Power, and the use of power, beget consequences. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has grappled with consequences across many of the interconnected lattice of films it boasts, and those of Avengers: Age of Ultron have lingered among the longest. Both The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and WandaVision before it are as haunted by Joss Whedon’s final entry in the MCU as they are the apocalyptic ructions of Avengers: Endgame.
The spectre of Sokovia looms large in the broader consciousness of the MCU perhaps because it served as a hugely personal unnatural disaster. The world under threat seems oddly less potent than a nation state effectively destroyed thanks to the heroic hubris of the Avengers as an entity, however noble their intentions. Captain America: Civil War was the first to dig into the ripple effect with both the Sokovia Accords (the MCU’s rights-fuelled version of the Mutant Registration Act from the comic source material) and down to Alfre Woodard’s grieving mother bringing Tony Stark to task on the death of her humanitarian young son, destroyed by the fire and fury of the Avengers’ imperialist superheroism. This is even before discussing Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), who points out the territory no longer even exists, carved up by neighbours.
Age of Ultron suggested in the decade following 9/11, following the cynical second Iraq War and the entrenched conflict of Afghanistan, both fuelling ongoing external ideological terror threats to Western unipolarity, that America no longer really knew how to ‘police the world’ in the same fashion. The Avengers, while not expressly working for the American government, were led by two opposing symbolic representations of the world’s largest super power—Tony Stark as the apex predator of military-industrial capitalism and Steve Rogers as the righteous soldier representing democratic American values on the other. The fact they were awkward and ultimately self-destructive bedfellows should serve as no surprise.
Both of those men are now gone, one dead and one presumed dead, but their joint legacies cascade into an episode like ‘Power Broker’ which presents the post-Blip world of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier as one far less secure than when the MCU began. The Avengers as an entity might have saved the universe but they failed to work together as a cohesive ongoing unit of heroes, primarily because as Zemo suggests here the symbolic nature of what they represented became the point, as he suggests to Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). “And then we start to forget about their flaws. From there, cities fly, innocent people die. Movements are formed, wars are fought. You remember that, right? As a young soldier sent to Germany to stop a mad icon. Do we want to live in a world full of people like the Red Skull?”
Incidentally, Zemo is transformed in ‘Power Broker’ into a different character from the one we saw in Civil War, perhaps thanks to the benefit of added screen time but primarily to suggest that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier might be his origin story as the ‘Baron’ Zemo we know from the source material. Civil War presented him as a deliberately low-fi manipulator more in line with Elijah Glass from M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable than the ultra wealthy, close-quarter combat fighting over Machiavelli we witness here, replete with Madripoor street smarts and baiting quips (he is even reading Machiavelli, so we’re not in subtle territory here). It suggests Civil War was the ground work for the moment ‘Baron Zemo’ is born as he adopts the Anonymous-style mask, perhaps threatening to become the very symbolic representation he warned Bucky and Sam about.
Zemo’s conflation of heroic American iconography with the rise of Nazism sounds like a leap, even for an America gripped in its own ideological battle with fascist demagogue thinking, but his point is acutely made in the brief moment we share with an aggressive John ‘Captain America’ Walker (Wyatt Russell), in the weeds tracking down supporters of Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and her anarchist Flag Smashers. He is prepared to bend the rules and cut corners to get results in a way his predecessor never would. “Do you know who I am?” he bellows to Karli’s supporter. “Yes, I do. And I don’t care,” is the man’s response, one Walker has no idea how to deal with.
One could read this as a repudiation of that American external power in the wake of the administration of recent years, or certainly the events of the Blip which serve as the MCU’s proxy trauma for the real-world rise of Trumpian ideology. “You Americans have become brutes.” The man suggests to Walker and this cuts deep into the projected American image produced through the symbol of Captain America. Even Lemar Hoskins (Cle Bennett) reminds Walker that Karli was actually stealing medicines and vaccines to distribute to people displaced by the Blip. They’re hardly hunting down HYDRA here, though perhaps to balance the scales we later see Karli quite mercilessly blow up a building filled with soldiers, much to the horror of her confederate. “This is the only language these people understand” is her weak justification.
You almost sense writer Derek Kolstad makes Karli do this because the Flag Smashers’ brand of anarchy was appearing too sympathetic, however extreme their aims. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wants to place Sam and Bucky inside a decaying sphere of influences corrupting Western democratic institutions, and come the end certainly suggests a more insidious level of American scientific corruption that goes even beyond HYDRA and places the existence of super-soldiers at the door of a supposedly beyond reproach nation (Walker’s moment of epiphany might yet be realising his own manipulation by power as part of this program). Nevertheless, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wants us to believe anarchy is not the solution to institutionalised power problems, or the unresolved consequences of those actions.
Perhaps the character who best typifies consequences on a personal level here is Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp), the former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent last seen helping Steve and Bucky evade the law and having spent years as a fugitive as a result. She has ended up in the lawless archipelago of Madripoor, framed as a somewhat cliche Blade Runner-style hive of scum and villainy, where she has established herself as a hustler fencing rare works of art. Sharon is a forgotten character in the wreckage of Civil War and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier does her justice in providing her with an external perspective on the heroism that left her behind: “You know the whole hero thing is a joke, right?” she asks Sam. “The way you gave up that shield, deep down, you must know it’s all hypocrisy.”
The deeper we get into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the more convinced I am that Sam Wilson will refuse to take on the mantle Steve wanted him to inherit beyond utilising the shield, precisely because ‘Captain America’ has become tainted by the very systems of power the Blip’s aftermath is looking to reinforce. Sharon is right in Sam’s awareness and uncertainty of what being a hero is and becoming a symbol means, and as Malcolm Spellman’s series further grapples with these issues from multiple angles, it feels increasingly apparent that the message could be that rejecting such power will make a safer world. That the inherent consequences of how shields and weapons are wielded is not worth the cost.
Though Bucky still believes in the need for a symbol, the need for a Cap, what confronts him at the climax is a further reminder that the abuse of power will always be reckoned with, whether hero or villain. A reminder that power always begets consequences.