Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier Crashes During its Landing Sequence

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Anyone who read what I had to say about WandaVision’s finale has some idea of what I have to say here. The Falcon and The Winter Soldier unfortunately commits many of the same sins with its finale that its Disney Plus predecessor did. Both focused on huge flashy spectacle that left story behind a bit. This left the abundance of plotlines still unresolved going into said finales with no room to properly resolve.

Where WandaVision remained satisfying despite a messy finale, however, Falcon and The Winter Soldier seemed to double down on many of the same problems that plagued WandaVision. It had even more unresolved plotlines to deal with, more character arcs to consider, and even sketchier messaging to promote. And where WandaVision is still a perfectly fun and interesting show to watch if you did not enjoy the finale as much as what came before, Falcon and The Winter Soldier retroactively brings down everything that came before.

In the end, as I said after the first episode, I am grateful that WandaVision kicked off the Marvel shows on Disney Plus and not Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

I know it is always a bit much to ask a genre such as the superhero genre to properly explore complicated political and humanitarian themes. This is why most comic properties tend to exist in idealized worlds separate from ours, even if they might bring in locations and issues we recognize. You must be careful going about how deep into real world issues you go, though, because then you start making political commentaries you might not have meant to make.

From episode one, Falcon and The Winter Soldier has flirted with this line by dealing in highly relevant modern-day issues. Racism, refugees, nationalism, imperialism, legacies of exploitation, and authoritarianism have all been central to the story. The middle episodes suggested a sympathy for Karli and the Flag Smashers, with Sam finding himself questioning his loyalties to the GRC and an American history that oppressed his family and black people for hundreds of years.

Going into the finale, the story seemed to have resolved Sam’s side of this while radicalizing Karli into a villain. I held out hope that the finale would not go in the direction I feared with the Flag Smashers from episode 1. Unfortunately, they went even further than I feared.

There is a simple reality to superheroes that inevitably dooms storylines steeped heavily in real world politics; the need to maintain the status quo. Not just for themselves, but the larger audience they are meant for.

The bottom line is that the Flag Smashers cannot succeed. They cannot succeed in convincing the world of the harm of nationalism. They cannot win the fight against the GRC. And we cannot fully sympathize with them because the heroes are never going to fully sympathize with them. Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes were never going to realize how right the Flag Smashers were and side with them against the corrupt white supremacy that causes the imperialism the GRC represents.

Maybe this never becomes a problem if the Flag Smashers are clear villains from the beginning, but that is not what happened. We were clearly supposed to sympathize with Karli and believe she is right on at least some level.

There was a point where John Walker and/or the GRC could have been the villains of the season, when Sam is trying to talk rationally with Karli while the GRC is displacing thousands (millions?) and Walker is murdering people. I at least expected the season to end with Walker as a villain of some kind, even if we can understand the system which creates soldiers like him. I assumed Karli would ultimately be condemned but that Falcon and The Winter Soldier would balance her against Walker and condemn them both.

When the finale instead turned Karli from a sympathetic antagonist into a villain beyond redemption, and then also made John Walker into a full-fledged hero, it stinks. It is a terrible example to set that undermined most of the messaging The Falcon and The Winter Soldier established throughout the season.

In the end, the status quo needed to prevail because Marvel cannot have anti-American freedom fighters as protagonists.

Falcon and The Winter Soldier tried to have it both ways. They tried to be a bit progressive with their messaging while falling back onto defending the system that creates the Flag Smashers. After spending 2 episodes making Karli a murderer beyond redemption, then killing her, they try to use Sam’s speech to somehow undo it all. As if the GRC had just never heard someone tell them “hey, did you ever consider using nicer words and displacing people more nicely?”

It simply does not do enough to cushion the damage done to the conclusions the season wants you to come to before this episode. I think this especially hurts Sam’s decision to be Captain America. I mentioned last week how Falcon and The Winter Soldier almost seemed to want you to question whether anyone should be Captain America. Sam coming to the conclusion he did was clearly meant to symbolize his fight for oppressed communities, who would look to him as a symbol.

Sam chose a side, and it was not the side that was being oppressed. He failed to understand why Karli was radicalized, and the show failed to connect the dots between Karli’s sympathetic early episodes and her more drastic actions later. It focused instead on condemning them while rehabbing Walker.

Having Sam defend the system that oppresses him, work alongside John Walker and help rehab him as a hero, and think that simple speech about being nicer people will solve anything? It is wholly inadequate. It contradicts the implied reasoning for taking the shield up. It is the same unsubstantial effort as convincing people that migrant injustices no longer occur because their lodging is called “housing” instead of “camps.”

If you really want to call out the system represented by the worst of the GRC and John Walker’s crimes, you cannot make them into heroes like this. You cannot turn around and have the heroes working alongside them. You cannot let them go relatively unpunished. What does John Walker actually lose for his crimes? Nothing. He is a hero again, with a new uniform and a new shield. He failed upwards while the Flag Smashers all die. What did the GRC learn? Nothing, just to use nicer words.

And again, I understand that you are not going to have Sam Wilson end this season without being Captain America, and you are not going to have him turn on America. I am in no way suggesting that I expected anything of the sort. But they could have and should have managed a far better balance that suggests Sam will fight for the rights of people like Karli and her people since they very much represent the same crimes that have happened to black people in America.

I absolutely loved the party scene at the end, with Sam and his neighborhood and Bucky all celebrating his rise as Captain America. It is important, and I talked a lot about this for last week’s episode. And I did so because I worried the finale would undermine it the way it has.

The problem is that, in the end, Sam and Bucky and everyone else did nothing to substantively address the problem. I am sure many people saw this tweet and it pretty much encapsulates the problem with Falcon and The Winter Soldier, and superhero stories like this. Because we have to maintain the status quo, these stories can never address the real problem in any real way. Sam becomes the Captain America of the system that oppresses people, and there is no way around that.

I would rather comic stories stay away from explicit real-world subjects if this is the lesson they teach.

Unfortunately, this disappointment spread across almost the entire finale. Bucky again took a bit of a backseat besides a scene confessing to the murder of the son of the old man he hung out with. John Walker is a hero. Valentina was…irrelevant for the most part. Sharon Carter as the Power Broker is laughably boring and uninteresting. I have never cared about Zemo, and of course he gets one more master schemer moment dependent on everyone else in the world sharing one brain cell when it comes to him.

In the end, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was…meh. It was exactly the kind of mediocre superhero special soldier show I thought it would be. This show falls down along the tier of MCU content I will never bother rewatching. And that is a real shame considering it teased more potential than that.

I am happy that Sam Wilson is now Captain America. Whatever else I think of this show, that part is a good thing and needed to happen. I just wish they gave him a better story towards this moment, and one I would want to rewatch again the way I want to rewatch WandaVision or other the best Captain America movies.

Instead, I am glad it is over, and hoping his next adventure does better by him.

Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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