The Power of a Skeptical Captain America

All season long, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier asked not only what it meant for a Black man to inherit the storied shield—it asked whether the shield was worthy of him.

Sam Wilson (played by Anthony Mackie) looks down at Captain America's shield in his hands
Marvel Studios

This article contains spoilers through the entirety of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Avengers: Endgame.

Superlative television should always know what it wants to be, and on that front, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has felt more like Marvel’s exercise in trying things out than a series with a fully realized sense of self. Sam Wilson (played by Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) have zoomed in and out of a hodgepodge of tonal plays over the past six weeks: comic caper heists and naturalistic studies of grief and trauma; scenes of poignant social commentary and scenes of flamboyant nightclubs on shadowy island nations. They’ve traveled from therapy offices to bank branches to refugee camps to squillion-dollar Latvian hideaways. There was a feel-good extended montage I can describe only as Extreme Boat Makeover: Neighborhood Edition. Whatever your taste as a viewer, there was probably something you found gratifying, even if it rarely lasted very long.

But the show, whose season finale aired today, always knew what it wanted to say. From the first episode, in which Sam’s bank manager tried to place where he knew this telegenic Black man from (“Did you used to play for LSU?”), to the end, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has wrestled with an idea: Who are superheroes for? And can a nationalist symbol be reclaimed by someone whom that nation has consistently and historically rejected?

The show, created by Malcolm Spellman, is one of the flagship series intended to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s characters and stories into TV for the streaming service Disney+. Its odd-couple setup pairs two of the previous Captain America’s sidekicks in recent movies, one of whom was anointed by then-Cap Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as his successor at the end of Avengers: Endgame. But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier also presents an opportunity to see what might be coming in the next phase of storytelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as how far things have come. Only six years ago the MCU was still being overseen by Ike Perlmutter, the longtime Marvel CEO best known for reportedly stalling Black Panther and Captain Marvel because he didn’t think tentpole movies framed around a Black character and a woman would attract audiences. (Perlmutter is also known for allegedly scaling back production of Black Widow merchandise in 2015 because he didn’t think girls cared about superheroes, and for donating $360,600 in 2019 to the Trump Victory committee funding the former president’s reelection efforts).

In 2015, Kevin Feige—the architect behind the sprawling, financially explosive MCU—staged a rebellion and won, removing the MCU from Perlmutter’s influence. One of the results is a show that was able to invert decades of tired debate over the legacies of storied white characters: Sam Wilson, a Black man, not only was finally deemed “worthy” of becoming Captain America, but was given space to ask over six episodes whether the role of Captain America was worthy of him.

Anyone who watched the show might have questioned Sam’s decision to ultimately accept the mantle in the final episode. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier may have struggled with defining its tone, relying on frantic set pieces and budgetary excess to pad its six-hour running time. But its commitment to the overarching theme of American heroes and the dangers of exceptionalism has been unwavering. At the end of Avengers: Endgame, Steve passed his shield to Sam, a symbolic handing-down of a legacy that seemed uncomfortable to its recipient from the beginning. The shield, Sam told Cap, felt like it was “someone else’s,” a statement that was easy to interpret at the time as simple jitters, but that came, over the new series, to stand for something else.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier enhanced its universe with the kind of realism Marvel productions have typically resisted. Set six months after the return of half of humankind from a five-year period of nonexistence imposed by Thanos’s “Blip,” the show imagined what some of the emotional and geopolitical consequences of that reset might have been. While most people cheered the re-arrival of the people who’d been lost, a significant number were displaced yet again from the homes and nations they’d suddenly been given access to on a less crowded planet. “Trust me. Every time something gets better for one group, it gets worse for another,” Sam told his protégé, Joaquin (Danny Ramirez), while discussing the origins of the Flag Smashers, a group opposed to both global borders and the forced resettlement of refugees that began after the Blip was reversed.

Practical issues don’t always compute in the MCU. (How did Wanda Maximoff see so many American sitcoms growing up under the Iron Curtain in Sokovia? My colleague David Sims theorized that she watched a lot of Nick at Nite in the Avengers’ penthouse, which partly turned out to be true.) The issue of who pays for superheroes in particular has always been shunted aside, with the tacit understanding that Tony Stark has a lot of money and that gargantuan military budgets make up the rest. But with Sam, whose sister had been left to support her family alone for the five years he was gone, the series presented some harsh realism: Not only do Avengers not get paid, but if they’re Black and have a five-year void on their credit history, they won’t get approved for loans no matter how many selfies the bank manager wants to take with them.

In the first few episodes, Sam was repeatedly confronted with how little his country thought of him. He was denied a loan, his gift of Cap’s shield was requisitioned by the government without warning and given to a white man (John Walker, played by Wyatt Russell), and he was informed that there had already been a Black super-soldier whom no one had thought to tell him about. That character, Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), was drawn from Truth: Red, White, and Black, a groundbreaking seven-issue comic series from 2003 by the writer Robert Morales, inspired in part by the real-life Tuskegee Study. In the story, the U.S. government experimented on 300 Black soldiers during World War II with the intention of creating superpowered troops. Only one survived. As Isaiah tells Sam in the series, he was imprisoned for his troubles, and the letters his wife sent him were hidden for decades until a nurse helped him escape. In last week’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier episode, Isaiah told Sam that “they” will never let a Black man be Captain America, adding a coda: No self-respecting Black man should ever want the role.

America has its egregious failings; so, too, does Marvel. (Consider the minstrelsy character Whitewash Jones for evidence.) Sam’s ultimate decision, though, was based not on his clear-eyed analysis of what America is and has been, but on a more personal interrogation of how he might try to change it. When my former colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an essay for The Atlantic in 2018 explaining why he’d agreed to take on writing the character of Captain America for Marvel comics, he cited his own conflicts with Steve as a character, and Steve’s stubborn loyalty to the American dream, as motivation. “Writing, for me, is about questions—not answers,” he wrote. “And Captain America, the embodiment of a kind of Lincolnesque optimism, poses a direct question for me: Why would anyone believe in the Dream?” Investigation even in the face of doubt: This seems to summarize why Sam takes on the loaded burden of Captain America, a flag-wearing symbol of a country that has failed the better angels of its nature over and over again. But progress is more possible the more visible it becomes, and the more questions are allowed to be put forward. “Every time I pick this thing up, I know there are millions of people out there who are gonna hate me for it,” Sam tells a U.S. senator in the finale. “The only power I have is that I believe we can do better.”