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.
Read: Why I’m writing ‘Captain America’
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.”