Television

The Tough Topics The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Wasn’t Afraid to Take On

Director Kari Skogland was “taken aback” by how relevant the show became.

Sam Wilson wearing his new Captain America suit in a still from the show
Your new Captain America. Marvel Studios

Marvel continues to bridge the gap between Endgame and its next storytelling phase via its Disney+ shows, which thus far have functioned as stand-alone superhero stories of varying quality. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which wrapped its six-episode run last week, came out of the gate dangling hopes of deeper themes than perhaps other Marvel movies and shows have challenged thus far. Here was a show about an African American hero, faced with the choice between carving his own path or slotting himself into a white legacy. It’s a compelling logline, even if the show itself was too bogged down in the usual Marvel trappings of action and sci-fi technobabble to be satisfyingly introspective. Yet its resonance and timeliness bore out in other interesting ways, as director Kari Skogland told Slate. We talked about how the climate and cultural zeitgeist during which Falcon and the Winter Soldier was released—a time rife with mounting racial tensions and a new perspective on heroics—were a fitting coincidence that may have bolstered the show’s own thematic power. And we discussed the ways in which its mission to delve into those racial tensions succeeded and less-than-succeeded. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Allegra Frank: In what ways do you feel you succeeded in telling a story about race? In what ways do you wish you could have done more?

Kari Skogland: From the beginning, the story of a Black man picking up the shield, a very white iconic symbol, was obviously a racially charged conversation. It was most important for us to not only have the conversation, but to push the envelope and get it right.

That was very well thought out. Malcolm Spellman, the head writer, was very conscious, bringing in Isaiah Bradley as a character to help us with that conversation, Black man to Black man. For him to say to Sam that no Black man would pick up that shield is a very important moment. It is about change and moving forward.

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We have a character who is not a supersoldier, and who is—to back up, what is it to be a hero? If being a hero in the old paradigm was much more soldier-warrior, which was born of the ’40s comics, which were anti-fascist in their incarnation, then this was going to explore what is it to be a hero as a first responder. After 9/11, that idea of a hero changed into a first responder and, during the pandemic, first-line worker. [Sam is] not only picking up a white symbol and representing it for his community, but also evolving the idea of what a hero is.

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The only thing that I can say about doing more is, we were within our storyline, we went from him saying, “No, that shield is old, and it does not represent the future and we need heroes that do represent the future or relate to the future,” and he locked it up. And we knew he was going to pick it up at the end of Episode 6 for sure. Could we have done more? You can always do more. In terms of a race-related conversation, equality and justice and all that Pandora’s box, I think we can never do enough. But within our context, we certainly tried to do as much as we perfectly could to take that conversation and really explore the avenues.

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The show serves to bridge us to the next phase of the MCU. How many liberties could you take with the storytelling while still ensuring you would meet the end goal of setting the stage for future installments?

As much as it is a well-thought-out, interconnecting, intergalactic universe, we’re dealing with how uniquely each story exists on its own. We didn’t have any big conversation [about] “don’t do this because we’re planning this for the future”—our story was its own thing and remains its own thing. I suspect that’s true of all of the [Marvel movies and shows]. They look at each storyline as distinctive. They serve the individual story first, or at least that was my experience.

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How did or didn’t the show change due to the pandemic delaying the full Marvel schedule? Story- and release-wise?

We didn’t change our story much as a result of the pandemic. We were already telling that story in this very much racially charged world that we knew we were going to be in. We were already tackling big themes like elitism, racism, intolerance. I think the only thing we might have done is sharpened our pencil as a result of when we shut down for a bit. In post-production, we were editing as we went. It just meant that we could go, oh, this is happening in the world, but we already had that baked into our storyline, so let’s tweak it to really reflect what’s going on. Life was suddenly mimicking art, and our story was becoming more and more relevant every day. We were sort of taken aback by the current state of affairs, the zeitgeist our story is sitting in.

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How would you say this series distinguishes itself in the MCU canon?

This is one of their first that’s completely grounded. It’s the sequel to Endgame. If Endgame was a fantastic spectacle that was otherworldly with all kinds of characters, this was going to be very much a road movie between two very grounded characters. As a result, we were able to go into their lives and into their existence in a way that Marvel hasn’t been able to before.

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Also, having the real estate of six hours was very important, as opposed to a two-hour window where you’re racing to the finish line. We’re meeting a new Bucky, and we’re going down a road with him in a new situation trying to figure out his own relevance. Sam looped back, trying to figure out his relevance too. The two of them are a little bit lost, they find each other, they find a friendship—because they weren’t friends, they were acquaintances through Cap but not really friends on their own.

Here’s the thing: Marvel always has tough topics. They go down tough roads. They never shy from really giving resonance to the storylines. But this is one of the first that is so grounded and current. It’s not representing a past like Captain America was—we’re right in the moment, and that’s sort of a new space for [Marvel]. We were able to as a result embrace some tougher topics that were relevant to the story but also relevant to the times.

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