NOTE: This article contains episode spoilers.
Taking place after the events of Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” film, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” follows Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) pursuing a group of anti-nationalist super soldiers called the Flag-Smashers. The duo tries to work independently of Captain America’s replacement, John Walker (Wyatt Russell), who is trying to call all the shots.
The series has been enjoyable, but “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has been a mixed bag on the topic of race. Though the plot carries the usual “good guys vs bad guy” intrigue, the main backdrop is how individuals and society wrestle with the complicated legacy of Captain America.
Race and racism are clear and present subtexts, but the series frequently sends mixed messages regarding what it thinks about these issues. The two characters that highlight this ambivalence the most are Sam Wilson and John Walker.
Sam Wilson served as Steve Rogers/Captain America’s flying sidekick and friend. Rogers passes the baton to the Falcon, but Wilson decides that retiring Cap’s symbolic shield is the right thing to do. Wilson is aware of the discimination African Americans face and how Black people are forced to comport into forms of respectability to preempt anti-Blackness. This is evident in a scene where Wilson says to his sister, “You know I don’t play with these white folks,” assuring her of his preparedness to go to the bank and secure a loan to save their family boat. We also see Wilson experience racism in Episode 2, when the police see Wilson and Barnes arguing. The police stop to make sure that Wilson is not “bothering” Barnes.
In the same episode however, Wilson corrected a young Black kid who called him “Black Falcon,” saying his name was “just Falcon.” Though different viewers may interpret his correction in a variety of ways, I find it odd that the first time Wilson pushes back on being a racialized subject is with another Black person- and a Black child at that. At this point, we don’t see Wilson talk about his experience as a Black man and Black superhero with any of the white characters on the show.
Marvel fans likely already know that Sam Wilson eventually becomes Captain America, but as far as the show is concerned, he sidesteps the elephant in the room about the racial expectations of who gets to become Captain America. For much of the show, what the audience gets instead is Wilson feeling like Captain America’s shield “belongs to someone else.” This is mostly how race is dealt with until Episodes 5 and 6 (more on that below) - racism is clearly real to the characters, but the most biting critiques about racism are left unsaid, the most candid conversations left unspoken.
Another major part of racial subtext found within “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is John Walker. On paper, Walker is qualified for the position: a special ops combat vet who graduated from West Point, testing off the charts in speed, endurance and intelligence. But to be frank, the subtext is that when the government resurrected Captain America, they chose Walker because they felt that America’s symbol needed to be white. The blue-eyed and blonde-haired Walker even gets a Black sidekick, Lemar Hoskins/Battlestar (Clé Bennett), like the original Cap.
Walker knows this, and it is part of the cognitive dissonance he fights against — the tension between Walker’s self-assurance that he earned the shield, while grappling with the fact that he received the title largely due to his ability to fit the mold of what America, and the world, expects him to look like. Over the course of the show, Walker’s humility, for example, his nervousness before being presented to the world as the new Cap, transforms into a sense of entitlement. Walker begins to feel like Wilson, Barnes and others around him should submit to his authority simply because of who he is. Walker ignores Wilson’s suggestions on how to handle the Flag-Smasher’s leader Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), and this same arrogance eventually leads Walker to get whooped by the Dora Milaje, the all-female royal guard of the kingdom of Wakanda.
Captain America has always been a symbol created by and for the United States. But over the course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the stakes grew from saving the country to saving the universe, Cap accepted a much larger role. With the new “Star Spangled Banner Man,” we see a retrenchment back into U.S. interests only. John Walker is a kind of Captain “American First.”
But to “defend” Walker a bit, he was left to wrestle with the legacy that Steve Rogers, the first Captain America, didn’t have to deal with. Rogers escapes most, if not all, the accountability about experiments the government did on Black super soldier Isaiah Bradley. The show doesn’t comment on the stark contrast between Rogers, who went back in time and presumably remained silent during eras like Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement; and Bradley, who was incarcerated and tortured for decades.
It comes as no surprise that Bradley is the first character to make the racial subtext of the series explicit, declaring in Episode 5 that they will never make Captain America a Black man and that any self-respecting Black man wouldn’t want to be him anyway. This leaves Wilson in a bind between honoring Rogers by accepting the job he left him, and the implication that taking on the Captain America mantle would make him an “Uncle Tom.” In many ways, Rogers gets to remain a saint while both Wilson and Walker — to a lesser degree — inherit his sins, and have to reconcile his complicated legacy.
In the season finale, Wilson reconciles these competing ideas and gives a powerful monologue in front of the world’s media:
“I’m black man carrying the stars and stripes. What don’t I understand? Every time I pick this thing up, I know they’re millions of people who are going to hate me for it. Even now, here, I feel it. The stares, the judgment. And there’s nothing I can do to change it. Yet I’m still here. No super serum, no blonde hair or blue eyes. The only power I have is that I believe we can do better.”
It was cathartic to see him say the quiet part out loud about race and racism, and turn the subtext into text. Though his speech carried a tinge of, “we all need to do better” that can be problematic, since those who suffer the brunt of the world’s problems don’t share an equal burden with those who cause them. We see Wilson finally step into his role as the new and true Captain America, and he does so on his own terms- not as a nationalistic symbol, but as a bridge between divides; someone for everyone.
The history of America is complicated, and having a conversation about racism across racial lines is likely to involve a good amount of awkwardness, particularly within the context of an imaginary universe. For its part in current conversations about race, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” tried to insert itself into the narrative without not always knowing exactly what to say.
Joshua Adams is a Staff Writer for Colorlines. He’s a writer, journalist and educator from the south side of Chicago. You can follow him @JournoJoshua