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Julie Vrabelová

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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is an ethical mystery box

What the Marvel show is “about” is getting fuzzier

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Whereas WandaVision spent week after week unraveling a lore-heavy mystery, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has devoted itself to questioning the superhero industrial complex. The politics are messy for the sake of entertainment: Sam Wilson, a Black veteran facing the micro and macro injustices of the moment, judges domestic policy while strapping on marine-grade combat tech in order to conduct his own vigilante investigation. (Marvel’s history of partnerships with the U.S. military adds a meta-layer to the confusion.) Bucky, having murdered countless people — including Tony Stark’s parents — is back up to his old tricks despite being court-ordered to stand down. In episode 3, the pair broke Baron Zemo, a vengeful terrorist who previously killed King T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War, out of prison. Now he gets his own hourlong dance video.

Throw in the Flag-Smashers, the history of experimentation on Isaiah Bradley, the PTSD-stricken war vet John Walker donning Captain America’s costume, and the systematic failure of the Global Repatriation Council, created post-Blip to help those displaced by Thanos’ snap, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier stands as one of Marvel’s most complicated stories yet. But the ambition of it all has yet to stabilize: Four episodes in, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels like the Age of Ultron of asking big questions about the soul of America. Ideas explode at every turn. Questions are asked, then hand-waved away until next week. Injecting this level of big-thinking into a series as mainstream as a Marvel TV show is powerful in its own right, but the endgame is unclear. When does “thought-provoking” become meaningful?

The show is thought-provoking, even when it’s lost in its own case-making. For creator Malcolm Spellman, asking but not answering may have been the point. As he told Polygon at the top of the season, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was designed to be confrontational, particularly over how Sam’s race complicates his role in the post-Steve Rogers universe. In the first episode, The Falcon passes on the chance to become the “New Captain America,” handing over the shield to John Walker. “As a Black man, is it even appropriate to have that symbol?” Spellman asked out loud in our interview. “That symbol means something very different in Sam’s hands than it does in Steve’s.”

[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for the most recent episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.]

Written by Derek Kolstad (of the John Wick franchise), The Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode 4, “The Whole World Is Watching,” expands the question of who deserves the Captain America mantle beyond Sam’s own internal struggle to the notion of heroism in modern times. With Sam, Bucky, Zemo, John Walker, and Karli Morgenthau, the now-superpowered leader of the Flag-Smashers, all slipping through the shadows of the Latvian capital of Riga, the time was finally right for both fists and ethics to clash.

Early on, Karli wonders aloud if her plan to enhance more revolutionaries with super serum is a Good Idea. As she learns from media coverage, her attack in episode 3 resulted in a number of deaths — including a father of two, new to his GRC job. Her compatriot Nico comforts her with a memory of his WWII resistance fighter grandfather: “He always told me, if you’re doing something and it makes you scared, it’s probably because it’s the right thing.” The “right thing” is to build an army of amateur, anti-nationalist super soldiers.

sam wilson up close in falcon gear with winter soldier behind him Image: Marvel Studios

From Nico’s perspective, the early-20th century was easier to parse: There was obvious good and obvious bad. And while Steve Rogers remained a symbol for greatness in the modern world, Karli’s style of justice now fills that role, thus justifying to Nico their decision to juice up. “They need a leader who understands pain. Someone who understands today’s heroes don’t have the luxury of keeping their hands clean.” Karli seems to agree, calling Captain America’s shield a relic of a bygone era, and “a reminder of all the people that history just left out.” Considering the arc of Isaiah Bradley, it’s a hard point to argue against.

Sam still argues. He believes Karli is fundamentally good, though she’s “radicalized” and her actions are flawed. He’s wrestling with that ol’ teleological debate of consequentialism versus virtue. Does Karli’s mission have to involve blood on the streets? Zemo gets in Sam’s head early on, boldly drawing a line from the Nazis to Ultron to the Avengers. “The desire to become a superhuman cannot be separated from supremacist ideals,” he says. The only way to stop someone like that is to kill them. That also doesn’t work for Sam, though based on the number of gunshots and explosions throughout his time in the MCU, his track record might not back up his ethical stance.

Sam eventually confronts Karli, playing every side in the most loaded conversation of the series yet. He hits her with Zemo’s absolutist take on the matter, and it sucks the air out of the room. She, a young woman of mixed-race, is potentially a “supremacist.” Karli fires back with sturdy rhetoric: “Corporations and the beasts who run them are the supremacists.” Sam can only agree and move to his next point: To solve her problems, she’s killing innocent people. The collateral damage isn’t justified, according to the soldier. “They’re roadblocks in my journey,” Karli says, “and I’d kill them again if I had to!” Even the rebel immediately questions whether what she blurted out were the words of a Defender of the People or a contorted, “supremacist” version of her former self.

Karli sits in shock next to Sam WIlson in Falcon and the Winter Soldier Image: Marvel Studios

Any Kantian scholars should sound off in the comments, but Sam’s unwillingness to believe in a turbulent path to equality sounds downright deontological. There is a correct moral path, a “Categorical Imperative,” and Sam thinks he can persuade Karli on to the right side of history.

But she rightfully poses a question to Sam that he can’t answer: “The people I’m fighting are trying to take your home. Why are you here instead of stopping them?” There is no big purple ass for Falcon to wallop in this conflict, and as he descends further into the investigation, Sam seems over his head. In fact, as Karli notes, he could very well be the enemy without knowing it. Sam’s sister, who’s looking for money and stability and finding no help from American institutions, is asking him the same questions.

The show feels a bit in over its head, too. The worms are out of the can: The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a place where Americans were forced into the super soldier program, the GRC picked and chose who got to thrive in the wake of disaster, and our heroes agree with the actions of someone deemed by other parties as a “terrorist.” The MCU’s good-vs-evil status quo feels fully dismantled. Yet Marvel’s track record suggests it can be undone. Civil War shattered the team with the hammer of ethics, but a galactic conflict seemed to mend the fractures. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could deal with it in the end, but there’s a lot to get through. Because the show also has to deal with John Walker.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier adds another layer of conversation with the story of a soldier who may have been done wrong, but continues to do wrong. In the context of the show, John is a proxy for racial conflict and American patriotism. He is a product of the military, and at times he seems disconnected from his own path in life — it’s debatable if he chose to be Captain America out of moral beliefs or accepted the role out of duty to the system that shaped him. His story could be an entire saga to itself — and has been! — but in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier the dramatic plot is another barrage of ideas. “The Whole World Is Watching” struggles to connect him to Sam’s plot, except for the show’s impulse to ask every ethical question imaginable.

With Zemo’s supremacist theory echoing in the background, the New Captain America finds himself at a crossroads in episode 4. He sees the Flag-Smasher situation in black and white. He feels the pressure of his costume, and is emasculated by the legacy of a fully roided Steve Rogers. After a sufficient beat down by the Dora Milaje, he even runs into combat with the Flag-Smashers brandishing a pistol behind his shield. He’s falling apart. Then fate gifts him a vial of super serum.

With Lamar by his side, John remains open to the possibility of making a horrible mistake. He’s aware this is a dilemma, and wonders what gulping down the formula might do to his character. Lamar offers a succinct explanation of the serum’s effect: “Power just makes a person more of themselves, right?” Steve Rogers became the nicest guy on the planet. Karli Morgenthau became hellbent on saving the underserved. If John became a super soldier, he would be the same guy who went to war and earned three medals of honor. “We both know that things we had to do in Afghanistan to be awarded those medals felt a long way from being right,” John admits.

That condemnation of American service, which sits in both parallel and contrast to other moments in the show, is the fuel for the episode’s shocking final scene. In a standoff with the Flag-Smashers, John watches Karli kill Lamar with one super-punch into a concrete pillar. His fellow soldier is dead, and it only takes a few seconds before John’s rage spills over. He hunts down a Flag-Smasher in his eyeline, and without hesitation, pounds his shield into the guy’s skull. The display seems to be his wartime self, pushed to its worst limits by, once again, a tool of war.

Captain America aka John Walker holds a bloody Captain America shield in Falcon and the Winter Soldier Image: Marvel Studios

Like the atom bomb or any other weapon of mass destruction, the super serum is itself an ethical quagmire. As Lamar notes to John, if they had possessed that kind of power during the war, countless lives could be saved. But with valor as a justification, there’s no real hesitation for John — of course, he’ll take it. Even though he doesn’t know what the serum will do to him (or he has some idea, but unlike Bucky, he hasn’t been in the kind of hardcore therapy in order to see PTSD and mangled psychology as a tragic-but-common part of service), at the end of the day he’s a hero, so the power will create a Better Hero. It’s a logic at the heart of the cop culture debate: Give the heroes the right weapons and they’ll win. And as is often the case in America, John Walker, the show’s cop with a weapon, winds up destroying a man as onlookers record the act on their phones.

Can there ever be a Captain America again after this murderous moment? Maybe that is Sam’s question to answer, too. But there’s a lot more resting on his shoulders: Who does he fight for? How does he fight? And what ethical lines can be drawn in this convoluted reality? With only two episodes left, it’s unclear which answers to expect. But what’s more frustrating at this point is, despite everything raised in the series so far, the emphasis of the show always leads back to the ethical dilemma about how we fight instead of who we fight for.

In the wake of the pandemic, much has been written about how and when we help each other, and the idea of shifting moral priorities toward people rather than consequence or virtue. In their paper “Interdependent Citizens: The Ethics of Care in Pandemic Recovery,” Mercer Gary and Nancy Berlinger emphasize the need for care as a model for overcoming great odds, and that the established systems won’t automatically do that simply because they operate with the goal of saving lives. “As we imagine the long, uncertain recovery from catastrophe, we are faced with the reality of human dependency together with social inequity,” they write.

The heroes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier may all be in a similar place. For all the choices being made, few are factoring in people, or as Gary and Berlinger put it, “favoring the mundane over the heroic.” What’s missing from the series right now is the human moment, the Avengers rushing to the aid of bystanders during the Battle of New York, but in more complicated terms.

There will always be purely diabolical forces for groups of Avengers to take on — gear up for Kang the Conqueror in Ant-Man 3 — that will make blockbuster action philosophically feasible. But the connectivity between every adventure, every movie, means the messy way The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is interrogating itself may implicate everything beyond it. As people noted all the way back after Iron Man in 2008, fighting the superheroic good fight has never been simple, but with every sequel and spinoff series, there’s a greater need for clear answers. So far, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t choosing a belief to pair with its big questions, and it’s hard to imagine any post-credits scene swooping in last minute to provide fulfilling answers.


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