Friday, April 19, 2024

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier Plays World Police

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Among the many things the initial episodes of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier focused on, the sudden proliferation of super soldier serum seemed to take root as the main conflict. This week’s third episode puts our titular heroes on a journey to the fictional island of Madripoor in search of leads towards the scientist responsible for this new serum, with familiar villains and allies along the way.

Anyone who read my take on the first two episodes of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier knows that I was not the most immediate fan of the show. Does this third episode manage to make me more optimistic? Well…yes and no.

The inspiration for Sam and Bucky’s international tour comes from Baron Zemo, whom Bucky suggested the two of them visit at the end of the second episode. Through his contacts they end up in Madripoor, which is under the control of the same Power Broker that Karli and the Flag Smashers stole serum from. They find the doctor responsible for recreating the serum and with it, a strong reinforcement of the main conflict of the show.

That conflict, of course, being Steve Rogers/Captain America.

From the very beginning, Falcon and The Winter Soldier has made clear that the main conflict for its main characters is coping with the loss of Steve Rogers as Captain America, and how both deal with the legacy of the man and the icon. Sam and Bucky each had their own type of relationship with Steve and the shield that they are trying to work past. They each want to do right by him while also finding a new path in life without him. Both struggle to cope with what Steve’s legacy means to them.

I like creating the main conflict around this new batch of super soldier serum because it does make them directly confront the legacy of Steve Rogers, the icon of Captain America, and the mistakes made in pursuit of that icon.

The main mistake uncovered in this episode was the knowledge that American scientists had taken blood samples from Isaiah Bradley, and those samples were the blueprint upon which the CIA hired Dr. Wilfred Nagel, from whom Sam and Bucky find and learn the truth in Madripoor. Steve Rogers was never the end-all be-all of the super soldier serum, and now there are many of him running around the world.

Let’s be honest; the super soldier serum is basically like another race to the nuclear bomb in the MCU with a dash of the Cold War arms race between America and the Soviet Union. The Nazis and Americans each tried to create it first and the Americans “won” with Steve, in large part due to refugee German scientist. Finding out that Steve’s disappearance during World War 2 just led to other attempts to successfully replicate the super soldier serum makes more sense than absolutely nothing happening.

Now, Sam and Bucky must deal with not just the loss of Steve, but the serum which created him and the history and future of exploitation by those who created him. After all, who knows what kind of people may get the power of a Steve Rogers but with none of his morality and heroism?

This contrast can most directly be seen in the new Captain America. John Walker argues that his methods to stop the Flag Smashers are not important. Results are the only thing that matters. It is this mindset that Steve Rogers avoided whenever possible. If he was going to win, he would win the right way. The methods were everything and made Captain America such an icon.

Sam and Bucky have to deal with this aspect of Steve’s legacy as well. You see it in their opposing opinions on breaking Zemo out of prison. Whether Steve would have done what Bucky did or not kind of does not matter. Sam and Bucky each have their view of who Steve was and what he would do that drives their actions as each try to do right by the man they admired and loved.

Both characters have heavy doubts about their ability to live up to what Steve Rogers expected of them, and I really like how The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is handling their doubts. Bucky has the most obvious doubts, and you can see how easily he slipped back into Winter Soldier mode. I wonder, moving forward, if Zemo is planning to corrupt him back into the person he used to be.

Sam may not be quite as obvious, but it is clear that he has the bigger burden of being expected to live up to Steve’s example as Captain America. No one is asking Bucky to take up the shield. That expectation was placed on Sam, and he is clearly trying to avoid it because he doubts he can meet those expectations.

You can also see this conflict in the Flag Smashers and the Global Repatriation Council. The GRC obviously have the new Captain America on their side, and John Walker is trying to live up to the example Steve Rogers set. On the other hand, does it not sound more like the Steve Rogers we know to take medicine being stashed away in warehouses so it can be used to help the people stuck in GRC camps? I can easily argue that Karli is the character most like Steve Rogers so far.

On one hand you have people who only care about Captain America as the American icon protecting American interests. On the other hand, you have the man behind the mask, who proved he would defy America to do the right thing. Finally, of course, you have those like Baron Zemo who think the super soldier serum and its recipients should never have existed.

It is a fascinating concept, especially if it keeps incorporating a history of American exploitation of black Americans like Isaiah Bradley. This is the good side of the heavy influence the Captain America movies obviously have on the show. Steve constantly dealt with questions of right and wrong and those questions were often the most compelling aspect of his movies.

It’s a shame all of this was wrapped into more of the story of international rogue cops playing outside the rules.

I wrote a while ago about the struggles television will have dealing with cop shows moving forwards. I know a Marvel show is not exactly what people have in mind when they think of cop shows, but The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is an example of how normalized these stories are. This episode, in particular, has Sam and Bucky basically not use their powers and just run around with guns like a Marvel Lethal Weapon.

I know this bothers me more than others, but still. Seeing our heroes wander in and shoot people as if they were obviously justified bothers me, especially when I am then supposed to be troubled by Karli killing a bunch of GRC troops who were denying people supplies while keeping them packed into crappy housing where they end up dying.

And so I spent most of this episode kind of annoyed by Zemo being broken out of prison and the three of them running roughshod over a city, because I figured no real negative consequence would come of all this. The ends would justify the means, contradicting Steve Rogers, and nothing would come of it.

Then Wakanda showed up and my excitement skyrocketed.

Ayo’s appearance at the end of the episode, in search of Baron Zemo, made me more interested in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier than basically anything else in the three episodes up to that scene. Now, I am hopeful that Sam and Bucky will not just breeze past breaking Zemo out of prison. Wakanda would know that Zemo escaped and would not care what reasons anyone had. They would want justice, and I must believe this will lead to a more interesting plot about what consequences will be paid.

I also really, really hope that we learn more about what state Wakanda is in now, and what plans may exist moving forward. What will happen with T’Challa now that Chadwick Boseman has passed away? Who is in charge? Will we get hints towards Black Panther 2? I am managing my expectations, but I hope to get at least some of this.

This scene alone took me from feeling somewhat irritated about a decent spy movie episode to the most excited I have been yet for the remaining episodes of Falcon and The Winter Soldier. At the very least, Ayo’s appearance again lends the MCU a larger, connected feeling that has gone a long way in making the MCU special.

Will The Falcon and The Winter Soldier live up to my new excitement? For the first time, I am looking forward to next week to find out.

Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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