The Falcon and the Winter Soldier never believed in Sam Wilson. Not really.
The show was a superhero mission with a few key objectives. First, it wanted to serialize the buddy-comedy chemistry that Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) sold so well in Captain America: Civil War. To do that, it empowered Sam, the Falcon, to succeed the retired Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier then sought to dramatize the political tension in Sam, a Black man, assuming a mantle as whitewashed and old-fashioned in its patriotism as Captain America’s shield. “That symbol means something very different in Sam’s hands,” the series creator Malcolm Spellman said.
In the first episode, “New World Order,” Sam declines to succeed Steve and returns his shield to the U.S. government. Sam is reluctant to appropriate a symbol that belongs—prohibitively, in Sam’s mind—to Steve. He also seems to doubt the political appetite for a Black Captain America, at one point even saying, “Every time I pick this [shield] up, I know there are millions of people out there who are going to hate me for it … No blond hair or blue eyes.” The series’ plot line means to show Sam rethinking his reluctance, overcoming his perceived inadequacy, reclaiming the shield, and redefining the role of Captain America.
Ultimately, though, that’s not quite what the series does.
Instead, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier discounts and debases Sam. Here’s a hero who fought alongside Rogers in the world’s darkest hours, an Avenger in his own right, and yet the series assumes that Sam’s own call sign and legacy as the Falcon doesn’t count for anything. Rather, the title Captain America counts for everything. Until he takes up the shield, Sam has no place in the pantheon or even the Smithsonian; he can’t even get a small business loan. At no point does Sam interpret this belittlement of his own identity and legacy as the ultimate disrespect. Instead, he gradually capitulates, and he doesn’t even make his selling out look good. By the season finale, Sam hasn’t become Captain America by overcoming some unique and urgent threat to national security or world peace. He’s a poor combat fighter who becomes Captain America after a shadowboxing montage in which he tosses the shield like a glorified frisbee among the trees in his backyard.
Throughout the series, Sam chats with Isaiah Bradley, a disillusioned Black veteran subjected to gruesome experimentation by his own countrymen during the Korean War. In the fifth episode, “Truth,” Sam implores Isaiah to explain his cynicism about Captain America, and Isaiah, evoking the real-life Tuskegee Syphilis Study, recounts the horrors of the human experimentation used to redevelop the super-soldier serum that produced Rogers’s Captain America.
What does this title, Captain America, even mean to the people in this cinematic universe? It’s rather hard to discern despite the show being ostensibly dedicated to the title’s significance. Initially, Sam relinquishes the title, and so the U.S. government taps a highly decorated but brooding officer, John Walker, to succeed Rogers instead. We briefly see the top brass introducing the new Captain America to large crowds—they greet Walker with the sort of loud but half-hearted cheers that a ticket holder might spare for the opening act for a much better band. The big problem with this dramatic tension is that society and politics (beyond a couple of senators and diplomats) don’t exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it’s hard to pin down who, exactly, objects to regarding Sam as Captain America. The biggest detractor in Sam’s pathway to promotion isn’t any particular white person, but rather the old Black man Bradley, who believes the title and its patriotic obligations to be more trouble than they’re worth.
Sam’s ambivalence about the shield makes a lot more sense when devolved from the level of politics to the level of friendship. Throughout the series, Bucky urges Sam to reclaim the shield, believing Sam should want to honor the legacy and judgment of their dearest friend in common, Rogers, who passed the shield to Sam in the first place. But even Bucky seems written to undermine Sam in the struggle to succeed Rogers. Bucky is the much better fighter, and Sam seems to need Bucky a lot more than Bucky needs Sam in order to stumble successfully through this plot.
There’s one scene that best underscores the show’s contempt for Sam. In the third episode, “Power Broker,” the shady warlord Baron Zemo arranges for Sam and Bucky to meet the criminal leader, Selby, in order to track down a crucial scientist redeveloping the super-soldier serum in Madripoor. Zemo implores Sam to attend the meeting undercover. Sam tags along only for his phone to ring loudly during the parley, breaking Sam’s disguise and turning the meeting into a very counterproductive shootout. A simple ringtone derails this crucial meeting, and the escalation mostly serves to make Sam look like a fucking moron. Though billing Sam as the protagonist, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier often reduces Sam to comic relief.
What’s the best we can say about Sam? He saves people. He stops a truck full of people from driving off a cliff in the season finale. He seeks reconciliation and peace. He struggles to rescue the Flag-Smashers’ leader, Karli Morgenthau, from the lure of extremism and terrorism. Bucky may be the more stylish fighter, but Sam is the more righteous Avenger, and that’s the ideal basis for his reluctant but inevitable promotion to Captain America. That’s all well and good. If anything, I wish the series was a little more determined to heighten this contrast between Sam and Bucky because otherwise Bucky spends the series looking a lot cooler and a lot more powerful than Sam.
My colleague Alison Herman has written about the political incoherence in the show’s central conflict. I can forgive the sloppiness in characterizing the Flag-Smashers, as goofy and marginal as they are. But the show makes the biggest mess of its protagonist. If Isaiah was going to speak so cynically and persuasively against the U.S., and Sam was going to become Captain America regardless, I wouldn’t have minded Sam being a bit more proud and Pollyannaish about his decision. I might have respected a version of this character who affirmed Isaiah but stood strong in his own patriotism. (Alternatively, I might have enjoyed a version of this show that located Sam’s inadequacy more squarely in his grief for Steve.) Instead, Sam trails off in these political arguments and leaves Isaiah to do Sam’s rationalization for him in the season finale. Ultimately, Isaiah determines representation matters.
The series gives Sam one big, impassioned, speech in the sixth and final episode, “One World, One People.” Here he explodes into political incoherence. Sam is Captain America at this point. Having failed to save Karli from a fatal shootout with Sharon Carter, Sam encounters a couple of fear-mongering senators addressing TV news crews near the scene. The senators thank Sam for thwarting the Flag-Smashers, and Sam interrupts them to say what everyone watching this show has been thinking since the beginning: Maybe the terrorists have a point, maybe the Global Repatriation Council shouldn’t relocate poor, disoriented refugees by force. Here, Sam projects righteousness, but I detect shame. He sold out, and he doesn’t even know why, nor do the writers, but now we have to watch Sam do this revolutionary bit to placate the viewers who more or less agree with Isaiah and Karli. You can become Captain America, or you can defend terrorism to a U.S. senator on live television near the scene of a deadly shootout, but the series never mounts a strong case for Sam reconciling both roles in himself.
A more daring series might have emboldened Sam to decline the title and honor Rogers by forging his own legacy, with his own principles, under his own name. Such a series might have dared the U.S. to take the Falcon on his own terms, earning his sacrifices and thus doing right by Isaiah. Instead, Isaiah gets a statue at a museum exhibit dedicated to him, and Sam gets to relinquish his own heroic identity so he can become a glorified mascot. That’s the problem with entrusting this sort of civil rights empowerment fantasy to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, isn’t it? Sam Wilson has to be Captain America, and that’s that. His own call sign gets erased from the title of his own show. The Falcon’s own legacy meant nothing. Isaiah was right.