The second episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier reunites Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes for the first time since Steve Rogers gave up the mantle of being Captain America. And, despite six months passing since they last saw each other, the longtime sidekicks and frenemies have as many issues to work through as ever.
After Sam and Bucky spent last week’s series premiere readjusting to life after the Blip, “The Star-Spangled Man” pulls them together as John Walker steps further into his public role as the country’s newly appointed Captain America. And while the new Disney+ series continues to explore a world still reeling from the catastrophic events of Endgame, providing a closer look at the anarchists who believe themselves to be freedom fighters, it also delves further into the legacy of Captain America, highlighting the hidden and dark past of one of the country’s long-forgotten heroes.
With the midpoint of the show’s quick six-episode run already approaching, the pieces are beginning to come together as Sam and Bucky continue to traverse this new, chaotic world without their best friend’s leadership. For this recap, we’ll focus on Sam and Bucky’s reunion and John Walker’s introduction, before briefly diving a little deeper into the histories of Isaiah Bradley and the Power Broker.
Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes
After the second episode begins with a focus on John Walker (who we’ll circle back to later), The Falcon and the Winter Soldier finally brings its titular stars together. And, as expected, the longtime Captain America sidekicks aren’t exactly excited to see each other again.
Bucky has tracked down Sam to confront him over the fact that he’s given up Cap’s shield, but Sam and Lieutenant Torres are busy following the trail of the Flag-Smashers. Dissatisfied with Sam’s reasons for ditching the legacy that their friend entrusted him with, Bucky hitches a ride with them as they head to Munich. Thus begins the new partnership between the Falcon and the … White Panther.
This has to be the highlight of the series so far. The buddy cop dynamic of this show is now in full effect.
In Munich, the duo quickly locates the Flag-Smashers at a warehouse as they load up two trucks with heavy cargo—which they’re all lifting with considerable ease, signaling that the powered-up man from the premiere isn’t the only member of the group with super strength. Sam and Bucky assume the Flag-Smashers are shipping weapons, just as they presume a person stowed in the truck is a hostage. But after Bucky makes his way into that truck, he sees that they’re actually carrying stolen medicine, and that the hostage is actually the Flag-Smashers’ leader, Karli Morgenthau. Karli pretends to be helpless for a moment before launching Bucky out of the moving truck with a swift kick, and snapping Sam’s trusty drone Redwing like it’s a plastic toy. Before long, Bucky and Sam are fighting a group of super soldiers atop moving semitrucks. The fight immediately tilts in the Flag-Smashers’ favor, but Walker and his partner, Lemar Hoskins, swoop in via helicopter to come to Sam and Bucky’s aid. Still, the Flag-Smashers make quick work of them, taking them out one by one before Karli effortlessly knocks Walker off the truck.
After the Flag-Smashers get away with their shipments of medicine, Walker and Hoskins pick up Sam and Bucky—though it takes some convincing—in a van as they all head back to the airport in failure. Walker and Hoskins provide a bit of exposition about how the government is attempting to reacclimate society to a post-Blip world, as something called the Global Repatriation Council has been formed to do things like reactivate citizenship, social security, and health care, and manage resources for those displaced by the return of half of the world’s population. Walker and Hoskins ask for Sam and Bucky’s help, but the former Avengers have no interest. By the time Hoskins is reintroducing himself as “Battlestar,” Bucky has heard enough. (I was honestly surprised by how long Bucky managed to stick around with Bootleg Cap and his sidekick; I half expected him to just hurl himself out of the moving van 30 seconds into the conversation.) As Bucky walks away, Walker makes his final case to Sam. “I’m not trying to replace Steve,” Walker earnestly tells him. “I’m just trying to be the best Captain America I can be. That’s it. It’d be a whole lot easier if I had Cap’s wingmen on my side.”
Sam scoffs at the unintended, yet telling, slight. “It’s always that last line,” he replies, before hopping out to join Bucky.
With the trail on the Flag-Smashers going cold, Bucky tells Sam that there’s someone he should meet to learn more about the history of the super soldier serum. They head to Baltimore and end up at a house belonging to a man who Bucky met during the Korean War. The man is revealed to be Isaiah Bradley, the first Black Captain America from the comic books.
The encounter with Bradley is brief, but it’s an unfortunate and revelatory scene. Revealing his super strength by flinging a tin box into a wall, Bradley also begins to reveal the injustices inflicted upon him by the country and government he fought for during the Korean War. “You know what they did to me for being a hero?” Bradley asks the duo, recounting his time serving in the Army. “They put my ass in jail for 30 years. People running tests, taking my blood, coming into my cell.”
Sam is understandably outraged by the fact that he is only just now learning about Isaiah Bradley. “You’re telling me that there was a Black super soldier decades ago and nobody knew about it?” Sam yells at Bucky. As if Sam didn’t have enough doubts about the government after it went behind his back to hand Cap’s shield over to some white dude with no superpowers (not to mention the fact that he can’t even get a damn loan from the bank), now he has to grapple with the fact that his country—one that he has served as both a member of the Air Force and the Avengers—wrongfully convicted and experimented on a hero because of the color of his skin. If Bradley had been kept a secret this whole time, what else has the government withheld? Sam noted to Rhodey in the premiere that the world was fine without anybody taking up the Captain America mantle when Steve was in the ice for 70 years, but this all now begs the question: Was there a Black Captain America during that time?
As Sam angrily confronts Bucky in the street, a police car pulls around the corner, and two officers approach them. Seeing a Black man yelling at a white man, the officers begin to harass Sam and demand to see his ID. The only thing that stops their racial profiling is the realization that Sam’s an Avenger. As the cops apologize, a second patrol vehicle pulls up, and the officers realize that a warrant has been issued against Bucky for missing his court-mandated therapy.
At the police precinct, Sam meets Bucky’s therapist, Dr. Raynor. They’re also met by Captain America himself, as it’s Walker who’s managed to not only arrange for Bucky’s release, but also put an end to his court mandate so he can get back into action. Dr. Raynor has one last session with Bucky before he’s released, and brings Sam along for the ride so the pair can hash out their issues. Between all the bickering, sexual tension, and soul-gazing that follows, the main takeaway of the session comes when Bucky angrily brings up Cap’s shield again. “That shield, that is … that is everything [Steve] stood for,” Bucky tells Sam. “That is his legacy. He gave you that shield, and you threw it away like it was nothing. So maybe he was wrong about you. And if he was wrong about you, then he was wrong about me.”
“Maybe this is something you or Steve will never understand,” Sam replies. “But can you accept that I did what I thought was right?”
Though Bucky has clearly gotten a weight off his chest, he and Sam leave the session madder at each other than when it started (this therapist continues to have very questionable methods), and agree to finish their mission to find the source of the super soldier serum and take down the Flag-Smashers before going their separate ways again. Before heading off to chase their next lead, they give a final “no” to Captain America and, uh, Battlestar. While Sam and Bucky don’t see eye to eye on, well, almost anything, this much they can agree on: nobody wants to hang with Bootleg Cap and his try-hard sidekick.
Introducing John Walker
After John Walker was unveiled as the U.S. government’s next Captain America at the end of the season premiere last week, “The Star-Spangled Man” gives him a proper introduction. An interview with Good Morning America gives us a rundown of his résumé: Walker is a war veteran who’s the first person in American history to be awarded three Medals of Honor, but while he apparently tests off the charts when it comes to speed, endurance, and intelligence, Walker wants it known that he’s not superhuman. “I’m not Tony Stark, I’m not Dr. Banner,” Walker says during the GMA interview. “I don’t have the flashiest gadgets, I don’t have super strength. But what I do have is guts, something Captain America always had, always needs to have, and I’m gonna need every ounce of it. Because I got big shoes to fill.”
It’s notable that unlike his character in the comics, Walker has no enhanced abilities. (At least not yet.) He was defeated easily during his first true test as Captain America against the Flag-Smashers. But the show is just as concerned with emphasizing Walker’s inner turmoil. Like Sam, he feels the weight of what it means to carry on the Captain America legacy—and while he wants to do the job, he’s only just now coming to understand that part of the job is being a symbol of hope to an entire population. “Things are really intense for you, aren’t they, Walker?” Bucky asks, earning a scowl from Walker in response.
But on top of his self-doubt, Walker also has a sizable ego—which explains why he picked up the shield with no second thought. These traits, combined with Sam and Bucky’s refusal to team up with him or, you know, even generally respect him, ought to make him a problem. Once Sam and Bucky find a way to reclaim Cap’s shield, Walker may boil over. And desperate to be treated like a peer by a couple of Avengers, he may yet find a way to gain some powers of his own to level the playing field.
A Deeper Dive
With the surprise appearance of Isaiah Bradley, Marvel has introduced a harrowing part of its comic book history into the MCU. Created by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker in 2003’s Truth: Red, White, and Black, Bradley joined the U.S. Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was one of 300 Black American soldiers forced into a program that made them test subjects for a new super soldier serum following the death of the original’s creator, Dr. Erskine. Isaiah was one of only five soldiers to survive the horrific process; the government told the families of those who died that they all fell valiantly in battle. The few who survived became a small team of Black super soldiers. Before long, Isaiah was the only remaining member, and he was sent on a suicide mission behind enemy lines to destroy the Germans’ attempts at creating a serum of their own. Before leaving for the mission, he grabbed a Captain America costume and shield, thus becoming a Black Captain America decades before Sam Wilson took the mantle in the comics. He succeeded in his mission, only to return to America and be labeled a criminal for posing as Captain America. Bradley was sentenced to life in prison, ultimately serving 17 years in solitary confinement before being pardoned.
In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Bradley’s history remains largely intact, though tweaked to better fit into the context of the MCU: He and the Winter Soldier met in 1951 during the Korean War, when Bradley was sent behind enemy lines not to destroy a super soldier serum, but to take out Hydra’s top hit man. As Bradley tells it, he “whupped his ass,” even ripping off half of Bucky’s metal arm in the fight. The U.S. government then rewarded him by putting him in jail for 30 years, and running more tests on him thereafter.
This story arc in both the comics and the TV show has roots in an ugly part of American history when Black Americans were treated as subhuman even while they fought for their country in World War II and beyond. The experimentation surrounding the super soldier serum was inspired by the infamous Tuskegee Study, in which the U.S. government used Black men in Alabama to study the untreated effects of syphilis while hiding the results from subjects and making no effort to treat them for the disease. The study, which was meant to span six months, lasted 40 years, resulting in the deaths of numerous Black Americans as the disease passed on to the participants’ families. Showrunner Malcolm Spellman has spoken about how race will feature heavily in Falcon—Isaiah’s introduction is a major moment in that effort.
The emotional scene featuring Isaiah may have also subtly introduced another character from the comics as well, as the yet-to-be-named young man who opened the door for Sam and Bucky may be Isaiah’s grandson, Elijah. The appearance of Eli Bradley, also known as the Patriot, would be significant, as the character becomes a member of the Young Avengers in the comics. When you add in WandaVision’s Tommy and Billy Maximoff, along with Cassie Lang from the Ant-Man series and Hawkeye’s Kate Bishop, it looks more and more likely that the Young Avengers will soon find their way to Disney+ as the focus of their own series. As for Isaiah and Eli Bradley in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, it’s safe to assume we haven’t seen the last of them.
The Power Broker
The second episode marks the first time we hear the Power Broker mentioned by name, though he’s yet to make an official appearance. When the Flag-Smashers are loading a plane with the stolen medicine, a member alerts Karli that the Power Broker’s men have found them. Despite being able to kick the hell out of Bucky and his whole crew, Karli is shook by this news, just as she was when she received texts from an unknown sender saying they’d kill her for stealing what was theirs.
The Power Broker began as a businessman named Curtiss Jackson, and has a long history in the comics that dates back to his first appearance in Machine Man in the 1970s. The manipulative Power Broker makes shady deals that grant paying customers superhuman strength through technological augmentation, which explains how both John Walker and Lemar Hoskins gain powers in the comics. Given that the Flag-Smashers are busting through road signs and tossing around Avengers with ease, it seems like the Power Broker could be the source of their strength—and now he wants what he’s owed.
There’s still much to be learned about the Power Broker. For now, he’s only a problem for the Flag-Smashers to deal with. Sam and Bucky, meanwhile, are about to face a crafty, manipulative villain in his own right—next week marks the return of Baron Zemo.