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The Falcon Finally Takes Flight

‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ is the first MCU Disney+ show to grapple with race. Its showrunner and director discuss how it came together and why they chose to tackle weighty topics.

Pablo Iglesias

Until disaster or tragedy strikes, most people avoid thinking of the exact location where they’ll die. But when the L.A. team behind The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was faced with an earthquake early in the show’s conception, series showrunner Malcolm Spellman came face-to-face with this reality.

Kari Skogland ducked under a boardroom table as Spellman considered an escape. “Malcolm said he wasn’t going to die in a writer’s room,” Skogland remembers. The veteran director (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire) partnered with Spellman to bring Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes’s story to life, but now she was pleading with him to seek shelter. “I kept saying, ‘You can’t leave, you can’t leave.’ Like, ‘What if, what if.’”

But Spellman had been given a chance he’d waited a decade for, and a little seismic activity wasn’t going to deter him and his writers—and eventually Skogland. “The earthquake hit, we left the building, and went out into the courtyard and kept working,” Spellman recalls. “We were so pressed and urgent and desperate to do this thing right.”

The creation of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a story of cascading expectations. Back in 2018, when Disney announced plans to roll out a slate of MCU shows for its nascent streaming service, the declaration came with a litany of loaded propositions. As part of Disney+’s first slate of Marvel TV shows, it needed to prove that the MCU could successfully transition from the larger-than-life action of the big screen to television’s intimate constraints. The show also had to contend with the reality that it was the second property after 2018’s Black Panther to feature a Black lead, and it would become the first one released after the death of Chadwick Boseman last summer. But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier also needed to introduce a classic comic book trope to a screen audience—that even when heroes die, their mantle lives on.

For Spellman, that meant conceiving a show that ponders how the world would receive a new Captain America—and what would happen when a white hero got replaced by a Black one. When Sam Wilson tells an aging Steve Rogers that Captain America’s shield feels “like it’s someone else’s” in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, it isn’t a throwaway line, but something that would come to define the new show.

“That shield embodied something totally different in a white man’s hands and a Black man’s hands,” Spellman says. “It’s going to get a completely different reaction. When I went in for my first [pitch meeting], that survived all the way through. We changed this thing a million times, but Sam’s personal journey and his ambivalence about that shield [stayed].”

Luckily Skogland shared Spellman’s same desire to craft one of the first MCU properties to tackle race—something that was no guarantee.

“That was one of the big hooks for me. The fact that it did have such tremendously interesting, strong, thought-provoking themes that we were going to be embracing,” Skogland says. “What is it for a Black man to pick up the shield? This iconic kind of white institution. Does he want it? What is it to his community? What does it mean to him as he puts it in the Smithsonian, because he’s saying, ‘This is not mine. This is an antiquated idea,’ maybe. And what is a new hero?”

Filmmakers tend to speak about working for the Marvel Cinematic Universe like a baseball player would getting called up to the majors. The studio has become the industry’s most valuable blank check for directors, actors, and screenwriters. Surviving and thriving within a machine that annually pumps out billion-dollar blockbusters has a way of opening doors to long-gestating passion projects or turning relatively unknown or underused actors into household names.

But the road to tell an MCU story of his own wasn’t a straight shot for Spellman, the writer and producer best known for Fox’s Empire. The first time he was brought to Marvel, it wasn’t to lead one of the future tentpoles of the MCU, but instead to pitch a spinoff series to Marvel executives Nate Moore and Zoie Nagelhout. That show would’ve been based on the Deathlok character from the late-2000s ABC show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The initial pitch never came to onscreen fruition, but his passion for Deathlok’s story led to Malcolm competing for the chance to tell the story of the Falcon and the Winter Soldier years later. When Marvel gave him a manual of characters and story ideas to pick from, he chose those two and began the pitching gauntlet that’d lead to Kevin Feige’s office.

“It was a competitive situation. It was multiple writers up for it. So they got a little family, a little mafia up there, right? So I’m going to pitch Kevin and I had a migraine. I get chronic migraines, and my pitch was garbage,” he says.

He still thinks the only reason he secured the gig was because of two Marvel executives he’d previously met.

“Nate and Zoie’s relationship with Kevin is so strong that them saying, ‘This is our guy. He ain’t got big movies under his belt.’ The only reason for Kevin to hire me could have been that Nate and them said, ‘No, this is our guy,’” he says.

Once Spellman got the job, Nate and the Marvel brass encouraged him to reach out to other writers who’d dealt with the studio’s unconventional system. When Stephen McFeely—a writer on all three Captain America movies, Infinity War, and Endgame—hopped on the phone with Spellman, his advice was simple: “Leave your ego at the door.”

According to Spellman, Feige’s “mandate” from the beginning was for the creators to build a hybrid model between two formats. Each episode needed to feel like a movie, but still have “the deep dive of a serialized story.” With Anthony Mackie bumped to no. 1 on the call sheet, his character had to undergo a cinematic transformation. In Winter Soldier, Civil War, Ant-Man, and two Avengers movies, Falcon’s action scenes were never the direct focus. He was either the guy tasked with delivering a one-liner during a tense moment or getting his ass kicked by a revolving door of characters (Spider-Man, Winter Soldier, Ant-Man). Audiences knew that Falcon could fly, so Skogland wanted to explore that more given Mackie’s new leading role. That’s partially why the first episode begins with an extended, sky-set scene in which Falcon takes down a group of terrorists in the air.

“The opening sequence was really there to set the table for the show, and it also was an opportunity to see Falcon flying in a way that we haven’t seen before, because he’s always been a part of a team avenging,” Skogland says. “So it was really important to me to introduce a new optic.”

To do that, the director had to make her own visual syllabus, which she says she constructed by watching videos of extreme sports, birds flying, people donning squirrel suits, and French men who built wings of their own. “There weren’t action sequences that were that relevant. Who flies?” Skogland says. More specifically, there are few heroes in movies who need to fly with wings like the Falcon, so Skogland and her team had to study birds to get the right effect.

The team also had to give him an internal and external life that diverged from the tone of previous films—and even what had existed in Marvel comics to that point. Falcon would need a family and friends, a hometown, and opinions. Until recently, the only person doing that work was Mackie himself.

“We just started stealing from his real life,” Spellman admits. Instead of the Falcon being from Harlem like his comic book counterpart, he was now from New Orleans like Mackie. “Anthony helped us find the version he was good with because I think there was some discomfort for him. Now that Chadwick has passed, this is it. It is a shame, but this is it. If you are looking for Black superheroes that have been done at this level—I’m not talking about regular TV, this is Marvel, top-shelf level—there ain’t one. It’s only white heroes.”

Toward the end of our call, Spellman brings up 2018’s Black Panther again. It’s as if the movie and the loss of Boseman was a shadow the team was simultaneously trying to live up to and escape from under. “We all felt that burden, and me and Anthony worked really closely, especially in a couple of key moments. And it was pretty magical because we’d spend hours on the phone, just talking about how he could convey this moment,” Spellman says. “It’s near the end of the series, honestly. Because at no point did we want to be fake. We knew that after Black Panther, the Marvel fans will go on a journey, even if there’s substance involved.”

As much as Marvel comics—and by extension the MCU—has been marketed as “the world outside your window,” it hasn’t always lived up to that ideal. Even mentioning the racial components of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, let alone debating whether Feige and Co. are up to the task of telling this type of delicate story, is likely to get you harassed online. In the coming years we’re likely to see a Black Captain America and Iron-Man, the MCU’s first movie carried by an Asian lead, and, if the comics are any barometer, an influx of queer characters. But that doesn’t change the fact that superhero movies and the culture that spawns them have a long way to go to make marginalized communities not only feel represented on screen, but welcome in these spaces.

Spellman leaves the conversation with a promise: It took over 10 years for him to embark on this specific flight, and he’s leaving nothing up to chance when it comes to his descent. “We knew we didn’t want to just have [Falcon] get to some point where he’s like, ‘Oh, all good. I’m going to forget 400 years of history. It’s all good. We live in a post-racist world,’” Spellman says. “At no point is Falcon landing there.”

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