In the highly anticipated finale of Marvel’s newest show, Falcon and the Winter Soldier (FATWS), which aired on Friday and is currently available to stream on Disney plus, audiences watched as Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) became a fully realized Captain America; making him the first Black character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to take on the role.
Marvel’s new hit mini-series succeeds WandaVision, continuing to portray the aftermath of Thanos’ snap as shown in Infinity War and rectified in End Game. When the show starts, Sam and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) are trying, albeit clumsily, to find their way around a world that’s both different than – and the same – as the one that existed before Thanos.
Many people who had to survive in the five years after the blip is now displaced and considered refugees, to be extracted from their homes, by big governments. Countries are left to wonder how to effectively accommodate those who were blipped. However, the government’s solutions come at the expense of those who were left behind and subsequently births an antagonistic group called ‘The Flag Smashers’: a group of super-soldiers whose goal was to maintain the version of earth that contained only half of the population.
On the other hand, the same oppressive systems that have long existed before Thanos, such as class inequality, racism, and xenophobia, are back to business as usual now that everyone has returned. So, whereas WandaVision grapples with the effects of grief post-Thanos, Falcon and the Winter Soldier tackles PTSD and anti-Black racism and mainly seeks to answer the question: Is America ready for a Black Captain America?
The show’s exploration of such a complex topic is simultaneously riding news waves like Derek Chauvin’s murder trial and subsequent conviction as well as the recent murder of 20-year-old Daunte Wright and 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. All of which leaves Marvel with an immense amount of responsibility; not only because they’ve never truly shown a racial reckoning through their characters or storylines, but also because many of us, especially BIPOC communities, are navigating a similar reckoning in our own lives.
Show writer Malcolm Spellman discussed with Black Girl Nerds what it meant for a Black man and superhero to navigate an anti-Black America in the MCU. He says, “That’s why I fought to get the project, to get involved because it just felt like a massive opportunity to have that conversation [about racism] through a narrative that’s big… The second you talk about making a Black man Captain America, there’s no way to hide from it. Marvel never hid from it when it was in the books and there was no way to hide from it on the screen.”
In the six episodes of the series, Marvel sought to illustrate a multi-faceted experience of racial oppression using Sam as a vessel. For example, Sam had to endure micro-aggressions from John Walker (Wyatt Russell), America’s attempt at a replacement Captain America, as well as learn the history of America’s treatment of Black “super soldiers” through the lens of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly). John Walker’s white arrogance, to put it plainly, thinks of Sam as his lesser or side-kick; despite Sam being the one Steve Rogers left the shield to.
However, Sam is not sure America is ready to see him replace the picturesque blonde hair, blue-eyed Steve, which he’s right to question. His fears are only amplified when he meets Bradley, courtesy of Bucky, who describes the torture and imprisonment he experienced at the hands of the American government for being a Black man with immense power.
And although some of Marvel’s discussions of race or what a post-racial America could look like, were flawed (the show is streaming through Disney after all), I appreciate the show’s writers trying to lead a conversation surrounding race onscreen and at least doing so more effectively than other shows on varying streaming platforms. See— Amazon Prime’s Them and Netflix’s Two Distant Strangers.
Ultimately, Sam decides to not let the opinions of others keep him from doing what he feels is right and finally assumes the role of Captain America. In the final episode titled, “One world, one people” Sam states “every time I pick [up this shield] I know there are millions of people who are going to hate me for it. Even now… I feel it: the stares, the judgment. And there’s nothing I can do to change it, yet I’m still here.” Which I will say, is a pretty powerful declaration.
Sam even immortalizes Bradley in the same museum that memorializes Steve Rogers, with the hopes that America will never forget what Bradley sacrificed for the first Black Captain America to exist. Luckily, I felt Sam’s character arc in Falcon and the Winter Soldier had a better direction and was handled with more care than Monica Rambeau’s in WandaVision.
So, with Marvel’s next phases containing more diversity (notably they also announced the development of Captain America 4 after the FATWS finale and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which contains Marvel’s first Asian-American lead) there is more nuance that must go into their characters, plots, and overall conflicts.
I am optimistic, as it seems Marvel is steadily improving on handling the marginalized characters they add into their Universe, especially the Black characters included amongst predominantly white casts. Additionally, as Marvel continues their exploration of complex themes into phase 4 and beyond, I also hope life will imitate art, and necessary change to accommodate oppressed people will be made a priority for our own communities in a time when we desperately need it.
However, that change cannot come without partial work from seemingly “average” citizens. “The only power I have is to believe we can do better,” Sam states in his final speech to an onlooking crowd of reporters, bystanders, and senators. In his review of FATWS for NPR, Eric Deggans describes Sam’s comment as a “rallying cry” in the midst of many Americans, Black Americans, “putting so much on the line for the belief that America can be made better by the hard work of earnest people.”
It seems fictional America was ready to tackle race and embrace change. Now the question is, is our America ready and willing to do the same? Ultimately, only time will tell, but one thing we do know is tangible change, which could create safer worlds for currently oppressed people, will take more than a Black man in a fancy new suit to really get the job done.
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