The second episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier begins with the new Captain America, John Walker, by himself in a locker room. As the world waits for him to emerge onto the football field of his old high school for an interview with Good Morning America, he sits in front of his old locker, staring at his new uniform with awe and doubt. “Everybody in the world expects me to be something,” Walker tells his wife, Olivia. “I don’t want to fail them.”
The series is trying to ground Walker and highlight his respect for the honor he’s been given—to not only show his aptitude as a soldier but to emphasize his humanity and the fact that, actually, he might agree with the audience’s feelings about him being named the next Cap. But at the end of the day, we know that the shield won’t belong to him for long—after all, we’re not watching Captain America: John Walker. And through just one full episode in his nascent career as America’s most exalted heroic symbol, the seeds of Walker’s almost inevitable collapse have already been planted.
Captain America II gets his first opportunity to prove himself in combat when he and his partner Lemar “Battlestar” Hoskins join Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes in a fight against the Flag-Smashers. As far as first impressions go, it’s a rough start: Walker and Co. are all taken out by the supersoldiers with little effort, as Walker’s no match for Karli Morgenthau and her crew’s enhanced strength. And while Walker does his absolute best to recruit Sam and Bucky to track down the Flag-Smashers thereafter, he gets rejected ... twice. (Bucky alone shuts him down like five times; the White Panther is a tough man to impress.) By the end of the episode, the new Captain America is issuing warnings to Sam and Bucky to stay out of his way. Only days after taking over the job, Walker already seems in over his head, and if his origins in the comic books are any indication, he may soon take measures to level the playing field.
Like it did with Karli and her Flag-Smashers, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is pulling from elements of John Walker’s history in the comics while also taking some notable departures to better fit within the context of the MCU. In the comics, Walker—who made his debut in Captain America no. 323 in 1986—is still an Army veteran from Custer’s Grove, Georgia, but not a war hero worthy of three Medals of Honor. In an effort to become a greater hero, Walker successfully undergoes a risky procedure that grants him superhuman strength, a potentially fatal process made possible by a shady businessman known as the Power Broker. After briefly considering a career in professional wrestling (seriously), he takes on the persona of the Super-Patriot and publicly challenges Captain America, arguing that the country deserves a new, younger hero who might better reflect its shifting ideals in the modern era. Before long, Steve Rogers grows tired of being the government’s pawn and hands in his shield. The Super-Patriot, meanwhile, gains public favor by preventing an attack on the Washington Monument (it’s always the Washington Monument), and even makes a TV appearance shortly before taking on the Captain America mantle.
John Walker was Marvel’s attempt to explore a darker version of Captain America, one who often used more brutal methods in combat and had questionable morals. His stint in the role is brief, however, as his secret identity gets revealed to the public and his parents get killed because of it. Walker snaps, and kills the villains responsible. He briefly retires, but later returns under the moniker U.S. Agent.
In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Walker didn’t need superstrength to become the government’s first choice to replace Steve as the next Captain America. But now that the job is his and he’s clearly outmatched by his very first adversaries, Walker may become desperate enough to power himself up with the help of the newly introduced Power Broker. The elusive figure has yet to make an on-screen appearance, but Karli and her Flag-Smashers have stolen something from him or her—more likely than not it’s whatever form of supersoldier serum they used to bulk up—and now the Power Broker is out for revenge. It seems possible that Walker, as well as his buddy Battlestar, who also gains superstrength from the Power Broker in the comics, will cross paths with the character somehow, and that they’ll use each other to take down their mutual enemy in the Flag-Smashers.
Whether or not Walker gains superstrength, the question still remains whether he’ll keep his title as Captain America or end up relinquishing it to Sam—by force or by choice. Through two episodes, Falcon is dedicating time to examining Captain America’s legacy, what it means to be a symbol, and what kind of person is picked to be one. The American government didn’t hesitate to give the job to a blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American soldier when Sam turned in the shield. But Steve Rogers didn’t choose even his oldest friend to be his successor, let alone some guy named John Walker. He chose to give that honor—and that burden—to Sam.
In 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, the night before Steve undergoes his supersoldier transformation, he gets a visit from Dr. Abraham Erskine. The doctor wants Steve to promise him that even after he gains superhuman abilities, he won’t lose sight of who he is: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” It is no coincidence, then, that years later, just before Captain America travels back to the past at the end of Endgame, one of the last things he says to Sam is “You’re a good man.”
With his achievements as a war hero, his peak physical attributes (even without any supersteroids), and his seemingly blind loyalty to his government, Walker represents the embodiment of the “perfect soldier.” (Meanwhile, Sam still somehow cannot win a fight against anyone, save for some guys in flying squirrel suits.) Walker also stands as the ideological opposite to the Flag-Smashers and their “one world, one people” creed—he’s literally a symbol of nationalism. But beyond that, he fails to consider the shortcomings of the Global Repatriation Council, even when it seems like the Flag-Smashers may have good reason to question the policies of the GRC in a post-Blip world.
Sam knows better than to blindly trust the government’s agenda and always goes with his instincts instead; Sam fought alongside Cap when Hydra snuck its way into the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Winter Soldier, and became a fugitive when the Sokovia Accords called for the regulation of superheroes in Civil War. Now, he’s just been burned by the Department of Defense when it quickly replaced him with John Walker, and he’s discovered the story of Isaiah Bradley, a Black supersoldier whom the government both experimented on and wrongfully imprisoned. Sam can see both sides, while the Flag-Smashers and John Walker are limited to their own views.
With the shield still in Walker’s hands, Sam will need to find a way to reclaim the mantle that was meant for him, and also figure out what that symbol ought to actually represent. That’s his job, and no one else’s. John Walker may be the perfect soldier, but that doesn’t make him the perfect Captain America.