One of the benefits of the Walt Disney Company buying 20th Century Fox, at least from the point of view of the live-action adaptations of Marvel comics, is that we now can have things from the X-Men and the Fantastic Four in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We were teased with that notion by having Evan Peters play Pietro Maximoff instead of Aaron Taylor-Johnson in WandaVision, and it gets its first more practical workout in the third episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, as a big chunk of the episode takes place in Madripoor.
First seen in an issue of The New Mutants in 1985, Madripoor became a staple in particular of comics featuring the X-Man Wolverine over the years, and it was part of the X-Men license, and therefore part of Fox’s remit in terms of movie-making. But now, it’s part of the MCU! Yay!
A lawless island in the Indonesian archipelago loosely based on Singapore and what Casablanca was in its eponymous movie, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes go there to find out about where the fancy-shmancy new Super Soldier Serum came from—accompanied by Baron Zemo, whom they broke out of prison.
I say “they,” I should say “Bucky.” Knowing it would be easier to get forgiveness than permission, Bucky sets up Zemo’s escape from the Berlin prison he’s been incarcerated in since the end of Captain America: Civil War without telling Sam about it until it’s all over. Sam is, understandably, pissed. But he goes along with it.
This entire episode is about consequences, and I adore it for that reason. It starts with a hearts-and-flowers ad for the Global Repatriation Council that is trying to reintegrate the half of humanity who got dusted by Thanos and were returned five years later by the Hulk. It’s immediately followed by a GRC strike force led by John Walker that is trying and failing to locate the Flag Smashers. The GRC doesn’t come across very well here, not only having SWAT teams and such, but also the Flag Smashers target a GRC storehouse that has a ton of food and medical supplies just sitting there not being given to the refugees in their care. For that matter, we learn one of the reasons for Karli Morgenthau’s founding of the Flag Smashers: her mother Donya contracted tuberculosis in one of the GRC’s refugee centers.
We find out how this new Super Soldier Serum was created and wound up in the hands of Morgenthau and her gang, and the latter is another unintended consequence of Thanos snapping his fingers. Zemo, Bucky, and Sam go to Madripoor and learn that the new serum was created by a Dr. Nagel. But he wasn’t working for Hydra—he was working for the CIA, and they gave him some blood samples from another super soldier, Isaiah Bradley. But then Nagel was dusted, and the project fell apart during the Blip. When he was reconstituted, Nagel took his research to Madripoor and the Power Broker, whom we disappointingly do not meet at any point in this episode named for that character. Nagel created twenty vials of the serum, which were then stolen by Morgenthau.
Not that the project being in the U.S. government’s hands would necessarily be any better, it’s certainly not great that it wound up with a criminal in a lawless nation. Now we know why the Power Broker is going after the Flag Smashers, at any rate.
Zemo, of course, wants there to be no super soldiers—that was his MO in Civil War, and he makes sure to kill Nagel and blow up his lab once he’s given up his information.
Adding entertainment value to the whole thing is that they got the information about Nagel from a criminal named Selby (played with verve by Imelda Corcoran), who is then shot and killed. There’s immediately a bounty on Sam, Bucky, and Zemo for the murder, even though they didn’t do it—and we don’t know who did, yet. More entertainment value comes from the person who saves their asses: Sharon Carter, who is living as a fugitive in Madripoor, which doesn’t extradite people, and living a comfortable life in High Town as an art broker. Sam promises that he’ll get her a pardon if she helps them, and she reluctantly agrees. (Sam’s convincing argument is that they gave “the bionic staring machine” a pardon, and if they’ll clear Bucky, they’ll clear her.) Sharon leads them to Nagel and also keeps a bunch of bounty hunters off them, but when it’s all over, she gets into a nice car driven by someone the cast list at the end identifies as her bodyguard. Is Sharon really a fugitive, or is she pretending to be one and she’s really undercover? Or is she working for the Power Broker? Or is she the Power Broker? So many possibilities here, especially since a) we don’t Sharon all that well and b) we still don’t know who shot Selby. Sharon’s fate, whether it’s real or not, is another consequence. Sam got to be a hero again in Infinity War and Endgame after being a fugitive—Sharon’s still in the wind and off the grid.
I said last week that I liked that John Walker isn’t a dick, and I may need to walk that back after the way he acts in Munich toward the people the GRC is questioning about the Flag Smashers. He’s a total asshole in that scene, even pulling the “Do you know who I am?” line on the guy he’s questioning. The answer given was “Yes, I do, and I don’t care,” but it should’ve been, “Some rando cosplaying as Captain America.” He’s acting like he’s earned the respect that comes with the outfit and shield, and he really really hasn’t. For that matter, Battlestar reminds him that the Flag Smashers are bringing food and medical supplies to people who need it—which is followed, not by, “Maybe they’re not so bad” or “Maybe we shouldn’t be hunting them,” but instead only that such behavior inspires loyalty. Again, the line between good guys and bad guys is seriously blurred.
Daniel Brühl is never not wonderful (his portrayal of the title character in The Alienist is superb), and he does excellent work here as Zemo, reminding us that he is a baron, and therefore an aristocrat. He’s got a ton of fancy cars, a private jet, and a staff. He also loves poking bears with sticks, as he’s deliberately provocative to both Sam and Bucky, and it’s not entirely clear why they keep putting up with it, as his usefulness to them lessens with each minute of the episode. I’m not sure they still need him at this point, and the cliché of the heroes teaming up with the villain is showing itself a little too much here.
For all that I love the consequences, this episode has a lot of lazy writing in it. Having Sam disguised as a flashy criminal and be forced to drink snake guts to keep in character is played for laughs, but it just comes across as pointless filler, especially since the character he’s playing is irrelevant to what they’re doing. He could just be a bit of muscle or something instead of pretending to be an existing person, whose cover can be blown by a call from his sister (an utter waste of Adepero Oduye). It’s fun to see Emily VanCamp take out a bunch of bounty hunters singlehandedly, but it’s mostly there because there isn’t enough action in the episode otherwise, and it breaks up Nagel’s lengthy infodump. And after spending three episodes portraying the Flag Smashers as noble outlaws, to have Morgenthau then blow up a building full of tied-up prisoners is trying too hard to say, “but they’re bad guys, really, honest!” thus ruining the shades of gray we’ve been getting.
Worse, though, is how utterly ineffectual Sam Wilson is in this episode. He barely manages to keep in character when he’s disguised in Madripoor, he’s a spectator to Bucky breaking Zemo out of prison, and his objections are run over by Bucky and Zemo both. Bucky’s the one who does most of the ass-kicking in the episode, leaving Sam to mostly stand around. He gets to express outrage about the abuse of Isaiah, but that’s about it. It’s massively disappointing.
Each episode of FWS has ended with someone showing up in the last shot, setting up the next episode. It was Walker in “New World Order” and Zemo in “The Star-Spangled Man,” and this week it’s Ayo, played by Florence Kasumba, the first Dora Milaje warrior we met on screen in Civil War when she faced down the Black Widow, who has come to bring Zemo to justice. I was initially disappointed that we didn’t get Danai Gurira’s Okoye, but it’s fitting that we get someone who was present for Zemo’s assassination of King T’Chaka be the one to go after him now.
So at this point, our heroes are still hanging out with the bad guy they sprung from prison, they still have a bounty on their heads for a murder they didn’t commit, and the Dora Milaje are now lined up against them, which can’t be good.
Odds and ends
- The island nation of Madripoor was introduced in The New Mutants #32 by Chris Claremont & Steve Leialoha (1985), described by Cypher as “Earth’s Mos Eisley,” referring to the wretched hive of scum and villainy in Star Wars. Among many other things, Madripoor was the setting for a personal favorite comic book of mine, Uncanny X-Men #268 by Claremont & Jim Lee (1990). Half the issue took place during World War II and had a very-new-on-the-job Captain America encountering Wolverine on that lawless island.
- Nagel says that of all the scientists who tried to re-create Dr. Erskine’s work, he was the only success. He doesn’t mention that one of those other scientists who did not succeed was Dr. Bruce Banner, as established in The Incredible Hulk, as both the Hulk and the Abomination are the unfortunate results of an attempt to re-create the Super Soldier Serum.
- The first thing Zemo does when he sees that Bucky is visiting him in his cell is to speak the code words that would activate the Winter Soldier. Not that you can really blame him, though obviously the deprogramming has worked.
- At one point, Zemo puts on a purple face mask, though he doesn’t keep it on for long. This is a tribute to both comic book versions of Baron Zemo. Baron Heinrich Zemo was established in Avengers #6 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (1964) as a Nazi scientist whom Captain America and Bucky were fighting during World War II when they disappeared. Zemo wore a purple face mask that was permanently stuck to his face by Adhesive X, which he blamed Captain America for. Baron Helmut Zemo was established as Heinrich’s son in Captain America #168 by Roy Thomas, Tony Isabella, & Sal Buscema (1973), and he fell into a vat of Adhesive X, which destroyed his face. When he returned in Captain America #275 by J.M. DeMatteis & Mike Zeck (1982), Helmut wore a purple mask of a similar design to that of his father to hide his disfigurement.
- In the comics, the Power Broker is a shadowy figure who grants super-powers to those who can pay for it. The Power Broker is, in fact, responsible for giving John Walker the powers that he used as Super-Patriot, then as the replacement Captain America, and then as U.S. Agent when Steve Rogers took the shield back.
- It’s established in this episode that the notebook that Bucky has been keeping track of the people he needs to make amends to is the same notebook that Steve Rogers was using to keep track of things he needed to catch up on after being in suspended animation for seven decades back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Sam tells Bucky that he was the one who told Cap to listen to Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man. Bucky is not nearly enthusiastic enough about Gaye to suit Sam (or Zemo, for that matter).
Keith R.A. DeCandido also does the Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch every Monday and Thursday. His takes on the MCU films can be found as part of his “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” that started on this site in 2017.