroes, and that criminal groups like LAF may continue to stir up drama along the way.)
It’s still so early into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier that Sam and Bucky have yet to even share the screen, but Bucky can dodge Sam’s texts for only so long, and the real Captain America now has a shield to reclaim after Sam deferred the responsibility and legacy he was entrusted with. Their diverging paths will soon cross again, along with those of Zemo and the similarly absent Sharon Carter. Sam and Bucky still have to deal with their own personal demons, but before long, they’ll also be at odds with the Flag-Smashers—a group born from the chaotic events of the past—as they attempt to shape a new world order.