Disney’s Falcon & Winter Soldier Has to Explore Race and Captain America’s Legacy

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan as Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes in Captain America: Civil War.
Image: Marvel Studios

Now that they’ve done their part to save the universe in Avengers: Endgame, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes are packing up their gear and jetting off to Disney+ to star in their own miniseries. Falcon & Winter Soldier is sure to give the duo an interesting space to define themselves as Avengers in a post-Endgame MCU. But the larger picture of Sam, Bucky, and Steve Rogers’ lives makes the series a choice opportunity to explore the MCU’s social and political climates in important ways.

Endgame leaves Sam and Bucky at a crossroads as they reunite with an unexpectedly old Steve Rogers, who took a detour through the Quantum Realm and spent an unspecified amount of time somewhere nice where he could mind his own old-man business in peace. As happy as Sam is that Steve’s finally had the chance to live the full life he’s always deserved, he admits that he doesn’t like the idea of a world without Captain America, to which Steve responds by giving Sam the shield, and implying that he should be the next person to embody everything it represents.

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In Endgame, the scene is both moving and slightly…odd. For some reason, Sam looks over at Bucky, as if to ask his permission in accepting the Captain America mantle from Steve. As much as people may like shipping Bucky and Steve or the idea of Bucky taking up his retired friend’s work, the Avengers would have one hell of a time trying to explain to the world why a former Hydra sleeper agent was now the team’s resident patriot. Sam being Steve’s successor not only makes sense given previous events in the MCU, but it also parallels one of the more recent arcs in Marvel’s comics, where Sam becomes Captain America after a super soldier serum-less Steve becomes elderly.

Sam Wilson, Captain America.
Image: Carlos Pacheco, Stuart Immonen, Mariano Taibo, Wade Von Grawbadger, Dean White, Veronica Gandini, and Marte Gracia (Marvel)

In the comics, Sam spends his earliest days as Captain America learning the very familiar, yet somewhat different ropes that come along with bearing the shield. For a time, he carried on in Steve’s example of embodying an idealized, almost mythic kind of American heroism that made his stories feel somewhat uninspired. But that began to change in Nick Spencer’s Sam Wilson: Captain America, where Sam has an ideological split with Steve and the rest of SHIELD over what kind of justice Captain America is supposed to champion.

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Sam Wilson: Captain America was marked by Sam’s decision to take a decidedly liberal political stance in the public eye, a move that revealed just how easily and quickly it was possible for many people to question and invalidate Sam’s status as the Captain America. But in the same way that Captain America as an idea has always been bigger than one man wearing the stars and stripes, the way that Sam’s validity as Captain America was challenged was bigger than any simple interrogation of just his politics.

Like Pvt. Isaiah Bradley before him, Sam was a black Captain America, but unlike Bradley, whose horrific origins were kept secret before being forgotten to history, Sam had the opportunity to truly define Captain America as both an identity and a platform befitting the country as it exists today. Of course, there were villains and heroes alike in Marvel’s comics who didn’t take kindly to Sam as the all-new, all-different Captain America, and unsurprisingly, real-world conservatives also took issue with a black character telling white characters to kick rocks.

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The degree to which racism explicitly factored into Sam’s trials and tribulations during his time as Captain America varied from arc to arc. But his being a black man was, and continues to be, a core part of what made those Captain America stories an important part of Marvel’s history, because of how they fit into the larger way the character’s been handled over the years.

Soon after Sam first became Captain America, Rick Remender, Stuart Immonen, and Wade Von Grawbadger’s All-New Captain America addressed a particularly convoluted, racist retcon of Sam’s origins that was first introduced in Captain America #186 back from 1975. In the classic issue, it’s revealed that the Red Skull used the Cosmic Cube to manipulate the memories of “Snap” Wilson, a stereotypical gangster depicted as a pimp in one panel, in order to turn him into the kind of respectable, upstanding citizen Captain America would one day trust. The Red Skull explains that his ultimate plan was to reveal the truth about Sam’s past to Steve in order to hurt him—and while the revelation has all sorts of consequences for Sam himself—the “Snap” persona became a strange part of Sam’s past that went largely unexamined for years.

Charitably taken at face value, you could see Snap as writer Steve Englehart’s misguided attempt to tap into the same kind of Blaxploitation era energy that’d given birth to Luke Cage just a few years before. But a dimmer view sees the plot twist as a fleshing out of Sam’s character that knowingly relies on radicalized, negative stereotypes that have aged progressively worse as time’s gone on, which is why few writers attempted to reckon with it.

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All-New Captain America acknowledged the Red Skull’s manipulation for the racist treachery that it was and re-established Sam’s origins as a mild-mannered social worker from New York. But there’s only so much that a single retcon can do to unmake that kind of aspect of a character’s history that, while unimportant, was able to just exist in the ether for decades while other characters underwent countless reinventions to help them better fit into contemporary stories.

The Red Skull explaining his manipulation of Sam’s past.
Image: Frank Robbins, Mike Esposito, Marv Wolfman (Marvel Comics)

The circumstances of Sam becoming Captain America in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe are drastically different than the comics, but the development is significant all the same because it comes at a time when this franchise is meant to be changing, from both within and from the outside. With the first main phase of the MCU out of the way, a new, more diverse generation of heroes are being elevated to positions of prominence in films and series like Falcon & Winter Soldier.

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But in order for these projects to really feel like thoughtfully-crafted narratives, they have to address some of the more evident realities their characters are dealing with. In this instance, it’s the fact that old white Captain America’s out of the game and Sam’s ready to make the title his own. What exactly does that mean to the character and the world around him? How might his experiences running around in red, white, and blue be different from his predecessor’s?

Unlike the comics’ Steve, who (because of comics’ inherent resistance to acknowledging how time passes) has always essentially been an active part of the larger world, the MCU’s Captain America is an almost mythological part of American history who’s only recently returned to the public eye. Up until his awakening in the present, the MCU world really only knew Captain America as a larger-than-life historical figure who punched Nazis, and after joining the Avengers, he only went on to become that much more of a symbol as opposed to just a guy from Brooklyn. Even if someone in the MCU knew little to nothing about Steve’s life aside from his brief career doing public service announcements, they know the basics about Captain America: big smile, big shield, always been white.

But he isn’t anymore, and people are going to notice.

Falcon & Winter Soldier’s title makes it obvious that, at least at the beginning of the series, Sam might not yet be dead set on strapping on the shield, suggesting he’s got some soul searching to do before he starts calling himself “Cap.” But as he does, Falcon & Winter Soldier can and should use his journey to explore just what a black Captain America would mean for the world.

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