Monday, July 15, 2024

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier Debates the Shield

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The most surprising plot element to develop through The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has been the idea of whether there should even be a Captain America anymore. And it is a good question. What started out as a symbol of the fight against the Nazis (for American troops, anyway) and lived on as a symbol of superheroes as role models and forces for good has taken on an entirely different meaning in this show.

Passing the shield and the costume to John Walker was not the same as passing Steve Rogers’s morals and identity on as well.

With Walker’s spectacular failure to end last week’s episode, he loses the shield and it again comes down to Sam to decide whether he will assume the role Steve Rogers meant for him. By the end, he has made his decision. I think the debate still rages on and will last well beyond the end of Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

This episode dedicates most of its time to Sam’s decision process before deciding he will accept Steve’s shield. After an annoyingly competitive fight where Sam and Bucky take Walker down in the aftermath of last week’s episode-ending murder, Walker is stripped of his title and dishonorably discharged from the military. Sam takes possession of the shield and decides to have a conversation with Isaiah Bradley about his life and the idea of a Black man being Captain America.

He spends the rest of the episode grappling with that question while back home with his sister and fixing his family boat, with a guest appearance from Bucky to try and help him along.

And let’s be honest here. The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has given us so many reasons why no one should be Captain America anymore. Really, the only reason it survived into the modern day is because of Steve Rogers. He was Captain America. Regardless of what America meant to others, Captain America meant something else because he was not a product of modern America. He was his own identity. He consistently served as a role model to everyone and strived to do the right thing regardless of national identity, to the point that he gave the shield up and became a fugitive when he thought it was the right thing.

We saw with John Walker how that is not going to be easy for any successor to Steve Rogers. Any new Captain America carries the trappings of the country they are named for. They will struggle to separate themselves from the system that created them. America never stopped trying to create a new Cap after Rogers, and each time it failed for a multitude of reasons.

At what point should the entire idea just be abandoned?

Sam’s conversation with Isaiah Bradley was especially meaningful and seemed to have nearly convinced Sam to reject the shield a second time. Bradley’s story about rescuing others injected with the super soldier serum quite intentionally resembles the story of Steve Rogers rescuing the Howling Commandos. In both cases you have a super-powered hero who bucks authority in order to help those in need.

One was a white blond man who was rewarded and became one of history’s most iconic superheroes. The other was imprisoned for 30 years, exploited, and erased from history. And it came down purely to race.

We can debate whether Bradley is right about whether the times have changed enough for a Black man to be Captain America or not, but either way there is clearly going to be resistance, and Falcon and The Winter Soldier has consistently brought this up for a reason. There is a reason the military chose John Walker, another white blond man, to take the role.

We all live in the real world. We can see all around us how racial discrimination and white supremacy still infects and controls the power structures of society. Could Sam really decide to be the Captain America of an America that has oppressed Black people for hundreds of years? Could he ever be accepted as such?

I really appreciated Bucky’s confession that Steve told him about the plan to pass the shield to Sam, and how neither of them could truly understand what it meant for a Black man to be Captain America. I think many people ignore that part of the conversation when talking about Sam being Captain America.

So why does Sam ultimately choose to accept the shield? I think because of his time back home, and scenes such as the one where his nephews are caught playing with the shield.

Sam’s conversation with his sister about the idea of running away speaks to his reasoning. You could argue that Sam would make it easy for the white supremacist power structure to erase him and his community if he did not take up the shield. He would likely feel like he is handing them the win by running from the role Steve Rogers meant for him. And yes, that is a crappy thing to have to feel. We all want to do more, and we would if we felt we had the power. It is hard to handle the mental burden of making yourself a target as a popular figure in fights against injustice. History is littered with good people who were ruined or murdered for leading fights against white supremacy.

One of the core ideas behind the very existence of superheroes is that they can be the idols needed to take on the role most people cannot in real life. Americans could not go to Nazi Germany and punch Hitler, but Captain America can. We cannot save that plane from falling out of the sky, but Superman can. They are ideals too look up to.

Sam as Captain America is a role model, an inspiration for kids like his nephews. We may not all be strong enough to stand tall as the target for all the hatred and bigotry white supremacist power structures, but if Sam Wilson thinks he can, then that makes it all the harder for supremacy to erase him and the rest of Black America. Just like fixing that boat makes it that much harder to erase his family.

I can only imagine what writing a story like this means for the many Black writers in the writing room for The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

For all intents and purposes, this episode of Falcon and The Winter Soldier was probably the thematic climax of the season. Next week will be the big spectacle episode wrapping up plotlines.

This one was the episode aimed at bringing everyone to the point of solving their personal conflicts, for better or worse. Sam accepts being Captain America. Bucky seems ready to admit his sins and seek forgiveness a different way. Karli has been radicalized and is going to attack the GRC meeting. John Walker is going to keep being Captain America regardless of whether he has the real shield or not. All these figures will clash in the big Marvel battle that wraps The Falcon and The Winter Soldier up.

And while I have my opinions, good and bad, about each of these plotlines, this episode was about Sam. The main narrative point of the show revolves around whether Sam would follow in Steve Rogers’s footsteps or not. Now he seems ready to, in whatever fashion he believes best.

He will not be another Steve Rogers. There cannot be another Steve Rogers. He can be Sam Wilson, Captain America, though, and I am interested to see what kind of Captain America he will be.

Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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