Television

The World Doesn’t Need Another Captain America

What good is an American icon when the country’s reputation is in tatters?

Anthony Mackie holds Captain America's shield.
Captains America, past, present, and future. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Marvel and Disney+.

In the penultimate episode of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Isaiah Bradley, the first African American super soldier, contends that “they will never let a Black man be Captain America.” When the show’s finale airs tomorrow, audiences will learn whether Isaiah’s assertion holds true. Considering the Wakandan mystery case that Sam Wilson received at the end of the fifth episode—which may or may not contain a super high-tech, vibranium, stars-and-stripes-adorned Captain America suit—the chances are that Isaiah’s pessimism is misplaced. After all, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s function as an origin story for the next Cap isn’t exactly a secret, and the character is too valuable a piece of intellectual property for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to simply retire it any time soon. Given that brief, the Disney series has tried to make the case for why the world still needs a Captain America. But if anything, it’s proven the opposite. While Sam may be the hero of this moment, Captain America is not.

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The Falcon and The Winter Soldier covers a ton of ground in its first five episodes. Six months post-Blip, viewers find Sam and Bucky Barnes adjusting to their new lives. Sam has passed on retired Cap Steve Rogers’ offer to take up the patriotic alias, and is working closely with the U.S. military to eradicate terrorist cells while also helping his financially struggling sister. Bucky has been pardoned by the government for the crimes he committed as a brainwashed assassin and is attempting to make amends for the pain he caused his victims on his own terms.

These character-driven plot threads occur against a larger sociopolitical backdrop. The inadequate Global Repatriation Council, created after the Blip to assist returnees, has given rise to a new anti-nationalist terrorist group, the Flag Smashers, who prefer the world the way it was when half the population was gone. The U.S. government has appointed a new Captain America, decorated war veteran John Walker, who almost immediately reveals himself to be unfit to uphold Steve’s legacy. A few episodes into the series, it also becomes evident that the super-soldier serum that turned 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers into the amply bicepped Chris Evans isn’t as rare a commodity as it was once believed. Oh, and did I mention that along the way Sam and Bucky break Baron Helmut Zemo, the Nazi antagonist of Captain America: Civil War and the murderer of Wakandan King T’Chaka, out of prison?

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Beneath this tangled web of MCU storylines, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier attempts to grapple with the implications of a Black man carrying Captain America’s shield—and to make the case for why someone needs to take up the mantle in the first place. In the press materials for the series, Anthony Mackie empathizes with his character’s hesitation about acting as America’s official hero. “Sam considers the shield a representation of the country that we live in,” he says. “There’s a lot of trepidation as far as ‘How does a Black man represent a country that does not represent him?’” For Salon’s Melanie McFarland, building an origin story for a Black American superhero “requires digging up the rocky soil of a nation and analyzing what makes it good and fertile, and it’s equally as vital to reckon with all the ways that it is tainted. Fulfilling that mission here means digging into what Captain America and all superpowered protagonists stand for, and how aspirational symbols can become dangerous idols.”

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While The Falcon and The Winter Soldier tries reckon with America’s racist history and the concept of supremacy in general, this gets at the crux of the problem with the story the writers are trying to sell us: Why must Sam, or anyone for that matter, don a nation’s name and symbols in order to be a fitting hero? The series provides viewers with sympathetic detractors like Isaiah and even head Flag Smasher Karli Morgenthau to touch on this question, if not directly ask it, but the show never provides a satisfactory answer.

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When Captain America arrived in 1941, the need for a patriotic symbol was obvious. Created on the precipice of World War II by Jewish cartoonists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Captain America was the U.S. response to Nazi propaganda comics—a symbol of anti-fascism and liberalism. In Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, Bradford W. Wright notes that the character’s origins were “consciously political,” and that Simon and Kirby felt compelled to “take a stand against Nazism.” (Even at the height of anti-Nazi sentiment in America, however, the cartoonists still received hate mail and death threats.)

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In 2021, the greatest fascist threat to the U.S. exists within its own borders. And the name “America” carries a lot of weight—positive associations, but also images of genocide, slavery, police brutality, and gun violence. To many, Isaiah Bradley included, an agent of the state can never be a true symbol of justice.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier tries to wrestle with this conflict. In the second episode, Sam is racially profiled by police before they recognize him as an actual Avenger and embarrassedly back away. The show also dives into Isaiah’s devastating backstory, a riff on the infamous Tuskegee study: America’s first Black super soldier was experimented on, then sent to fight in the Korean War for the country that abused him, and later incarcerated for 30 years. The writers recognize his deep skepticism of America’s ability to dispense justice as well-founded by his own experiences, U.S. history, and the unrelenting violence Black people face in contemporary America. But this is where the thread ends. Though the series acknowledges the racial politics at stake, it fails to justify the existence of a nationalist hero, regardless of who carries the shield.

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The introduction of the Flag Smashers is intended to illustrate the continued “need” for the patriotic super soldier, but the group of displaced anti-nationalists, whom Karli labels “freedom fighters,” have valid grievances (although their tactics are morally murky), and even Sam recognizes the common ground they share. On the flip side, John Walker is meant to act as a foil to both Steve and Sam, an example of the dangers of allowing Captain America’s emblem to fall into the wrong hands. But entitled, arrogant John may be the Captain America America deserves, even if he’s not the one we want.

In the fourth episode of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, John, enraged and newly juiced on super serum, uses Captain America’s iconic shield to brutally murder a Flag Smasher begging for his life. This violence takes place in a Latvian town square in broad daylight as horrified onlookers film the scene. Shot from below, the episode’s final seconds linger on the red, white, and blue shield, now covered in blood. Surely the writers aimed to shock viewers with this arresting moment. Steve would never have used his power this way (and we can safely assume Sam won’t either). However, as Zemo points out in the same episode, Steve was, as the U.S. claims to be, exceptional. In his inability to carry the shield or wield power with compassion, John, like The Boys’ Homelander, is much more representative of how the world views America than the original Cap. The Latvian bystanders who witness John’s brutality certainly don’t see the American flag and associate it with safety or protection. For many Americans, the same is true.

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In positioning Sam as the rightful inheritor of Steve’s shield—one who will somehow appeal to disenfranchised radicals and state interests alike—The Falcon and The Winter Soldier seems to willfully parallel the ongoing debate about American policing, with the MCU taking a solidly reformist stance. (The Flag Smashers are essentially arguing to defund Captain America.) The show’s position isn’t surprising given that Captain America is basically a supercop, and Marvel films are partially funded by the U.S. military, but it shouldn’t pass without notice. The significance of a Black Cap can’t be overstated, but a good man like Sam taking up the mantle may not be enough to rehabilitate the image of a country whose name is no longer associated with justice—and to many, never has been.

In my decade at Slate, I’ve worked on everything from investigating how wearing your backpack with two straps became cooler than wearing it with one strap to adapting The Great Gatsby as a video game to inventing a highly scientific systemic for determining whether new movies are too scary for you. The support of Slate Plus members has allowed us to continue to do the kind of ambitious, irreverent, and service-y cultural coverage you won’t find anywhere else. Thank you! —Forrest Wickman, culture editor

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