The Falcon and The Winter Soldier: Sam Wilson is Not Steve Rogers’ Substitute. He’s the New Black Captain America

Pop Culture

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier: Sam Wilson is Not Steve Rogers’ Substitute. He’s the New Black Captain America

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Hot on the heels of the sensation that surrounded Marvel’s groundbreaking digital miniseries WandaVision, the franchise has followed up the effort with another Avengers spin-off offering: The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. Set after the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019), the series follows its titular characters, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), as they navigate a world of aftermath. Let it never be said that Marvel leaves its loose threads hanging, as the show opens with establishing what happens after the Blip, when Avengers: Infinity War (2018) baddie Thanos snaps half the universe’s population out of existence.

Endgame is set five years later, and a broken team of Avengers bravely reassembles to plunge back into the fray and bring back the lost. Naturally, in true superhero-movie form, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are ultimately successful and everyone walks happily off into the sunset. But do they really? It’s a question that Falcon grapples with, exploring the bureaucratic hell of a global order trying to deal with a population that has instantly halved, and then doubled again. Wilson is one of the millions who is finding his place again after five years of not existing, while Bucky is struggling with his own identity crisis now that his best friend is no more.

Rogers, after all, never wanted to be a hero.

The man who brought them together, Steve Rogers alias Captain America, is gone, having used a time machine to live out his days in peace and grow old with his true love. Rogers gifted his iconic shield to Sam, hoping he would continue his legacy. Rogers, after all, never wanted to be a hero. Back when he was trying to enlist for World War II, he was just a skinny kid who happened to have an unshakable need to do the right thing – a trait that he took with him once his body was beefed up with super-soldier serum.

Bucky, his best friend from the past, was also turned into a super-soldier, but was brainwashed to be a Hydra killing machine. After years of isolation and reprogramming in Wakanda, the Winter Soldier is unmoored and untethered — at least, until he sees that the Captain America shield and title that Wilson refused have been passed on to someone else.

Wilson, like Rogers, has no interest in being a hero; he’s too busy getting a bank loan to help his sister that is ultimately denied because there is a five-year gap in their financial history. Never mind that he is Falcon, the flying Avenger. In the eyes of the system, Wilson is nothing more than another Black man who doesn’t belong there, just like he feels the shield does not belong to him. Of course, we know that for these very reasons, Wilson is the one true Captain America, not the military, sasta knockoff John Walker (Wyatt Russell) who has usurped the mantle.

But the unknown is what draws Barnes and Wilson together, as they pursue an international group of supersoldier Blip refugees who are wreaking havoc in their quest for “One World, One People”. It’s an odd slogan for a supposed terrorist organisation to rally behind. Led by young firebrand Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), the Flag Smashers believe the world was more open and free during the Blip.

As Wilson notes with the resigned authority of a Black man in America, when things get better for some people, they inevitably get worse for others. He is loath to brand Morgenthau a terrorist even after she kills innocents who get in her way, collaborates with criminal gangs, and nearly shoots him. Again, Wilson proves that Rogers was right to hand him the shield — especially when Walker, in a fit of grief for his murdered partner and pumped up on stolen super-soldier serum, is caught on camera bludgeoning a member of the Flag Smashers with it.

Wilson proves that Rogers was right to hand him the shield.

The blood on Captain America’s shield is a metaphor powerful in its obviousness: the difference between might and right is what defines the hero. The world watches as a symbol of American power and glory is debased, destroying a reputation that is more valuable than any vibranium. It is all of us watching the US start wars on the pretext of human rights, preaching peace while dropping bombs with drones, touting democracy while citizens like Sam Wilson are still second-class. This is the lesson we and Wilson learn from Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumley), a Black Korean War PoW who, presumed dead, is the traumatised sole survivor of a clandestine super-soldier trial — but who could never have been Captain America over the blue-eyed, all-American Rogers.

And this is the lesson that threads through the six episodes of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier: supremacy of any kind has only one path, and it is bound to be bloody. Whether for the ersatz Captain America who thinks he has a greater authority, the global organisations that treat people as resources to be handled, the military who viewed Bradley as a science experiment, or the Flag Smashers themselves.

At one point, super-soldier scientist Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) insists that Morgenthau must be killed as she is a supremacist. It’s the same argument that hounds the X-Men mutants, and it holds no water for Wilson. He sees her point of view, better than Steve Rogers, with his rigid moral code and righteous super-soldier strength, ever could. Zemo points to Rogers as the exception to the rule, the only super-soldier who did not succumb to megalomania.

In the tradition of Captain America, Wilson is stupidly pure and optimistic.

But Wilson isn’t a super-soldier, nor does he want to be. Maybe he doesn’t trust himself to rise above the temptations that come with being more than human, or maybe he sees that there is no such thing as “more” than human. When he saves the day as Black Captain America, he rips into politicians and NGOs for creating a person like Morgenthau in the first place by denying her humanity.

As Wilson warns, there will be other Morgenthaus so long as they are ignored and passed over; so long as they are left out of the rooms that decide their fates. In the tradition of Captain America, Wilson is stupidly pure and optimistic. Unlike Rogers, however, it’s not borne of a rose-tinted view of a better time, when right was right and wrong was wrong. He knows that things are not so black-and-white as “One World, One People”, and doesn’t believe that they should be. People are complex, he acknowledges, and flawed. But they are also equal. It’s a perspective that takes Wilson’s role beyond tokenism, as we realise that he’s not just a substitute for Steve Rogers. He’s the new, Black Captain America.