[Ed. note: Major spoilers ahead for The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, episodes 1-4.]
“If you had the chance to take the super-soldier serum, would you do it?” That question comes up a few times in “The Whole World Is Watching,” episode 4 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and it’s meant as a morality test for the characters answering. Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) says no without hesitation, while John Walker (Wyatt Russell) decides to take it, and almost immediately proves he’s unworthy of the power and the Captain America mantle by murdering a man in front of a camera-phone-wielding crowd. His decision leaves Steve Rogers’ shield — an iconic symbol of American exceptionalism — literally stained with blood.
The series’ exploration of whether people can morally seek and use superhuman power reflects a larger issue that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had since the franchise’s inception. For the most part, Marvel’s films and shows have followed Plato’s aphorism, “Only those who do not seek power are qualified to hold it.” MCU heroes largely find their power by accident, or through the benevolence of others, and they often try to abandon it, because they feel unworthy. Mostly, it’s the villains who try to claim power for themselves, often invoking a version of Nietzsche’s slave morality by pointing out that moral qualms about seeking power mostly benefit the status quo, and the dominance of those who already have power.
2008’s The Incredible Hulk features a much earlier disastrous use of super-soldier serum, as Captain Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) uses it to gain an edge in his efforts to capture Bruce Banner (Edward Norton). His decision to further enhance himself with Banner’s blood after losing in a fight with the Hulk has strong parallels to Walker’s decision to take the super-soldier serum after being defeated by the Dora Milaje. Like John, Captain Blonsky is a decorated soldier who would be considered a hero by most standards, but gaining power literally transforms him into a monster.
That theme has stretched throughout the MCU. Like Bruce Banner, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) received his powers accidentally and uses them heroically, while his villains employ technology to gain advantage in an age of gods and monsters. Vulture (Michael Keaton) and Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) are both killers, but they’re compelling villains because they present some solid points. Vulture invokes a blue-collar populism by pointing out how most people have been left behind in the age of heroes, while Mysterio points out the ludicrousness of a high schooler being allowed sole control over a powerful weapons and surveillance system just because he was Tony Stark’s protégé.
Because Peter doesn’t want his power, and would rather try to live a normal life, he’s all too eager to give Stark’s technology to Mysterio. That decision is of course a terrible mistake, because the destruction Mysterio is willing to cause to claim that power proves he’s unworthy to wield it. The same conflict comes up in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, with Sam surrendering Captain America’s vibranium shield to the U.S. government, expecting it will just be put on display. But someone in command decided its symbolic power was too great to be shelved, so they bestowed it on someone unworthy.
A similar dynamic also plays out in Netflix’s Jessica Jones, where Jessica (Krysten Ritter) received her powers after being in a terrible accident. Her adopted sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) believes Jessica is squandering her abilities, so she seeks out the same experimental treatment that gave Jessica her strength. While Trish starts with good intentions, once she starts to gain her powers, she revels in violence. Eventually, she has to be stopped from killing criminals and other perceived enemies. Jessica is self-destructive, but her reluctant heroism makes her more worthy of power than Trish, who seeks it out in the same way she’s always reached for television stardom.
In Black Panther, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) has just as much claim to power as his cousin T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) — he wins the title of Black Panther and the abilities that come with it in ritual combat. Yet while T’Challa feels burdened by the responsibilities of leadership, and worries about how he’ll maintain what his father built, Killmonger revels in his new strength, and seeks to prevent anyone else from usurping him by destroying the heart-shaped herb used to bestow a new ruler with superpowers. He also pushes Wakanda to use its advanced technology to help oppressed Black people around the world, leading to a civil war fought by those who believe the nation’s power should remain isolated.
Yet for all the MCU’s power-hungry villains, there are a few heroes who didn’t get their power through inheritance or accident. Not so coincidentally, these are also the MCU’s most morally ambiguous protagonists. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) join HYDRA because they feel it will help restore order to their country and give them a way to exercise vengeance on America and Tony Stark. They’re bestowed with superpowers through experiments with the Mind Stone, and initially become supervillains, before Pietro heroically sacrifices himself, and Wanda joins the Avengers. Yet the events of WandaVision show that Wanda has no problem with using her power to harm others if it means getting what she wants. The end of the series shows her seeking still more power from the Darkhold, likely setting up a future conflict with Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).
In his own solo movie, Doctor Strange is also an active seeker of power, turning to the mystic arts as a way to regain his wealth, prestige, and skill as a surgeon, following a terrible car accident. He quickly grows impatient with the limits placed upon him by his mentor, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and delves into forbidden texts, repeating the same mistakes as the sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks power so he can be reunited with his dead wife and child. The line between thirsting for power heroically and villainously is pretty thin in this film, where both the Ancient One and Strange break the laws of nature for the greater good, but Kaecilius is condemned for doing the same thing for a more personal goal. That same hypocrisy leads Strange’s fellow sorcerer Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to renounce Strange, setting up Mordo for a likely future role as a villain.
The same contradiction is present in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Tony gets much of his initial power from his father in the form of amazing intelligence and wealth, which he initially uses almost entirely selfishly. He didn’t really want to be a hero until he was kidnapped and invented the technology behind his Iron Man suit in order to help him and a fellow captive escape. The experience changes him, and like Trish, he pledges to use his power to fight bad guys and keep the world safe, but tends to abuse that power, bucking the advice of anyone who dares to suggest he’s going too far.
That leads to him creating the sentient supercomputer Ultron, an act of supreme hubris framed as a beneficent act. Iron Man repeatedly tries to atone for his overreach with big gestures like blowing up all his suits or having the Arc Reactor in his chest removed, but then he quickly goes back to regretting not building up more power. He dies taking the ultimate power of the Infinity Stones for himself to defeat Thanos, an act of sacrifice that cements his unique habit of excusing his restless hunger for power by eventually making noble choices.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) demonstrates that same willingness for self-sacrifice, which convinces Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) that he’s worthy of the super-soldier serum. Steve stands as the greatest example of the righteous use of power in the MCU because of his selflessness. He doesn’t seek the spotlight, he’s chosen for it because of his earnest desire to serve his country.
Which brings us back to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and its exploration of different kinds of hunger for power and agency. In episode 4, “The Whole World Is Watching,” the anti-superhero extremist Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl) argues that the desire to gain superpowers is inherently supremacist. That’s seen throughout the episode, as John Walker claims the super-soldier serum for himself because he feels he needs the power of Captain America to keep up with the demands of the role. Meanwhile, Flag-Smashers leader Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) explains that she feels she and her fellow Blip refugees were in some way chosen to wield the serum’s power to make the world a better place. Actively claiming power in the MCU requires a specific kind of confidence — John and Karli each think they’re more worthy to wield that power than anyone else. But the MCU’s writers have repeatedly implied or outright argued that anyone who actually believes that is likely to be wrong.
Any form of seeking power in the MCU is at least somewhat suspect, and likely to be corrupt and selfish. The most admirable heroes are the ones that have it bestowed on them through fate, or the actions of a wise and benevolent actor. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) points out that the serum never corrupted Steve, and even Zemo acknowledges his goodness, but points out, “There has never been another Steve Rogers.”
And yet there could be. The core conflict between Bucky and Sam throughout The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has been that Steve sought to bestow his power on Sam, and Sam turned it down. Bucky believes in Steve’s flawless moral judgment because he needs to trust his friend’s faith in him to live with the crimes he’s committed. It seems clear that Sam is on a similar path as Peter Parker: proving he’s a hero by turning down power, but then needing to reclaim that same power from a villain. Sam might refuse to take the serum that made Steve Rogers into Captain America, but in doing so, he’s proven he’s exactly the right hero to succeed him.