“He ain’t a Falcon anymore. But he’s still Black.”
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier defined itself in the Marvel Cinematic Cosmos through big ideas and blunt interrogation. Creator Malcolm Spellman made clear, even before the first episode, that his series would grapple with race, heroism, and the dark side of American history. But by episode 4, the Disney Plus series had asked so many questions, it felt like an ethical Mystery Box out of the J.J. Abrams playbook.
Could it actually take a stance in the end? Could any character come out of a situation like Sam’s, in which a soldier fills the role of both Avenger and moral philosopher, with a clearly defined place in the world? Did the world need a new Captain America? Questions, not answers, seemed to be Spellman’s priority, but the ambiguity of the politics bared down on the drama.
In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier finale, “One World, One People,” Sam’s struggle came to an end, although maybe not a conclusion. Episode 6 made room for a classic Marvel Comics reference and, in the spirit of the show, a barrage of other ideas. The episode tried to address all of the issues raised over the season’s run, but the clearest message was directed at Marvel’s most prickly Twitter followers.
[Ed. note: This story contains major spoiler for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode 6.]
Falcon’s new Captain America costume is familiar to Marvel fans
With John Walker out of commission after slaughtering a Flag-Smasher in episode 4, Sam and Bucky spent most of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s fifth hour reflecting on the state of the world while building a boat. Karli Morgenthau’s planned attack on a GRC conference in New York City forced the duo back into action — and forced Sam to suit up with an un-revealed new set of armor. After training with the shield all episode, what was in the box was both obvious and an unnerving twist. Could Falcon really become Captain America after everything that had happened?
The answer was a resounding “yes.” In the opening moments of episode 6, Sam soars into battle with hybrid Falcon-Captain America look straight out of the comics.
How Sam became Captain America in the comics shares at least one similarity with how it has happened in the movies: Steve Rogers was really old at the time. A supervillain had recently neutralized the super soldier serum in Steve’s blood, which not only removed all his enhanced physical abilities but also made him susceptible to all of his 90-odd years of aging. Given his new geriatric body, Steve retired from the field and named Sam as his successor.
With Steve’s blessing, Sam suited up in a new red, white, and blue version of his Falcon armor, and toted along the most iconic symbol of Captain America, his ricocheting shield. One of the first things Sam did as Cap was to disentangle himself from both SHIELD and the United States government, in an attempt to create a more direct line from the American people to himself.
A similar moment happens in the show, albeit with sharper and shorter edges.
Falcon’s thoughts on Captain America are aimed at Marvel fans
Sam doesn’t miss a beat in Captain America mode — the decision to don the stars and stripes of Steve Rogers’ old mantle doesn’t weigh on him for long. As he tells elderly super soldier Isaiah Bradley later in the episode, he wants to keep up the fight for the country he loves.
The U.S. treated Isaiah in the most repugnant fashion imaginable. It’s a country that unleashed John Walker into a battle it didn’t understand. But it’s also a country Sam still believes he can save. The symbol still means something, although no one in the show really reckons with what.
Instead, Sam’s political focus is on a cause beyond himself: the inability of the U.S. government to help those in need. After taking down Batroc the Leaper — the perfect apolitical blockhead for someone now steeped in rhetoric to punch in the face — Sam attempts to talk Karli down from her attack. But as Karli contemplates shooting the hero, one who promised to help her, Sharon Carter (revealed to the audience, but not Sam, to be the Power Broker) takes her out. And that’s that.
The last half of the finale is fully loaded drama, resolved with one of the more intense “It’s time for some game theory” expositional moments in any modern show ever.
Sam carries Karli’s body back to the NYPD agents waiting on the perimeter. There he meets a number of senators behind the GRC program. The Avenger lambasts them for describing the dead girl in his arms as a terrorist. They are the ones who provoked this attack by displacing millions after the Blip. They are the ones who can’t support the struggling class. “These labels — terrorists, refugee, thug — they’re often used to get around the question ‘why?’” Sam opines. “What do you think those people are going to call you?”
What could be a single jab is the opening salvo of a larger no-frills speech:
We finally have a common struggle now. Think about that. For once all the people who’ve been begging, literally begging, for you to feel how hard any given day is, now you know. How did it feel to be helpless? If you can remember what it’s like to be helpless, and face a force so powerful it could erase half the planet, you would know you are about to have the exact same impact. This isn’t about easy decisions.
I’m a Black man carrying the stars and stripes — what don’t I understand?
Every time I pick this thing up, I know there are millions of people who are going to hate me for it. Even now, here, I feel it. The stares, the judgment, and there’s nothing I can do to change it. Yet I’m still here. No super serum. No blonde hair or blue eyes. The only power I have is that I believe we can do better. We can’t demand that people step up if we don’t meet them halfway. You control the banks! Shit, you can move borders. You can knock down a forest with an email, you can feed a million people with a phone call. But the question is: Who is in the room with you when you make those decisions? Is it the people you’re going to impact or is it just more people like you? I mean, this girl died trying to stop you and no one has stopped for one second to ask why. You have to do better, senator, you’ve got to step up. If you don’t, the next Karli will. You don’t want to see 2.0. People believed in her cause so much, they helped her defy the strongest governments in the world. Why do you think that is?
You people have just as much power as an insane god or a misguided teenager. The question you have to ask yourself is: How are you going to use it?
Sam’s perspective on how to help the world seems to stem from his own background: in theory, the U.S. government has its own metaphorical winged jetpack thingy it can strap on and use to save the day whenever it wants. And if it doesn’t, it can just make one. If he, a single mortal man, can jump into action to fight bad guys, the structure we’ve created to protect society should be just as nimble.
It’s a potent point of view, especially after a week where reminders of systematic failure arrived by the hour and incremental justice was served. But the speech may also sound familiar to anyone who’s spent hours doomscrolling on Twitter. Sam has a big-picture idea of what’s wrong with the world and is willing to put the onus on the politicians to undo it. His actual course of action from here on out remains unclear.
Is helping them part of his mission? What is his fight? Who does he work for? What does he intend to do under the alias of Captain America? Is the government his enemy or his ally? Will he bash the next Karli with his shield or aid them in their activist campaign? Is he just going to let John Walker stand there? Was Sharon shooting Karli not a big deal? Will Falcon update CaptainAmerica.com with his new agenda? I want to know more. It’s unclear if we’re getting The Falcon and the Winter Soldier season 2 in order to keep exploring the issues.
If there’s any clear thematic takeaway from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, it’s that Black representation is not a cheap gimmick. Erecting a statue of Isaiah Bradley in the Steve Rogers museum is one way to take actual action in order to preserve the past. In the present, it means allowing a Black man to become Captain America, baggage and all.
Marvel knows what it’s doing, and it’s telling fans: “Every time I pick this thing up, I know there are millions of people who are going to hate me for it.” Send your tweets to the Drafts folder. Don’t bother writing in hate mail. Captain America is Black now, and it’s the new normal. Diversity, inclusion, and thoughtfulness are part of Marvel Phase 4 and beyond.
Now, unlike The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel has to make good on the notion. It’s asked the questions. This one needs an answer. The finale’s after-credits scene promises a second season or sequel movie, and there’s more pressure than ever to deliver it. Just like a set of provocative questions aren’t beliefs until someone acts, there is not a Black Captain America until Marvel gives him a proper place in the MCU.