It’s a common problem for franchises: a villain so compelling they overshadow the hero. Darth Vader will always be Star Wars’ most iconic creation, even if his son is technically the lead. Hans Gruber is the best part of Die Hard. And in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the gold standard of modern blockbusters, there’s Killmonger, the ostensible antagonist of Black Panther. T’Challa may have emerged victorious, but his opponent was allowed to make many more-than-fair points about Wakanda’s obligation to the African diaspora before he lost the war.
Less common is the dilemma that faced The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the MCU miniseries that just concluded its six-part run on Disney+. In its overstuffed, often unfocused plot, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier offered up a few different villains: the Flag-Smashers, an anti-nationalist guerilla group; the Power Broker, their mysterious benefactor; John Walker, the knockoff Captain America now known as the U.S. Agent; Baron Zemo, the Sokovian noble opposed to the very concept of superheroes. On their own, none of these figures were especially alluring. But as a group, the arguments they made were far more convincing than those of the ostensible protagonists. It’s not that the villains were so overwhelmingly charismatic they couldn’t help but outshine the heroes. (Well, maybe Julia Louis-Dreyfus.) It’s that the show simply assumed we would take the title characters’ side, no matter how half-hearted their rebuttals came across.
That isn’t just a problem for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The entire point of the series was to set up Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes as worthy heirs to Steve Rogers in future MCU titles—and in Sam’s case, quite literally. But when it takes so little to root against them, or at least not actively root for them, it doesn’t bode well for the franchise.
Helmed by showrunner Malcolm Spellman, now set to develop Captain America 4 with Sam in the title role, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier didn’t lack for ambition. The MCU already had its first Black Avenger in T’Challa, plus supporting characters like Don Cheadle’s War Machine. But Spellman understood the extra significance, and added nuance, in recasting the symbol of a real-life nation. America has a history of both declaring its ideals and belying them with racist violence; Sam can’t participate in the former without at least engaging with the latter. To its credit, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier addressed this irony head-on, working in figures from the comics like Isaiah Bradley, a Black super soldier who was experimented on and imprisoned by his own government. That’s a lot for any superhero show, let alone one marketed for mass appeal on a family-friendly streaming service, to take on. As just one subplot among many, it proved far too much.
Sam’s struggle—with Isaiah, with his family, with himself—to pick up Cap’s vibranium shield could easily sustain six hours of story. Instead, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier attempted to balance it with critiques of American imperialism and even the idea of superpowers, both literal and geopolitical. In the end, the series spread itself too thin, fighting multiple battles on multiple fronts. No wonder the show wasn’t able to sell its would-be triumphant conclusion. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier set up one too many foils with one too many valid gripes, a burden all the more frustrating for being largely self-imposed.
Take the Flag-Smashers. Despite a terrible name (you can’t smash a flag!) and a nondescript leader, the group often came across as overtly sympathetic—certainly not the menacing threat they were intended to be. Touting the catchphrase “One World, One People,” the Flag-Smashers opposed the forced resettlement of those displaced when the global population doubled overnight after the Avengers undid the so-called Blip. Not only did the Flag-Smashers make a compelling case against the existing world order, but they even suggested the happy ending of Avengers: Endgame may have created as many problems as it solved. Their support certainly indicates those problems are far too entrenched to be solved by some guys in spandex throwing a punch.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier already has to show that America is worth fighting for, even to the people it’s mistreated the most. In the Flag-Smashers, it gives Bucky and Sam an underdog of an enemy. And in John Walker, it saddles them with a liability of an ally, further diminishing the audience’s allegiance to their supposed heroes. Insecure and angry, Walker is manifestly unfit to carry the shield well before he’s sent over the edge by his best friend’s death during a face-off with the Flag-Smashers. Walker responds by beating an enemy combatant to death with the shield—literally bludgeoning him with the red, white, and blue in front of dozens of witnesses. It’s hard to believe such an obvious symbol for America’s indiscretions abroad made it past the Disney brain trust. Somehow, this scene comes from the same show that portrays “agent of the state” as an honor to be earned.
Walker is subsequently court martialed, discharged, and generally condemned. But he’s also afforded redemption, intervening on Sam and Bucky’s behalf in a chaotic final battle. On a character level, the reversal is unearned. On a thematic level, it’s practically self-sabotage. What makes Walker’s sins forgivable where the Flag-Smashers’ are not? If The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wants to counter the ends-justify-the-means logic favored by its villains, it has to start with its own antiheroes.
Finally, there’s Zemo, who joins Sam and Bucky in their fight against the Flag-Smashers because he wants to halt the spread of the super-soldier serum the group has co-opted. (It’s the same serum that took Steve Rogers from stick to six-pack decades earlier.) Zemo thinks enhanced abilities of any kind are a recipe for disaster, and it’s hard to fault his reasoning; a bunch of superheroes literally destroyed his homeland, suggesting it’s unwise to entrust the fate of humanity to a handful of flawed individuals. This idea is nothing less than an existential threat to the entire MCU, so it’s no surprise The Falcon and the Winter Soldier barely bothers to engage with it before throwing Zemo back in prison. More confusing is why it was brought up in the first place.
Of all these complexities and contradictions, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier invests the most time in Sam’s inner conflict: whether it’s possible to represent America without condoning its flaws. Even then, most of this struggle was confined to the penultimate episode, freeing the finale to go all in on big battles. Yes, the country Sam wants to fight for has mistreated people who look like him in ways both big (Isaiah’s experience, an echo of the infamous Tuskegee Experiments) and small (the bank loan he’s denied in the premiere). But Sam decides that turning down the job would invalidate their sacrifices, turning his dilemma on its head. Becoming Captain America isn’t selling out; not becoming Captain America is, in fact, what’s selling out.
The “sacrifice” rhetoric already rings false. Last week, the Speaker of the House was rightly raked over the coals for applying the term to George Floyd, and while the stakes are far lower on a fictional TV show, it’s inaccurate for the same reasons. A sacrifice is a voluntary decision; the vast majority of racism is simply inflicted, often by the same apparatus Sam now wants to represent. There’s also a difference between the American people and the American government, making it possible to serve one without serving the other, but it’s not one The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ever chooses to acknowledge. These are harsh notes for a superhero show, but they’re ones The Falcon and the Winter Soldier brings on itself by invoking issues it’s not fully equipped to explore.
Had The Falcon and the Winter Soldier narrowed its focus, it could have done one of these topics justice, as Black Panther did with the ethics of isolationism. Despite its flaws, Sam’s story line comes the closest, simply because it centers a character the audience already cares about and the show shades in with details like his hometown and family history. We empathize with his desires, even if we may not agree with his decisions. But while The Falcon and the Winter Soldier tries to engage with the question of what it means to be a Black Captain America, it ends up losing its core concept in a sea of half-formed thoughts. The MCU was never going to endorse anti-American insurgents or superhero skeptics; it also doesn’t put in the work to vilify or simply push back against them. In a way, it’s generous of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to let its bad guys make their case. On the other hand, that case is against the very premise of the show—and it’s pretty convincing.