Symbols are growing ever more central to superhero fiction as the power and meaning of modern and classical images, heroes and structures continue to bedevil commentators and audiences in reality. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier contributes to this discourse as it continues in S1E2 to frame the entire series around not just Captain America’s shield, but what the idea of the American hero as a symbol represents.
The episode begins with a jazzy, Hot 8 Brass Band-sounding orchestral version of ‘Star-Spangled Man’, first heard in Captain America: The First Avenger (and written by supremo songwriter Alan Menken no less) as a propagandist representation of Captain America’s strength and heroism. “Who’s strong and brave, here to save the American Way?” sing the row of chorus girls as Steve Rogers parades on stage. “Who vows to fight like a man for what’s right night and day?” It is intentionally rousing and filled, naturally, with inherent stereotypes, fallacies and contradictions but works clearly in the context of the American moment in World War II, swooping in to destroy the “goose-stepping goons from Berlin”. There is a reason, however, that the song was avoided once Steve was unthawed in the present day and why it returns in a new form here, even borrowing the episode title (‘The Star-Spangled Man’) from it.
That reason is John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the new Captain America, briefly unveiled at the end of ‘New World Order’ as an encapsulation of the changes The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is weathering as a series. To the credit of Malcolm Spellman’s series, Walker is immediately more than a cipher and empty image. We spend time with a man who appears aware of the legacy of the shoes he is stepping into, and comes with his own experience as to what we would consider an American ‘hero’. “I’m not trying to be Steve. I’m just trying to be the best Captain America I can be” he later tells a dubious Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Yet Walker is, in his totality, symbolic of the appropriation that runs through ‘The Star-Spangled Man’. It’s why the song and the title are revived. Walker is not a representation of America’s future but rather America’s halcyon past.
His introduction reminded me of Eric Kripke’s violent, nihilistic rendition of superhero culture, The Boys, which I suspect is going to stand the test of time in a more acute way than any Marvel property. Walker is presented as a human being with a relationship, with his own doubts and questions about the role he’s taking on, but he is nevertheless stage managed in the same manner of ‘The Seven’ in The Boys and evokes the Homelander character from that show. Homelander is, of course, an Oedipal psychopath beyond redemption and Walker is never likely to be depicted as such in the smoother defined Marvel Cinematic Universe, but he has been curated to the same extent to appropriate a cultural symbol of America’s lionised history.
The “American way” of the song, which might have been clearer in 1942—a Democratic, prosperous nation of individuals fighting to rid the world of oppressive, totalitarian fascist rule—is clouded, complex and troubling in 2020. Walker is designed, with his square jaw, blonde locks, charming swagger and ‘all-American’ demeanour (even the square, solid root of his name), a United States of the ‘40s or beyond that the ‘50s that never entirely existed in the first place. One wonders if Russell’s casting is coincidental, being the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, two examples of homespun American beauty and charm who rose in the era of counter-culture which ended up, largely, reinforcing the power structures now being challenged in an unstable century.
Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) seems to understand this more acutely right now than Sam does, but he channels his anger across ‘The Star-Spangled Man’ toward the wrong person, as he and Sam are finally brought together early on in this episode. “You had no right to give up the shield, Sam,” he tells him and repeatedly asks Sam to explain and justify his actions in allowing the symbolic representation of Captain America, which Steve Rogers bequeathed, Excalibur-like, to his ‘wingman’, to go to someone else. But just who does that shield represent in Bucky’s eyes? Captain America or Steve Rogers? Because neither of our two leads have the distance from their lost friend to separate the two in the way the American government or the rest of the world apparently has. The Americans depicted cheering on Walker, wearing their merchandise, getting him to sign their action figures, have no issue with another strong, virile, charming white man taking on this mantle. The only people who know the injustice we as an audience are aware of are Bucky and Sam.
Spellman’s show made the ‘Uncle Sam’ joke earlier than anyone might have expected in ‘New World Order’ but that was perhaps the point. Sam Wilson was considered by Steve, in Bucky’s eyes, as the future. The song suggests “the Star-Spangled Man… with a plan!” and that’s exactly how Bucky describes Steve. A man with a plan. A man who always knew the right thing to do. Walker never knew Steve but, in a groan worthy way, describes a ‘brotherly’ kinship around these American values. “I liked that what I was doing would make people feel safe. Steve Rogers was the kind of guy who could do that, he gave me hope”. What they’re talking about is the kind of geopolitical and social stability that is right now in our world, and the world of the Blip in the MCU, in turmoil. Captain America’s stability is analogous to established, ordered American stability. Walker is designed to represent the old order. Steve wanted a new order. He wanted change. He wanted Sam, as a representation of a new America built on recognising and reconciling the ghosts of its past, to encapsulate that.
This is part of why Bucky takes Sam to see Isaiah Bradley (the ever-dignified Carl Lumbly), an aged former Army veteran who fought the Winter Soldier in Korea at the turn of the ‘50s who was also injected with the super-soldier serum and took on a Captain America mantle that has been entirely airbrushed from history. He is angry, embittered and fuelled by injustice. “You know what they did to me for being a hero? They put my ass in jail for 30 years.” The racial context is clear across the episode (we even see Sam racially profiled by white cops before they realise who he is and start treating him like a white man) but Isaiah’s existence, one Bucky is aware of thanks to his history as a HYDRA operative, suggests an entirely hidden past of American ‘heroism’ fuelled by black contributions, one that provides Sam with the legacy Steve knew he deserved as the symbol of an America boasting the values of tolerance and equality he had as a man, not just a man in a suit. Walker might have these values (he has a black partner, after all), but he right now stands as a clear example of rigid establishment order in a world teetering on the kind of chaos the Flag Smashers, ostensibly, are looking to create.
In that sense, they feel the perfect antagonists for a series built on established symbols of geopolitical power and the exploration of the cultural, racial undertows challenging that in our society. The Blip represents an element of chaos that we, as a Western society, have felt we are slipping toward over the last five years. It is no coincidence the Blip itself is a five year period. The world of the MCU has no need for Brexit or Trump or Covid-19 because the Blip, an existential comic-book rapture of universe-shattering terms, covers that same ground. The very name, ‘blip’, suggests a temporary state of affairs everyone wishes to airbrush from history. Thanos wiping out half the universe was just a ‘blip’, a skipped record, and we can now return to the status quo.
WandaVision hinted at it but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is heavily suggesting already that no such equilibrium exists anymore. John Walker’s intentions might be noble but he is doomed to a failure that could, eventually, turn him a character from The Boys—a warped visage of the American Way fuelled by white injustice as the old order breaks down, particularly if Sam (the black man) or Bucky (the ‘Other’, given he was radicalised by a foreign state essentially) do a better job. They might collectively stop the Flag Smashers but can they stop what they represent? “One world! One people!” their unlikely, young, female leader Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) shouts as they rail against the established structures pushing them into action.
What do they mean by this? Walker and his pointedly black sidekick Lamar ‘Battlestar’ Hopkins (Cle Bennett) talks about the Global Reconstruction Council and their efforts to assist the ‘blipped’ human beings who vanished for five years. “Reactivating citizenship, social security, healthcare. Basically just managing resources for the refugees who were displaced by the return.” But they also discuss how the symbol of Captain America has been revived because America fears violent revolution as a result of that instability.
This is precisely what the Flag Smashers represent but they appear to be galvanising an undercurrent of support for a unipolar franchise based on a ‘better’ world with half the population gone, having been left behind as the GRU aid those ‘blipped’ who lost homes, jobs and their place in the world. Do Karli and her group represent the broiling underclass across both democracies and totalitarian nations protesting established systems clinging onto order in the face of global shocks, catastrophes and corrupt institutions? Are we meant to even consider them ‘the bad guys’ anymore? One hopes The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will suggest the reality is more complex as the series unfurls and we learn more of their motives and aims, but the question stands—who are we meant to root for?
The answer, ultimately, is Sam and Bucky as they continue their reconstruction post-Avengers: Endgame. Writer Michael Kastelein gets enjoyable mileage out of their buddy-buddy, Lethal Weapon-esque banter across the episode, their ideological conflicts framed even in terms of a fractured marriage, but they make a good, if disjointed team. Ultimately, they both appear to be drawing the same conclusions about symbols, shields and what Captain America means for the world, even if both are approaching it from different directions right now. Bucky wants Sam to recognise what Steve saw in him because otherwise it challenges his own sense of self. “So maybe he was wrong about you. And if he was wrong about you, then he was wrong about me”. Sam, meanwhile, doesn’t want to be defined by anyone, even a young black boy who asks if he’s called ‘Black Falcon’. “So are you, like, Black kid?” is his pithy response. Sam believes he is doing the right thing and that following what Steve believed, not what he represented, is what matters.
Perhaps both men are right. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are two heroes with different plans, neither star-spangled, but who will have to reconcile them, as America reconciles itself to its past, in order to find their place in a new world.