‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Reminds Us That Black Superheroes Need to Fly Solo

Here’s hoping Anthony Mackie and crew can soar with it

Photo: Marvel Studios

At the end of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, an elderly Steve Rogers passes his mantle as Captain America to his trusted comrade, Sam Wilson. This exchange is more than just figurative; Rogers entrusts Wilson with his iconic shield.

Forged with vibranium from the nation of Wakanda, the shield would now belong to someone whose ancestors were taken from the same continent centuries ago. It was not the only moment within Endgame where a Black hero replaced a White predecessor — the film functioned to resolve multiple disparate storylines and launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) into a new narrative phase — but it was the most significant. As the original Captain America’s arc came to an end, a new one entered the spotlight. For the audience, it was a long-overdue gesture of Black superhero representation.

Sam Wilson, better known as the Falcon, made his cinematic debut in Captain America: Winter Soldier. For years he existed alongside Captain America as his counterpart — essentially the norm for Black superheroes. Save for Black Panther and his fellow Wakandans, sidekick status has been all but the default for Black characters in the MCU. War Machine, Monica Rambeau, Baron Mordo: the list goes on.

That’s all expected to change with the arrival of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+. While it was intended to be the first original MCU series on the platform, Covid-related shooting delays meant that Wandavision beat it to the punch. Still, the new series is an ambitious effort by Marvel, especially with all a Black Captain America represents now.

The series will draw inspiration from a recent comic arc wherein the original Captain America was forced to retire, and Falcon picks up the shield. As Marvel’s first African American hero within Marvel — Black Panther is technically African — Falcon’s promotion represented a pivotal moment that stemmed from a more significant attempt to diversify the comics.

Falcon has existed within the comics since 1969, often used in the early years to address racism with a comic spin. During this time, he was shown fighting White supremacists and a paramilitary group. It drew criticism from some conservatives and Marvel fans who felt real-world matters had no place within the comics, even though many iconic heroes were often shown fighting racism, like Black Panther taking on the Ku Klux Klan. Falcon taking on the role of Captain America would send the largest message on race in the MCU to date.

In the days leading up to the show’s release, the stars and team behind The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have said they didn’t want to shy away from controversial topics. Kevin Feige, the public maestro of the Marvel films and TV shows, says Falcon’s arc will be grounded within his experience as a Black man. Actor Anthony Mackie, who portrays Sam Wilson, has recently discussed his ties to Chadwick Boseman and how he wants to continue Boseman’s representation with Black Panther.

But how far is Marvel willing to delve into race? ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ wants to tackle the issue in a way that makes sense to the established universe, which is somewhat puzzling: Except for a handful of remarks scattered throughout the films, there’s no significant mention of race within the MCU.

This stands in contrast to the early days of the MCU, where the films received criticism for having three White actors named Chris but not enough screen time for the Black heroes. It didn’t help that the old CEO of Marvel Entertainment allegedly said that nobody would notice when Don Cheadle replaced Terrence Howard as War Machine — because all Black people “look the same.” The success of films like Black Panther and Captain Marvel has undoubtedly made a convincing financial argument for better representation and emboldened the studio to push toward this new direction.

But how far is Marvel willing to delve into race? It seems like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wants to tackle the issue in a way that makes sense to the established universe, which is somewhat puzzling. Except for a handful of remarks scattered throughout the films, there’s no significant mention of race within the MCU. In a universe of aliens, magicians, gods, and other imaginary beings, dealing with everyday microaggressions and discrimination is probably not high on the list of priorities. Without any previous indication of how race factors into the lives of such characters, it seems like a superficial pass. The writers room will have to justify how racism suddenly became a “thing” within the series — an enormous and unenviable task.

There’s also the problem of proper representation for Black superheroes within the MCU. The series marks the first time a Black hero has emerged from the shadow of their main counterpart and is allowed to be a headliner. Even with his story taking the stage, Falcon has to share co-billing with a White antihero. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seems to draw inspiration from the buddy cop genre, where it’s commonplace to pair a White and Black character to explore cultural differences. That approach is a fraught one; in that trope, Black characters are usually constructed as sidekicks who function only to educate their White counterparts on such differences. If a character like Falcon is not allowed to exist independently, is this a repeat of the same function from the comic’s early days? The concept could work in execution, but it’s a shame the series already seems to undercut the star power of its Black superhero.

Marvel’s push for diversity and moving away from its staple of White superheroes is certainly welcome. But it remains to be seen if the franchise can handle such a nuanced topic as racism. Black Panther tackled this to some extent by rooting itself in conversations around the Black diaspora. The Netflix series Luke Cage — which is no longer considered MCU canon by the main franchise — had mixed results with somewhat dated ideologies. And both were built around mostly Black casts.

Outside of Falcon’s sister’s seemingly confirmed casting, it does not appear to be the case for his series. To experience an MCU series with an African American hero as the lone star, viewers will probably have to wait a year for Dominique Thorne in Ironheart or perhaps Don Cheadle in Armor Wars. (Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Marchine is expected to make a cameo in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.)

For now, Marvel has placed a heavy responsibility on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Here’s hoping Anthony Mackie and crew can soar with it.

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