‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Sends the Wrong Message About Being Black in America
The Marvel series finale undermines its own bold stab at systemic racism
Marvel’s series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was doing just fine.
Its initial episodes were action-packed, mature, and solid applications of a couple second-tier characters. The series largely exists because of one funny scene in a car in Captain America: Civil War, and the show has taken great pains to make Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) totally worth getting to know. Alas, the series, now concluded at six episodes and available on Disney+, didn’t stick the landing in its finale.
There are a lot of reasons why this is true. FWS features a lot of characters — five proper villains by my count — meaning there are a lot of narrative threads, which the show sloppily resolves in its finale by reverting to being a springboard for future Marvel projects. Technically speaking, as much as I loved every second of the Dora Milaje cameos, there’s no reason for the Dora Milaje to be there. Their presence is explained, but it serves no point in the FWS story on the table. See also: Sharon Carter. See also: Contessa. See also: racist cops. See, see, see.
The breaking point was Sam’s speech to a group of senators whose lives he’d just saved, an extended monologue about doing better as people and changing the world or some such patriotic thing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using Scared Straight tactics to get a group of senators to do right. The problem here, however, is twofold: Sam believes the things he’s saying actually work on politicians, and Sam actually believes what he’s saying is a viable action plan and not merely aspirational. It’s all very Pollyannaish, which would’ve sounded bad coming out of the old Captain America’s mouth, but when voiced by a Black man rocking American colors in 2021, it’s downright jarring.
The other, more complicated problem with Sam’s cornball speech is that it sets up the greatest backslide in the whole series: It suggests that Isaiah Bradley, a discarded Black super-soldier played flawlessly by Carl Lumbly, was wrong.
Isaiah’s thread is one of the few woven into this patchwork quilt of debates and ideas that truly belongs in a series whose primary goal is to interrogate what it would take to make a viable Black Captain America. As a nod to America’s long and storied history of government testing on Black citizens, Isaiah is a former soldier who was subjected to the super-soldier serum that created Captain America. Being Black, his path was a little different than Cap’s: basically living the life of a covert operative and then spending 30 years being experimented on in prison.
All of this would be the ultimate betrayal of any soldier by their government, but when that soldier is Black, the crime is exponentially worse. Black people’s history with this country is bad enough without attempts through involuntary experimentation to build a better brute. That Isaiah Bradley didn’t use his newfound abilities to destroy the U.S. government is a miracle.
The idea bubbling underneath Isaiah’s story is that America may not deserve and certainly hasn’t earned what a Black Captain America represents. The idea underneath Sam’s actions is that working harder and through adversity defeats racism, which is patently false.
I spoil nothing by telling you that, despite anything else that happens in this series, the point of it all is to set up the Falcon to take on the mantle of Captain America. And honestly, Sam Wilson is the character who should. He’s patriotic to a fault, he doesn’t mind playing second fiddle to a human flag, he never really makes anything about his Blackness, and he’s quick to absolve people of their sins. Frankly, I’m not even sure which way Sam Wilson votes, which makes him a perfect avatar for American exceptionalism (of which, unsurprisingly, he exhibits very little).
Anthony Mackie has always been a little corny around the edges, evidenced by his need to place himself outside not just popular opinion, but actual understanding on issues like gentrification and hiring largely Black crews for Black-led movies. There’s always been something of the rube in Mackie, which makes him the perfect actor to play the Falcon. Only Sam Wilson grows up in New Orleans and thinks the racism built into the banking industry will be different for him. Only Sam Wilson goes off to fight alongside gods and monsters, apparently as a volunteer effort. And only Sam Wilson thinks the fictional passing of a shield-shaped baton is an earnest attempt at healing the country’s race problems.
Comedian Roy Wood Jr. has a joke in which he lays out his logic for why Black superheroes save only Black people. The idea is that White neighborhoods are already stable and safe, so White superheroes have the luxury of saving people in other areas. In the joke, justice — much like crime — largely occurs among the people you’re around. Sam Wilson is the kind of superhero who thinks he can help the hood by protecting the suburbs. He believes in trickle-down justice. And in this day and age, after everything he was raised to know in the South and learned on his journey as a superhero, that makes him a rube.
Isaiah Bradley tells Sam about his tribulations with the military, but he’s really indicting America. And while Sam gets that, he somehow believes what a lot of people in successive generations believe: that they know more than their ancestors. The idea bubbling underneath Isaiah’s story is that America may not deserve and certainly hasn’t earned what a Black Captain America represents. The idea underneath Sam’s actions is that working harder and through adversity defeats racism, which anybody who’s suffering through diversity workshops at their job right now can tell you is patently false. Isaiah isn’t wrong about what it would take to make a Black Captain America acceptable to an actual America, but with a gold statue and a hug, the show treats him like he is.
I take it back: I think I do know how Sam might vote, despite his middle-of-the-road antics. He certainly wants people to be able to marry who they want, and I could definitely see him doing a couple spinning roundhouses on the steps of the Capitol on January 6. At the same time, I doubt you’d find him at many Black Lives Matter rallies.
I don’t fault FWS for threading that needle. It’s a series based on a mainstream comic book, so you expect only so much political animus to win out. Marvel is in the business of selling dreams, not sociopolitical realities. I suppose Marvel should be applauded for the things it managed to bring to the table. Unfortunately, the meal it serves is undercooked, evidenced most by the way Isaiah Bradley’s storyline is resolved. Any version of this show that ends with Isaiah Bradley still not being 100% demonstrably right about America is the wrong ending.