Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Falcon And The Winter Soldier (2021)

The last time we saw Sam Wilson in Avengers: Endgame, his story had shifted monumentally. After Thanos was defeated, Steve Rogers returned the Infinity Stones to their timelines. He also returned in his 100s, having been happily married to his long lost love for decades, to pass the Shield to Wilson. While Bucky Barnes had worked on his trauma as The Winter Soldier, he could continue starting over. Not much else was known about their future except that they were meant to work, fight, and annoy each other to our delight in their own Disney+ series. 

But one question stuck in the back of mind - What happens when you already know the endgame?

Spoilers for the Marvel Cinematic Universe including Agent Carter, the general Marvel Cinematic Universe, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are below. I'm sorry it's another long-ass post. This is just another example of my writing meltdown. Skip to the 'Basically' part at the end if you want. Otherwise, *Cap salute*.

Marvel wasted no time answering the question. Just because the original Avengers were gone, it didn't mean the newer players would be cut any slack.

Wilson (Anthony Mackie) acceptance to be Captain America implodes with self-doubt. He hands the Shield to the Smithsonian, only to see Homeland Security give it to another veteran John Walker (Wyatt Russell). Bucky (Sebastian Stan), on the other hand, was given a pardon for his crimes as The Winter Soldier but remains on parole and in counseling. As the world continues to rebuild, a group of refugee-vigilantes led by Karli (Erin Kellyman) aim to return society to the way it was during The Snap – one world, one government. Wilson and Barnes inevitably team up to stop the Face Smashers as Walker is on their tail trying to make a new name for himself.

Given that Wilson never had a lengthy backstory in the Captain America / Avengers films, I was excited for The Falcon and The Winter Soldier to finally deliver his origin story. How his arc would start wasn't left up in the air. In the months leading up to the series, the cast began retracting how Endgame concluded and playing with the tease that Wilson's journey might not end as the new symbol of hope. It left me perplexed as to why the series would retract his progress only to build it back up again.

Things became clearer in the beginning before the show began. Power That Be Kevin Feige promised The Falcon and The Winter Soldier would explore what it would mean for a Black man to become Captain America. With Sam giving up the Shield from the get-go, Marvel made room for this approach. The general version of star-spangled man as the typical white male image of patriotism contrasts and goes hand-in-hand with the United States’s history of oppression against the Black community. If Marvel wanted to finally address real issues, now is the time.
Wilson doubling down on not becoming Captain America going to be the "in" for the show as a contrast between him and the other white male characters - namely Walker. Where Wilson was denied a bank loan by a white accountant who only wanted a selfie, had to depend on goodwill of Samaritans for help (because the Avengers aren’t paid government employees), rely on his leadership abilities to earn people’s allegiance, was immediately treated with hostility by cops vs handling Bucky with kid gloves for violating parole…Walker was given the opportunity to be Captain America with zero experience as an Avenger required. He was entitled to Wilson and Barnes to help him because he was a generally nice guy, and had friends in high places at his beck and call. Where Wilson operated on his own against the Flag Smashers despite the Accords still in action, Walker decapitated one of the Flag Smashers with the Shield as the entire world watched and only had his title of Captain America revoked - Homeland Security didn’t recommend a court martial due to his military service.

Despite sacrificing their lives in the military to keep the world safe, the privilege, entitlement, rewards, and connections mostly came in handy for the latter white characters, not the former Black characters. Even though he's in hiding and has no power whatsoever to defeat a new army of super soldiers, another parallel pops up between comic book figure Isaiah Bradley to Steve Rogers. Where Bradley was forced to become a test subject, broke out of his cell to save his fellow comrades from an attack, and ended up being imprisoned for 30 years, Rogers was hand-selected for the serum, rescued soldiers from The Red Skull, and went on to become a war hero. Where Bradley missed out on a happy ending with the love of his life and could only escape his hell by a nurse declaring him dead to hide in the shadows of Baltimore, Rogers had the freedom to rejoin a squad to protect the world and then meet back with the love his life. Where Wilson and Bradley walked on eggshells, Walker committing cold murder only gained him another job - no prison, no being declared dead, no need to run and hide from the public or the U.S. government.

In a roundabout way, Erskine's creed about the serum came to life in other ways - the white male characters who know power all of their life lose respect for that power, while Black characters and characters of color know the value of strength and compassion. Wilson had to start knowing that he didn't have to be a perfect soldier but a good man, where as Walker could believe he was both no matter how many mistakes he made because the system is designed to uphold that.

me through episodes 2-5

With Walker leading the pack of supporting characters showing what Wilson's capable of, the odd impact of the show becoming an ensemble is that it started to gradually lose nuance. While there's nothing wrong for characters to be the means to an end for a hero-in-the-making, the conflicts here were unremarkable and flat.

Walker was the closest the series had to a villain, but…. All he had to do was stand with the Shield for a millisecond in the premiere, and the haters came after Wyatt Russell in droves. He was our basic white American male – a football jock, a respected military man, and a guy who liked to punch his way out of problems. Did we hate him because of what he eventually did with the Shield, or that he got it in the first place? It might be both. But the aura of toxic masculinity hung in the air around him, and over time, his motivations just weren’t all that deep. You could read between the lines of differences between Wilson and Walker, but the show didn't go further than that.

Other villains received similar treatment. Karli aims to turn the world back to the way it was before the Blip. Her arc of radicalization  strengthens from stealing supplies to blowing up government stations without remorse. Somewhere along the way her crew stole the super serum to piss off the Power Broker and hold it as leverage. In a way, she was supposed to be another version of Rogers - standing up for the 'little people' like her. Most of the plot just trailed her tactics all over the world to dead-ends until she  showed up in NYC to kidnap members of the GRC. And, Wilson's willingness to side with her didn't give her much of an edge as an actual villain. 

More supporting characters served as cameos or loose Marvel tie-ins for phase 4: Sharon Carter as the Power Broker - on her way to rejoin the U.S. Government and exploit its secrets (whose identity was about as subtle as a bull in a china shop); that Nagle guy creating the serum; her henchman Bactroc turned out to be her lackey; Walker’s new boss Val (cameo by Julia Louis Dreyfus) is ultimately left up to Phase 4.

By far the best inclusion was Baron Zemo (and the Dora Milaje.) Barnes breaks him out of prison to help them track down where the new super soldier serum is created and destroy the possibility of more super-powered individuals taking over. Even after escaping his prison, his wealth is there to cushion the fall and keep him off the radar. He ends up giving Barnes an ultimatum to turn him in to Dora Milaje or re-activate The Winter Soldier and kill him. It’s a good moment that lets Barnes’ do the right thing for his mental health…(even though Zemo as conduit of therapy is an odd choice given that Barnes’ beef with Tony Stark was never mended.), and he has a fair amount of solid intentions and entertaining scenes that don't get lost in all the other subplots.

There were great action scenes sprinkled throughout, but at every turn a villain could be unsympathetic, Wilson softened the blow by treating Karli like she's Joan of Arc, chastising government officials for (rightfully) labeling The Flag Smashers as terrorists, and letting Walker's redemption as a hero pass. Too much of the plot strung Wilson and Barnes around from place to place to find one loose end after another. Everyone was written so neutrally over time they lost their edge. It reached a point that it felt like Wilson had more understanding of the would-be villains…than Barnes and even Steve Rogers.

The question I asked myself writing this post

Legacy is a heavy theme throughout the series - how those in power abuse it, those who have been oppressed will rebuild a fractured history. From the beginning, at the Smithsonian ceremony, Wilson points out that "symbols are nothing without the people who give them meaning. I don't know of a greater symbol. But it's more about the man who propped it up." Unfortunately, as noble as it sounds, the show has a tough time separating Steve Rogers from the symbol of Captain America.

As Walker taints Cap's legacy, we're shown how the system that buries Wilson and uplifts Walker as well as blending Rogers's overall whiteness into the U.S.'s white male idolatry. We're reminded of how Steve isn't perfect either. Let us not forget - he almost killed Tony Stark in the exact same way that Walker murdered the Flag Smasher. And, as white men Barnes and Rogers couldn't know the burden they were giving to Wilson when they handed him the Shield. But we're never truly led to believe that Wilson's initial rejection comes from a soured relationship with Rogers over his privileges.

When Rogers's absence is addressed, he's portrayed as either clueless (about what Wilson left behind  and Bradley's existence) or his agency in Endgame is dismissed. Even though Wilson relinquishing the Shield is his main emotional conflict, Barnes is the only one who pursues talking about it until he just comes up to the conclusion himself. Bradley's experiences prompts Wilson to reconsider, but after Wilson gives up the Shield, he's not in a rush to get it back either. Hell, he's more adamant about fixing his sister's boat rather than the series building on the loss of Steve Rogers and the Shield. When Wilson and Barnes finally have a heart-to-heart about Rogers, he ends telling him it doesn't matter what Steve thought about them. Sure, they have to move on. That can't use someone who is gone as their baseline of validation. But what's the point of their arcs if Rogers belief in the both of them to do their best? Which is all that I think Barnes believed and was rightfully upset about. Wilson did throw away the Shield like it was nothing and the series only underscores that by neglecting the meaning behind Rogers's gesture in Endgame. It's almost as if the series equates Rogers as Walker-esque by ignoring the trio's bond, and that's pretty depressing.

The lack of emotional insight to Rogers also applies to Wilson and Barnes. Wilson spent several years fighting alongside Steve, yet his arc regresses as if he was never in the military, let alone gained experience with the Avengers. Wilson is too much of a natural born leader for it to go waste counselling all of the supporting villains. And Rhodey's involvement limited to a cameo truly neglected using him as a foil against Bradley's experiences and using it to show how much Wilson becoming Captain America would make a huge difference for their community. Beyond reading between the lines between Wilson and Walker, too much of Wilson's arc is insular to feel like he overcomes a deep-seeded doubt about his abilities.  

It's also wasteful that half of Barnes' arc towards redemption was cut. To make amends in therapy, he has to not do anything illegal, don't hurt anyone, and make sure the person knew he isn't the Winter Soldier anymore. We learn early on that TWS killed a young man who turns out to the son of Barnes’s friends. Throughout the series, we're led to believe that Barnes will make amends. But when this concludes in the finale, the scene is completely inter-cut from the episode. For a character that has had to deal with 90 years of brainwashing violence, we don't get a sense of the trauma Barnes has been through - (thank heavens for Wakanda flashback). He sustains his overall through-line with Zemo, but the show cuts corners with his other arc too much.  #makeitmakesense

when i tell you i lost my g'damn mind here

In contrast, the spin-off series Agent Carter handles Rogers’ disappearance with more tact. Set one year after Captain America: The First Avenger, Peggy Carter works at the SSR in New York and is hired by Stark to help clear his name during a government investigation. There’s no shortage of misogynistic agents who minimize her as Rogers’s whore. But Carter’s motivations for earning her male co-workers’ respect isn’t because Rogers respected her – it’s because she knows her value separately from what anyone else thinks of her and holds onto it. Her memory of him only spurs her on to be a better person and stand up for what they both believe in. 

Ironically, as white-washed as Marvel is, Wilson’s agency has been a source of power for him. Wherever Roger’s missions led and he told Wilson he didn’t have to come along, Wilson chose to be up for the challenge no matter what. Granted, his arc was always tethered to his white friends and allies telling Wilson what to do- only for him to “stand like a tree, and tell the world, ‘No, you move.’” Wilson donning his Wakandan-upgraded suit – complete with all of Steve’s super soldier serum skills and then-some - snapped, even if he's spouting a Pollyannish yet brutally honest speech about the-powers-that-be needing to do better. But I wish that the series didn't circle back to what we already knew from Endgame - Sam Wilson's now Captain America and Barnes will be right alongside him.
“If Steve's Captain America is a symbol of a great country pushing forward — then let Sam Wilson's Captain America have been a reminder of the people it's leaving behind." - Captain America: Sam Wilson Vol 1 21

No comments:

Post a Comment