Television

The Casual Marvel Fan’s Guide to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Who’s the new Captain America? Should I know who these villains are? And more.

He wears a dark suit (not the super kind) and stares down solemnly at Captain America’s shield.
Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson aka the Falcon. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Marvel Studios/Disney+.

This article contains spoilers for the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Can we start with my biggest question? Who is the new Captain America at the end?!

You just get a glimpse of him, but that’s Wyatt Russell, the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, who might be familiar from Lodge 49 or Everybody Wants Some!! (and if he’s not, you might want to fix that). But the credits identify him as John Walker, the name of the comic-book character known as U.S. Agent.

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So then who is John Walker, aka U.S. Agent?

While we don’t yet know the story with this version of the character, in the comic books, John Walker acquired Captain America-like powers through a super soldier-like process in order to become a professional wrestler, but then became a rather right-wing hero called Super-Patriot instead, and then (in what was a pretty good story during Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run in the ’80s) replaced Captain America when Steve Rogers (aka the Captain America you know and love) quit for political reasons. Eventually, Rogers claimed back the role from the more extreme and violent Walker, who became U.S. Agent, a similarly costumed hero who remained in the Avengers orbit for years onward. Obviously, the character’s presence in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is setting up a conflict between two visions of what Captain America, and the country he’s supposed to symbolize, can be.

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Got it. Let’s go back to the beginning. Who’s that guy Sam’s chasing in the opening sequence?

That is Georges Batroc, played by MMA fighter Georges St-Pierre, who featured briefly in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. You may recall that in the movie, Nick Fury hired Batroc to rob a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship in order to flush out a mole in the agency. Basically, Batroc’s trying to get paid. In the comics, he’s a mercenary known as “Batroc the Leaper” who’s a master of savate kickboxing (hence “Leaper”) and wears an utterly glorious yellow and purple (but sometimes magenta) costume.

Who is Sam’s new pal, Torres?

That’s Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez), who became the second Falcon in the comics after an experiment involving Sam Wilson’s telepathic (!) falcon, Redwing. (Yes, while in this Marvel TV series, Redwing is a drone, in the comics, he’s an actual bird of prey.) He then worked as the sidekick of Wilson, who at that point in the comics had taken up the mantle of Captain America.

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Can you just remind me what happened to Captain America? How come nobody seems to know where he is?

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At the end of Avengers: Endgame (which, I know, seems like it was 5,000 years ago), Steve Rogers takes on the task of returning the Infinity Stones to their original places in time and space, and while he’s breaking the fundamental laws of physics, decides to stay in the past for good, giving up his life as Captain America to live out his life with his true love, Peggy Carter. Although Steve shows up again as an old man post-blip to hand Sam his shield, Endgame’s directors, the Russo brothers, have clarified in interviews that he was not only living in the past but also in an alternate timeline—which means we’re not likely to see him in this timeline again. (Also, Chris Evans’ contract with the MCU ran out, and though there were rumors earlier this year that he might reprise his role, Kevin Feige has strenuously debunked them.)

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Hey, it’s Don Cheadle! Who’s he playing, again?

Why, that’s Col. James Rupert “Rhodey” Rhodes, aka War Machine. He’s been a supporting player in several Marvel movies, including the entire Iron Man series (although he was played in the first Iron Man by Terrence Howard). He started off as Tony Stark’s military liaison and friend, and eventually took on the role of armored hero when Stark became too unreliable to handle it himself. Since then, he’s been, like Falcon, a kind of second-string Avenger, showing up in multiple movies but never being at the center of them. Most relevantly to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, he’s the obvious candidate to fill the shoes left vacant by a character who exited the MCU and the end of Endgame, and may have hesitations similar to Sam’s about trying to take on someone else’s iconic role.

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Wait, Bucky’s the Winter Soldier again? And he’s killing people and saying “Hail HYDRA”? What happene—oh, it’s a dream sequence.

Yeah, it’s a little bit of a cheap misdirection, but this first episode has a lot of sitting and talking, so you can’t blame them for throwing in a little flashback action. It also serves as a reminder that Bucky’s long, long past as a mind-controlled killing machine is still very much with him, and he hasn’t found a way to make peace with it.

What’s the deal with Bucky’s list? Who’s on it, and why?

Bucky calls it “the list of my amends,” which means making up for the harm he did as the Winter Soldier. That covers exposing a corrupt senator who he helped put into office, but also the elderly Japanese man he’s befriended in New York—a name he opts not to cross off the list, for now. I think he’s blown it with that sushi-bar waitress though.

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Is Bucky really 106 years old? What’s up with that?

Yep! During World War II, Bucky seemingly died while on a mission as part of Captain America’s brigade of Nazi-fighting super soldiers. Still alive, he was captured by the baddies of Hydra, who brainwashed him and replaced his amputated arm with a robotic one. Ultimately, the organization turned Bucky into the ultimate killing machine, putting him in deep freeze between missions. Thanks to all that, Bucky has deadly assassin training and a super-strong arm, and has also barely aged since World War II. (He was around 26-ish when Hydra made him into the Winter Soldier.) That’s why he’s still alive, strong, and extremely hot.

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Bucky says that the only time he’s rested in the past century was when he had “a little calm in Wakanda.” When did that happen?

Mostly off screen, but at the end of Civil War, Bucky voluntarily went into cryosleep in Wakanda in a last-ditch effort to take himself out of commission until his HYDRA brainwashing could be definitively cured. He was eventually awakened and apparently brain-unwashed by Shuri (Letitia Wright), and endeared himself enough to the Wakanda people that he earned the nickname “White Wolf.” He spent a couple years just chilling until the MCU caught up with him in Infinity War, where he fought against Thanos until getting blipped.

Why can’t Sam get a bank loan to fix up his family’s fishing boat? Doesn’t everybody love the Avengers? 

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The loan agent, slimy weasel that he is, more or less explains the situation, but it’s worth underlining how the show is using Sam’s situation to mirror the plight of real-life military veterans, nearly half of whom are people of color. Sam and Bucky have both served their country, but they’ve got little to show for it beyond PTSD nightmares and banks that don’t take superhero selfies as collateral.

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So it seems like the bad guys are something called the Flag-Smashers. Do we know anything about them and their leader(s)?

Not much from this episode, except that they “think the world was better during the blip,” and they want “a world that’s unified, without borders.” But if you stick around for the credits, you’ll see that their leader is one Karli Morgenthau, played by Erin Kellyman, aka Solo’s Enfys Nest. It seems safe to assume that she’s a gender-flipped version of the comics’ Karl Morgenthau, aka Flag-Smasher, who has a similar anarcho-anti-nationalist mission in Marvel’s stories. The son of a Swiss diplomat who is killed in an embassy riot, the comics’ Flag-Smasher wants to abolish the concept of countries together, which the show’s Torres admits can sound appealing. (It might even make things easier for Sam, who spends the opening sequence trying to capture Batroc before he slips over the Libyan border.) It seems as if the show is setting up a conflict between the ultra-nationalist John Walker and an anti-nationalist Flag-Smasher, with the protagonists no doubt winding up somewhere in the middle.

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