As well as delivering the buddy cop style comedy set in the MCU that most people expected from Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the series also took a deep dive into race, the in-universe and real-world complications of a black Captain America (why that doesn’t matter to Sam), and a fascinating examination of the Legacy of Captain America, and Steve Rogers.
The opening episode of the series shows that after Avengers: Endgame Steve Rogers not only left the shield to Sam Wilson but a legacy of inspiring American values throughout the world for decades. The museum display (which we’ve seen before, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) has been updated to further celebrate Steve Rogers, his accomplishments, and his sacrifice.
Sam gives up the shield, to be part of the museum display, as he doesn’t feel like it’s his, but also, as we learn later in the series, the complications of a black man becoming Captain America are very real and present for Sam.
The first element of race playing as big of a role as it does in the series comes at the end of the first episode, where shortly after Sam gave up the shield, and was told by the Senator that he was doing the right thing – that same Senator introduces John Walker as the new, once again white, Captain America.
Through Walker, we get a character, given too much responsibility, and unable to live up to the idea of Captain America, perhaps primarily due to his own standards of who Cap should be, rather than anyone else – it’s Walker that pushes himself over the edge.
And yet he was given this role as a beacon of hope for the world, as the new Captain America that almost no one (you know, other than Sam) could live up to.
There is so much that went into Walker’s characterisation, from him already begin an elite solider at the top of his game with medals and honours – to his sidekick is being Lemar Hoskins. It’s the show saying (without saying) that according to the Global Repatriation Council (the GRC) although a black man can’t be Captain America, he can be a sidekick to the white hero.
Before getting to Walker vs Sam, looking back at comparing Walker to Steve Rogers, Walker is basically Hodge from Captain America: The First Avenger – he’s not a bad person, not at all, – he’s a solider, and a good one – he’s just not right for Captain America.
To make things worse for Walker, he himself puts the mantle of Captain America on a pedestal, he knows what people expect from him, and knows he can’t achieve it, and so his defeats and losses (in his mind) force him into using the super solider serum, so that he can be the best version of Captain America possible – to him, the serum is what will make him Cap, not how he acts or who he is.
Proving how much power Walker puts into the mantle and the title of Cap is the opening of Episode 5, Truth, where it takes both Falcon and Bucky literally breaking Walker’s arm to get the shield away from him.
Steve threw down the shield when what it represented no longer fit with his ideals, Sam gave it up to the government when he thought that was the right thing – but Walker would rather fight to the death than lose it – because of what it, or at least what he thinks, it represents.
In fact, Walker’s redemption doesn’t come until late in the final episode, where after ignoring a burning bus full of people to fight Karli and the Flagsmashers – he eventually comes to some sense and when given the choice between continuing the fight with the shield and saving the people, he does make the right call – and literally throws away his new homemade shield to do it.
That is him accepting that he isn’t Captain America, and never will be, but he can be something else.
One of, if not THE most, interesting people to look at the legacy of Captain America, and specifically Steve Rogers, through is Isaiah Bradley.
In the comics Isaiah Bradley is another part of the Project Rebirth Program orchestrated by Weapon Plus (where Captain America was Weapon 0, and Wolverine is Weapon X – and I am still very upset we didn’t get more of a hint at this in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) – there Isaiah is part of the initial attempt to recreate the serum, and is one of several African American soldiers that is experimented on – as seen in the comic Truth: Red, White & Black
In the show, Isaiah was locked away once he was the only remaining member of his squad and experimented on for years, while publicly he was hidden, and his wife died.
Bradley tells Sam that he defied orders and broke into an enemy prison to save his fellow soldiers and that his reward was being experimented on. This brings the direct comparison to Steve Rogers, who did the same thing during World War II and was instead given free reign to take down HYDRA.
Through Bradley, we can see the racism and politics behind who Captain America is and can be. He says that no self-respecting black man would be or would want to wear the shield, because of the legacy of what it represents.
Through Isaiah, we also see that, despite Steve Rogers being turned into Cap to fight the Nazi’s, he was still the perfect Aerian specimen, a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed man, who fit with that era’s ideals of a hero.
Now getting into the two stars of the show, and the two people who actually knew Steve Rogers as Captain America. Bucky’s relationship with Steve’s legacy is complicated, and although it takes a while he eventually explains to Sam why he resents him giving away the shield.
And it’s Bucky’s fears about his past and who he s now are at the root of it. He worries that if Steve was wrong about Sam being the one to become the next Captain America, then maybe Steve was also wrong to believe that Bucky could change and become something more.
To Bucky, the shield represents much more than this mythical idea of a superhero like Captain America. It represents his best friend, the man he grew up with, a man who also grew up in the ’30s and ’40s and is now in the modern-day, and a man the at risked everything to save Bucky.
Bucky was the first person to call Steve “Captain America” in a real way, back in the First Avenger after Steve broke Bucky and the Howling Commandos out of the Hydra facility.
So to Bucky, the shield represents everything he’s lost, everything he’s done, and everything he might do.
Ultimately the show sees Bucky realise that he is the Winter Soldier (which is why the altered title at the end still has Bucky as “The Winter Soldier”, and that after making amends he can come to terms with who he is and what he’s been made to do… Steve wasn’t wrong about him, and now he can move forward and be the hero Steve thought always thought he could be.
Of course, the most important part of how The Falcon and the Winter Soldier looks at the Legacy of Captain America is how it moves forward.
Like Bucky, Sam knew the real man behind the shield and was great friends with Steve as well as a key ally to Captain America.
But unlike Bucky, Sam was given the shield, and with that an expectation, a pressure, and a decision.
The opening episode shows Sam and Rhodey discussing the legacy of Cap, and what the shield means. It gives us an important early look at where the show is headed, with two black military men, who understand the complications and politics behind what Sam wants to do, and what he feels he has to do.
After Sam learns about Isaiah he is outraged that a black super soldier was hidden from the world. The scene and resultant argument is underlined by the police showing up and assuming that Sam is in the wrong and that Bucky is being harassed, based on nothing but their skin colour.
Sam’s next conversation with Isaiah sees Bradley say that no self-respecting black man would, or would want to, wear the Captain America shield – to him the legacy of abuse, discrimination, and inequality it represents is too much.
But importantly, this conversation is followed by another with Sam’s sister Sarah, who basically tells Sam that he can’t let Isaiah’s jaded views dictate his actions.
Further outlining the conflict Sam has, he struggles between the racial inequality he has experienced, things like Isaiah Bradley’s treatment, the legacy of who Captain America is supposed to be, which he has seen John Walker struggle with and ruin, but also knowing the man Steve Rogers, who he was, what he believed, and who he thought Sam could be.
And ultimately the whole show comes down to Sam’s struggles with whether or not he can or should be Captain America, and in the end, why he has to be.
But the important note is that it’s for himself that he has to do it.
It’s not because of anyone else’s expectations or motivations (if anything it’s directly in spite of those people) it’s because he can make a difference, and so he will.
The icing on the cake to Sam’s journey is a perfectly Captain America speech, where Sam makes it clear that he is Captain America, and he knows some people won’t be happy about that, but they can’t stop him fighting for what he believes in, for his country, and what is right.
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